Zunis extend feather hunt nationwide



March 18, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Turkey hunters of Maryland, the Zuni Nation needs you.

As you prowl the woods this spring in search of the bearded ones, keep in mind the bird you kill could help the New Mexican tribe keep its traditions alive.

To decorate prayer sticks and create costumes for religious ceremonies, the Zunis must stockpile turkey feathers. But the turkey population of the region isn't large enough to sustain a hunt.

The 85-member A:shiwi/Zuni chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) last summer asked the national headquarters for help.

"No one wants to see the illegal taking of turkeys," said Zuni chapter president Nelson Luna. "If we can become the source for feathers, we can eliminate that problem."

The Zunis are an agriculture-based society. Members pray to their ancestors, asking for harmony and prosperity.

"We put prayer sticks in the ground as offerings to our forefathers to ask for a good crop this year," Luna explained. "The majority of the feathers we need are for a one-time use."

Luna said ceremonies are held four times a year, with most tribal members requiring 12 feathers. But members of the tribe who lead religious or medical ceremonies may require feathers equal to a whole bird every six months.

"With 10,000 members, you can just imagine the need," he said.

The most important ceremony for the Zuni is Shalako, which coincides with the winter solstice.

The ceremony is mostly unchanged in 500 years, according to ethnologists who have studied Zuni rock carvings. During the midnight-to-dawn event, tribal members give thanks to the rain gods and ask the spirits for good luck in hunting and farming and to bestow blessings on their homes.

"It's a combination of New Year's Day, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving Day," said Wells Mahkee Jr., a spokesman for the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni, N.M. "Non-Indians may think it's like Mardi Gras, but it's not. It's very religious."

Masked dancers in costumes towering 10 feet high perform under the watchful eyes of the Salamobia (warriors), who wear birdlike masks covered with eagle and turkey feathers. The ceremony is supervised by the Shalako, bird-like creatures that act as couriers of the gods.

Luna approached the NWTF leadership with the idea for the project.

"I told them that the saying `One man's trash is another man's treasure' applies here," he said. "Something you don't think twice about is cherished by us."

The tribe's No. 1 priority is for fan feathers that run along the back to the neck - "the longer the feather, the better," Luna said.

Next most needed are the feathers on the underside of the bird from tail to breast; they're used for costumes in ceremonial dances. Finally, the Zunis need wing feathers for costume accessories.

"It's best if the full feather is intact. Don't cut the quill, if possible," Luna said.

Any hunter who doesn't want to pluck the turkey can treat the cape with borax and send it whole directly to Luna's chapter.

Loose feathers should be placed in a paper bag and sent to Jennifer Tapley, a biologist with the NWTF who is supervising the Zuni Feather Project.

"We had a hard time starting it last fall," Tapley said of the less productive of the two hunting seasons. "But we managed to get about 5,000 feathers from 13 hunters."

This winter, Tapley sent letters to chapter presidents and sent fliers to members. She has high hopes for the spring season, which in Maryland runs April 18-May 16.

"I'm really gung-ho about this. I will be eating, sleeping and breathing turkey feathers this spring," Tapley said, laughing. "I'm assuming they'll tell me when to stop."

Send feathers to Tapley at: NTWF, 770 Augusta Road, Edgefield, S.C. 29824.

Send turkey capes to: Zuni chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, Attention: Nelson Luna, P.O. Box 85, Zuni, NM 87327.

Mahkee said hunters can rest assured that the Zunis will use all donations.

"Zunis don't believe in letting anything go to waste, " he said. "When we finish with it, that's when it truly becomes trash."

Gobble on

The Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Rock Hall is having a two-day youth turkey hunt, April 14 and April 28.

Refuge managers will allow four youngsters, ages 10-15, to hunt the 2,280-acre tract each day while guided by a member of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Youngsters selected for the 1999 and 2000 hunts will not be eligible.

Last year, the second of the program, 36 young hunters sent in applications.

Applications for permits can be obtained by calling the refuge office, 410-639-7056. A $10 non-refundable fee is required. Deadline for applications is March 30.

Refuge staff will hold a drawing April 2 to choose the eight hunters. A mandatory safety briefing will be held April 13 and April 27.

The hunt has a high degree of success, which organizers attributed to the youngsters knowing the limit is just one shot - so they make it count.

Gobble on, too

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