Turkeys (Zizikera)

by Richard Dieterle

We ordinarily think of turkeys as impotent prey animals. However, in Hočąk thought, the king of birds, Rušewe, is none other than a turkey. How does an innocuous bird hold such a position of power and dominance over all others of its kind? The answer lies in the fact that the fletchings of Hočąk arrows are made of turkey feathers.1 Turkey feathers are preferred because blood does not affect them.2 The use of turkey feathers as the "wings" of an arrow was widespread, and may have been nearly universal among the eastern tribes.3 Turkey feathers were so valuable that tribes outside the turkey's range were prepared to pay a high price to get them.4 The wing feathers were most prized for fletchings.5 By soaking the feathers in warm water, the quills could be easily split, and the detached vanes glued into place along the shaft.6 Of the Indians of Virginia, Governor Beverley wrote, "They fledged their arrows with Turkey Feathers, which they fastened with Glue made of the Velvet Horns of a Deer."7 The Hočągara differed only in using glue from the sturgeon.8 By fletching an arrow with turkey wing feathers, the arrow itself takes flight as a kind of turkey. This makes the turkey the deadliest of all creatures. Thus in one story, Turkey kills Wolf by kicking his ribs inside out.9 This might refer to the action of an arrow, which when it comes partially out the other side, is like a rib kicked inside out. This "foot" of an arrow is sometimes armed with a turtle claw, which would correspond to the clawed foot of the turkey.10

Another very strange fact about turkeys associates them with the opposite end of the arrow, the arrow point. Like the turkey, most birds have a second stomach, the ventriculum, more commonly known as the "gizzard." This part of the digestive tract compensates for a bird's want of teeth. On occasion a bird will swallow a small, rough stone, usually less than 2 cm in diameter.11 Such stones are collected in the gizzard where they masticate food by pressing and rotating these stones around it. The turkey in particular has been known to swallow small stone arrowheads that it finds lying upon the ground. The archaeologist Larry Kinsella, says,

  Polished Gizzard Stone Cahokia Points
© photo by Peter A. Bostrom

I recently heard a story about a woman who worked in a plant that processed turkeys. They raised the birds near the plant in an area where there were Stone Age sites. This woman, after 30 years of working there, had found 32 arrow points amongst the gizzard stones that she would deliberately try to look through. She estimated approximately 80,000 turkeys had gone through her hands. So that would come to about one polished gizzard stone arrow point for every 2,500 turkeys!12

Small arrow points from the Mississippian culture of Cahokia have been found in the gizzards of turkeys from this area in Illinois. A few of these are displayed in the inset picture. Given the time and intensity that the Hočągara have spent hunting turkeys, it is impossible not to conclude that from time to time they found such points in turkey gizzards, a fact that must have contributed to the turkey's standing as the bird of the arrow.

The flight of a turkey is a good analogue to the shooting and flight of an arrow. The turkey by intensely flapping its wings can achieve explosive acceleration "sufficient to raise leaves or other forest debris."13 "Once in the air it proceeds with strong wing-beats for a hundred yards or so then sails smoothly," just as the arrow starts off with a strong "wing flap" of enormous acceleration, then sails along in a glide. Like an arrow, the flight of a turkey achieves high speeds, sometimes as much as 55-60 m.p.h.,14 but also like the arrow, its flight is of relatively short duration,15 with most turkeys achieving a range of only one-half to three-quarters of a mile.16

The arrow also connects the turkey to all-powerful time. Turkey once offered himself as a standard for measuring the year. He said, "Let there be as many moons in a year as there are spots on my tail," a suggestion rejected by the council of spirits, because Turkey had many tail spots. The spots are not the only lunar aspect of Turkey — the word for time in Hočąk is mą, the very same word used for "arrow." So the turkey might well offer himself as the standard for time in his guise as an arrow.

Elsewhere, we learn that the king of all birds, Rušewe, is a turkey. He has hegemony over all birds, as no flying creature can be as deadly as he. Rušewe inspires so much fear that the most powerful beings created by the spirits, the Twins, fled from him in panic until they arrived at the safety of Earthmaker's abode.17 Rušewe was not the only contact that the Twins had with turkeys. When the Twins were still children, their father made them wear turkey "bladders" as headdresses. This headdress prevented Ghost from submerging himself in the lake in which he had hitherto lived18 (See the Commentary to "The Birth of the Twins"). Since water represents chaos in world mythology generally, opposition to water represents the spirit of law and order. Thus Ghost, whose existence is chaotic and free-ranging, is brought into a state of order for the betterment of the human condition. This image expresses the same meaning as Rušewe driving the Twins helplessly before him to the sanctuary of the ultimate author of order, Earthmaker.

As can be seen from the inset of the wild turkey, it has two pieces of anatomy that suggest a shell necklace. In one story Turkey's victory in gambling wins for him all the earbobs and necklaces of his opponents. He wears the necklaces, but inasmuch as birds do not have external ears, he gives the earbobs to Hog.19 In another story, enemy warriors are caught in a lodge as the Hočągara pour boiling water on them. One tries to escape by turning into a turkey and flying out the smoke hole. However, someone noticed that his shell necklace had twisted around backwards, so he threw a stone hammer at the bird-man and killed him.20

Links: Rušewe, Earthmaker, Bird Spirits, Wolf & Dog Spirits, Chipmunks.

Stories: about turkeys: Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, Bluehorn's Nephews, Hog's Adventures, Black and White Moons, The Birth of the Twins, The Annihilation of the Hočągara I, Old Man and Wears White Feather; about Rušewe: Bluehorn's Nephews, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins; about Bird Spirits: Crane and His Brothers, The King Bird, Bird Origin Myth, Bird Clan Origin Myth, Wears White Feather on His Head, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, The Thunderbird, Owl Goes Hunting, The Boy Who Became a Robin, Partridge's Older Brother, The Woman who Loved Her Half-Brother, The Foolish Hunter, Ocean Duck, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, The Quail Hunter, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Hočąk Arrival Myth, Trickster Gets Pregnant, Trickster and the Geese, Holy One and His Brother (kaǧi, woodpeckers, hawks), Porcupine and His Brothers (Ocean Sucker), Turtle's Warparty (Thunderbirds, eagles, kaǧi, pelicans, sparrows), Kaǧiga and Lone Man (kaǧi), The Old Man and the Giants (kaǧi, bluebirds), The Bungling Host (snipe, woodpecker), The Red Feather, Trickster, the Wolf, the Turtle, and the Meadow Lark, Waruǧápara, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Black and White Moons, The Markings on the Moon, The Creation Council, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega), The Man Who Would Dream of Mą’ųna (chicken hawk), Hare Acquires His Arrows, Worúxega (eagle), Hočąk Clans Origin Myth, Hawk Clan Origin Myth, The Hočąk Migration Myth, Blue Jay, The Baldness of the Buzzard, The Abduction and Rescue of Trickster (buzzards), The Shaggy Man (kaǧi), The Healing Blessing (kaǧi), The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth (kaǧi), Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, Įčorúšika and His Brothers (Loon), Great Walker's Medicine (loon), Roaster (woodsplitter), The Spirit of Gambling, The Big Stone (a partridge), Trickster's Anus Guards the Ducks, The Fleetfooted Man, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 4) — see also Thunderbirds, and the sources cited there.

Themes: bladders: Bladder, Bladder and His Brothers, Adventures of Redhorn's Sons (elk), The Birth of the Twins (turkey); someone who is otherwise fearless is deeply afraid of just one thing: Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins (a turkey), The Brown Squirrel (a red horn), Hare Visits His Grandfather Bear (a thunder-arrow); people turn into birds: Waruǧapara (owl, Thunderbird), Worúxega (eagle), The Thunderbird (black hawk, hummingbird), The Dipper (black hawk, hummingbird), The Hočąk Arrival Myth (ravens), The Annihilation of the Hočągara I (turkey), The Quail Hunter (partridge), The Markings on the Moon (auk, curlew), The Fleetfooted Man (water fowl?), The Boy Who Became a Robin (robin); a young man turns into a bird and flies off through the smoke hole in his lodge: The Boy Who Became a Robin, The Markings on the Moon, The Annihilation of the Hočągara I.


1 Paul Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles: A Study in Aboriginal Literature (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1948) , 94; Oliver LaMère (Bear Clan) and Harold B. Shinn, Winnebago Stories (New York, Chicago: Rand, McNally and Co., 1928) 135; W. C. McKern, "A Winnebago Myth," Yearbook, Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee, 9 (1929): 215-230 [216-217].

2 George Bird Grinnell, The Cheyenne Indians, Their History and Ways of Life. 2 vols. (New Haven: Cooper Square Press, 1923) 1.181, 1.187, 2.134; A. W. Schorger, The Wild Turkey: Its History and Domestication (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1966) 361.

3 Schorger, The Wild Turkey, 362. Champlain noted their use along the New England coast in 1604. Samuel de Champlain, The Works of Samuel de Champlain, 6 vols. (Toronto: H. P. Biggar, 1922) 1.360. Their use for this purpose has been observed in Virginia (W. Strachey, "The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia (1612)," Hakluyt Society, 6 (1849): 106), and Maryland (Leonard Calvert, "A Briefe Relation of the Voyage unto Maryland (1633)," Maryland Historical Society Fund, Publication Number 35 (1899): 26-45 [42]).

4 Schorger, The Wild Turkey, 361.

5 The Cheyennes preferred turkey feathers for their arrows. The tribal sign was made by drawing the right index finger several times across the left forefinger. The preferred interpretation is that this sign indicated 'stripe people' or 'striped-arrow' from this tribe's custom of using the striped feathers of the wild turkey in making arrows." Schorger, The Wild Turkey, 361. See James Mooney, The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1892-93 (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1896) 1024; F. W. Hodge, Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, 2 vols. (Washington, D. C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1912) 1.251.

6 George Pfauts Belden, Belden, the White Chief; or, Twelve Years among the Wild Indians of the Plains. From the Diaries and Manuscripts of George P. Belden. Edited by Gen. James S. Brisbin (Cincinnati: E. W. Starr, 1875) 103.

7 Robert Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia, In Four Parts (London: R. Parker, 1705) 3.60.

8 Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles, 93-98.

9 Charlie Houghton, Untitled, translated by Oliver LaMère, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3892 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Winnebago III, #11a, 52-62.

10 In fact, in some tribes, turkey spurs were used as arrow points in the hunting of small game. See Schorger, The Wild Turkey, 363. Virginia Indian tribes, such as the Rappahannocks, used them as arrowheads. See Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia, 3.60; Frank G. Speck, "The Rappahannock Indians of Virginia," in Indian Notes and Monographs, 5, #3, ed. F. W. Hodge (New York: Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, 1925) 25-83 [55]. The Choctaws in Mississippi also used them. See James Robert Adair, The History of the American Indians (London: Edward and Charles Dilly, 1775) 425.

11 Common Loons, for instance, usually have 10-20 pea-sized stones in their gizzards for this purpose. In New England, the size ranges from 7.0-23.1 mm, with the mean at 12.5 (the mean is 10.7 in the southeast). Jack F. Barr, "Aspects of Common Loon (Gavia immer) Feeding Biology on its Breeding Ground," Hydrobiologia, 321 (1996) 119-144. J. Christian Franson, Scott P. Hansen, Mark A. Pokras, and Rose Miconi, "Size Characteristics of Stones Ingested by Common Loons," The Condor, 103, #1 (Feb., 2001) 189-191 [190a].

12 From the LithicCastingLab.com website: Lithic Casting Lab > Recent Additions, p. 4 > #129: 1-31-2003, POLISHED GIZZARD STONE CAHOKIA POINTS. Viewed, August 11, 2009.

13 Schorger, The Wild Turkey, 183.

14 W. C. Kanoy, How Fast Can a Wild Turkey Fly?, Field and Stream, 40, #11 (1936): 86-87; Schorger, The Wild Turkey, 186.

15 Schorger, The Wild Turkey, 185.

16 C. J. Crane, Wild Turkey Shooting, Recreation, 6 (1897): 431-433 [431].

17 Paul Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic. Bollingen Foundation, Special Publications, 3 (1954): 83-84, 97; Winnebago Hero Cycles, 55. Informant: Sam Blowsnake of the Thunderbird Clan, ca. 1912.

18 Paul Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic, 84-87.

19 Houghton in Radin, Notebooks, Winnebago III, #11a, 121-131.

20 Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 7-9.