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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Spirits of the Air

For many of us, it is almost impossible to imagine traditional Native Americans without thinking of feathers, but only rarely, if ever, do we stop to ask why feathers? What is going on with the connections linking birds and traditional cultures? In Spirits of the Air, Brown University professor of anthropology Shepard Krech III explores the relationship between birds and American Indians in what are now the southern United States.

Upon initial inspection, Spirits of the Air is first and foremost big and beautiful; lavishly illustrated with color reproductions of bird illustrations by early naturalists and ornithologists such as Catesby, Wilson, and Audubon as well as portraits and paintings of Native American cultures, Spirits of the Air showcases these wonders in 264 8x11 inch pages.

The text is a thorough compilation of what we know about how Native American cultures in the South talked about, used, and understood the many different birds which shared their world. Chapters include discussions of birds as food, and symbols of power, war, peace, and spirituality, as well as Native American impacts on bird populations. A 16 page bibliography highlights the richness of resources that Krech has drawn upon to weave together a rich tapestry of traditional birdlore. Fortunately a thorough index is included, as references to individual bird species or traditions may occur scattered throughout the book's thirteen main chapters.

I found Spirits of the Air to be a true monument to the connection between Native Americans and birds. Big, beautiful, and informative; a real treasure trove of historical, archaeological, and anthropological information.

However beautiful and exhaustive, Spirits of the Air still left me wanting more. It is hard to criticize a book for what it isn't, but here are some things I would like to see in a future treatment of this topic (a second volume perhaps?):

Historical and Geographical Context: Unless one is an expert on Southern Indian cultures, it may be tough to keep track of where and when each of the many cultures discussed here lived or interacted with each other. While one map shows the location of archaeological mounds, and another shows the 16th to 19th century location of many of the tribes, it isn't always clear what the connections are between the various archaeological, historical, and current Native Peoples.

Cultural Diffusion: While dozens of cultural traits are described and tied to birds (such as the use of feathers for ornamentation or fletching feathers), there is little discussion of how or where these traits developed and spread through the various cultures. This leaves one closing Spirits of the Air still wondering about some of the big and obvious questions such as--why feathers? We are given many, many examples of Indians using feathers, but we are left wondering how this attachment to feathers came about.

Native Perspective: Spirits of the Air more often than not comes across as "a view of Indians using birds, from the perspective of white people." Only rarely do we hear the voices of real American Indians. While much of this may be due to the nature of the historical sources Krech has available to draw upon, I would like to see the incorporation of perhaps more contemporary Native American voices. What echoes of the past birdlore still resonate with the descendants of the people we are reading about?

Again, these perhaps overly critical points are less a criticism of the work Krech has admirably done in this volume, and more a wish list of where I hope he or others will take us in the future. Krech has mined a rich vein here, and there is much more to do to help us better understand, and celebrate, the connections between birds and people. Only then will the true spirits of the air fully capture our imagination, as they apparently did within Native American cultures.


Grant McCreary said...

Good point about the current Native Perspective. The book gave me the impression that much of the traditional knowledge of birds has been lost. But surely the descendants of the southeastern Native Americans have some thoughts of their own.
Nice review!

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