It is said that we create our own world, paint our own canvas so to speak. Thoughts are things, ideas take material form. “Whatever the mind contemplates materializes instantly.” It is in this light that we consider the conceptual world of Native peoples in the American southwest, those who live in a parched desert thirsty for water, yet through belief, ceremony, dress and Native American jewelry move confidently across their landscape in a protective cocoon of mist, germination, clouds and rain.
Rare Macaw sash discovered
What draws us to this consideration is the haunting image of a 900 year old scarlet macaw feathered sash, discovered in a dusty cave in southeast Utah in 1954. Wrapped in a bundle, resting alongside Anasazi potsherds of corrugated gray and black on white, the resplendent feathers still glimmered, hinting at a story we'll never be told. What we do know is that the sash is the only item of its kind ever found in the southwest. It consists of twelve yucca fiber ropes covered with more than two thousand macaw feathers, attached to a buckskin strap and overlaid at the top with the pelt from a tassel-eared squirrel. Scientific analysis has determined the sash to be entirely of southwest construction, with Mesa Verde Anasazi as the closest influence. (Borson:1998)
Who created a sash of such stunning beauty to bring rain to his people? What high status individual of solemn dance and stately gait, red and blue feathers swaying, knew he was one with that magnificent bird of moist, Mexican lowland forest?
“He (the macaw) spreads out his tail and makes clouds that come out and cover him. Today it is going to rain from the north, west, south and east. The plants sprout with two and four shoots, and grow and ripen quickly.” (Santo Domingo Song)
Wearing Water in Native American Jewelry
The macaw sash leads us to think about other ways of “wearing water” in the southwest. The dragonfly double barred cross, most often found in antique and contemporary Native American jewelry such as silver necklaces, is one good example. Many people assume that the dragonfly cross was merely a convenient melding of Catholic and Native belief, but long before the arrival of the Spanish, the dragonfly cross existed in prehistoric rock art and pottery designs across the region. The dragonfly is a major indicator of water. “The dragonfly will lead the people to the place of a new spring”...“the dragonfly leads rain clouds”...“the dragonfly is ultimately responsible for the renewal and fructification of the earth.” Before darting about with iridescent wing and shimmer of rainbow, the dragonfly spends most of its life under water, climbing at last upon a stalk to shed its larval skin. Those who wear the dragonfly cross have no fear, for they traverse the desert with water next to their heart. In a similar manner Zuni fetish necklaces of frog, tadpole and duck envelop the wearer in a sacred mantle of life, fertility and moisture.
In this analysis one can't ignore the innumerable strands of turquoise displayed in Native American jewelry of the southwest, chunky stones and polished beads in watery hues of blue and green; or the shell jewelry of abalone and spiny oyster that flash an ocean's sunlit gleam. The designs on Hopi overlay also support this life sustaining system of water with symbols of cloud, lightning, feathers and rain, and the lovely squash blossom necklace carries its own aura of harvest and fruition. The Spanish introduced silversmithing to the southwest, but Native peoples were familiar with the squash plant and its petaled flower thousands of years before. Remains of cultivated squash of the Cochise culture have been found in Bat Cave, NM dating to 3000 BC. Also associated with this rainbow world is the peyote waterbird, depicted frequently in chip inlay jewelry, that sacred diver and symbol of renewal who carries water to her children on the rippled feathers of her tail.
Perhaps the owner of the splendid macaw sash was a far distant relative of a modern day kachina priest. One such as Pautiwa of the Zuni, his turquoise blue mask “elaborately adorned with precious feathers, in particular the priceless tail feathers of the macaw.” Perhaps the ancient one uttered words similar to those spoken today, painting with whispered prayer, a rain blessed canvas for all to see.
“I prayed that throughout the country of the Corn priests
Our earth mother might be wrapped
In four layers of green blanket,
That the land might be full of moss,
Full of flowers
Full of corn pollen.”