XVII. Avian Voices in Song, Story, Wisdom, and Warning
XVII. Avian Voices in Song, Story, Wisdom, and Warning
While ornithologists examine birdcalls and songs within the context of ethology, ethno-ornithologists go beyond these observable behaviors to consider the relationship between birds and people in cultural context. This includes creation stories with avian heroes, myths of transformation where birds change into people or vice versa, and birds as the source of human speech. In addition, many societies believe there is bird wisdom encoded in signs, omens, and dreams, which can be interpreted by specialists. Through song and dance, calls and whistles, people and birds communicate with each other. These papers address bird talk in terms of perception, hearing and understanding on various levels, and consider which particular birds are recognized for their abilities to advise or instruct, signal changes in the environment, and warn of impending danger. In what ways have avian voices been ignored, misappropriated, or silenced?
In 1900-1904, ethnographer James Teit recorded more than one hundred Secwepemc stsptekwll - oral narratives that include Coyote stories, historic transformer narratives and “stories of transformations.” Many of these include protagonists as shapeshifting people with bird characteristics and vice-versa. Unfortunately, these narratives were rendered in English only, as told by Sxwíl̓ecken from Xgét̓tem̓ and Sisyúl̓ecw from Simpcw. Through collaborative work with Secwepemc elders we have “unpacked” these narratives, identifying the Secwepemc names of the bird protagonists, their ecology, behaviour and interactions with humans and animals, as we have re-claimed the stsptekwll and bird names into Secwepemctsin (Shuswap language). We will draw on examples from these narratives and show how they integrate subtle knowledge about bird etiology and ecology in turn connected to symbolic and spiritual associations. Keenly aware how this knowledge connects to language revitalization, we will show how bird knowledge in voice and art connects to language revitalization.
One way birds communicate knowledge to humans or among humans is through metaphors. In a recent book (Forth, in press) I discuss 566 animal metaphors used by the Nage people of Flores (eastern Indonesia). 178 of these employ birds as their vehicles, encompassing nearly 50 folk-generic kinds. As applied to human beings and human behaviours, however, bird metaphors reveal considerable overlap with other animal metaphors. Indeed, understanding how people anywhere appreciate birds is not fully possible without considering their views of other sorts of non-human animals. Emphasizing also how knowledge of birds is always shaped in some degree by an extra-cultural empirical experience of the creatures, the paper discusses similar representations of a bird, the Scrubfowl (specifically the Orange-footed scrubfowl Megapodius reinwart) and a marine reptile—the sea turtle— among people in several parts of eastern Indonesia.
Among all the non-raptor birds of North America, there is no other as revered among tribal nations as the crane. The Anishinaabe culture of the Ojibwe had 5 original clans including the crane, catfish, loon, bear, and marten, with the crane clan being the most vocal, recognized as the chieftain clan. The Baswenaazhi "Echo-maker" was Ajijaak, Sandhill Crane in Ojibwe. This migratory bird nests in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ontario, and winters in Florida, Georgia, and Texas. The migratory route brings sandhill cranes into Myaamia (Miami) territory after leaving the gulf coastal region in April. The Myaamia call April Cecaahkwa kiilhswa: Sandhill Crane Moon. This ecological cue signaled to the Myaamia the beginning of summer when they needed to return from winter hunting to summer villages. This is when they would begin gathering firewood and prepping fields for Wiihkoowia kiilhswa: Whipporwill Moon (May) planting of maize.
In addition to sharing an original homeland, the Q’eqchi’ Maya of Alta Verapaz and of southern Belize also hold in high regard the signals and messages provided by birds. Based upon our fieldwork data among both groups, we describe the intricate knowledge of many Q’eqchi’ speakers on the meanings of various bird calls, flight patterns, and observed physical orientations. We discuss the key role of birds in weather forecasting, both those that signal the coming of rain and those that are said to signal dry weather. We also describe how birds foretell death in various ways, either by their call or by people dreaming of certain types of birds. Finally, we detail the role of birds play in Q’eqchi’ hunting activities, both as helpers who indicate the presence of game, or at times foes who warn game of the approaching hunters.
Columbia River Indians (Sahaptin-speakers) are not to be compared with avocational “birders.” Contemporary hobbyists take pride in naming every species of local bird they encounter. By contrast Indigenous residents of the Columbia Plateau were more selective in their nomenclatural recognition of local birds. However, when adequately motivated -- whether by practical, spiritual, or aesthetic interests -- they proved to be highly perceptive observers of patterns in nature. Nomenclature and mythology provide impressive examples. Onomatopoetic names closely mimic characteristic vocalizations, while mythology suggests that they clearly perceived evolutionary and ecological relationships. One key example is the mistranslation of k’ámamul as “raven.” The narrative details leave no doubt the bird intended was the Bald Eagle. I will examine this and other examples from native language texts dictated by Indian elders in the late 1920’s to the linguist Melville Jacobs in order to show the quality of Sahaptin Indian ethno-ornithological expertise.
This research paper describes the seasonal use of prairie waterfowl, wildlife and plant resources around kâ-takwahiminânâhtikoskâk – Plains Cree for “many chokecherry bushes”, a prairie lake and wetland in central Saskatchewan. Elders’ traditional knowledge of environmental signals link climate, plant phenology and animal behavior enabling the sustainable harvest of American coot (Fulica Americana), mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), American antelope (Antilocapra americana) and the collection of chokecherry (Prunus virginiana). Abundant archeological evidence suggests this site was part of the seasonal migratory round of the people of the Touchwood Hills for hundreds of years. Community-based research with members of the Touchwood Hills Tribal Council provides insight into colonial processes resulting in the disenfranchisement of Cree, Saulteaux and Métis people from this traditional hunting areas.
The purpose of this paper is to explore the traditional relationship between the Anishinaabe and birds as expressed in a selection of texts. This relationship reflects a holistic Anishinaabe ontology in which aspects of cosmology, symbolism and land-based practices are intertwined. Various local bird species are traditionally understood to embody distinct spiritual characteristics, roles, and behaviours and communicate with the Anishinaabe in both physical and spiritual manifestations. Thunderbirds, who are responsible for thunderstorms, are central figures of Anishinaabe cosmology and epitomize the profound connection between birds and cosmology. Anishinaabe stories and artwork provide a window into the traditional worldview and also illustrate the role of birds in the Anishinaabe texts. Additionally, an examination of Anishinaabe language texts supplements our understanding of how birds are viewed and listened to through language.
The sounds of birds include songs and calls, but there are other ways that birds are heard. Many cultures recognize birds as social actors with voices expressing intentions, desires, and responsibilities. Avian voices are interpreted according to cultural context, kinship affiliation, and personal experience such as dreams. When birds are understood as an integral part of creation, there are consequences for failing to heed both their voices and their silences. Examples from Mexico, Costa Rica, and Peru illustrate how birds are heeded as messengers, harbingers, advisors, and teachers.