Xapiri – Amazonian Featherwork

In the 4th Xapiri blog we look at the ‘Gift of the Birds’ – the beautiful and colourful plumes the indigenous people of the Amazon famously use. Taken from the forest around them, the headdresses and ornaments created identify the wearer with nature and they also act as important powerful and mythical objects.

Like much of the dualism in indigenous thought, the items are not just feathers as Western thought may see them but rather as complex objects with different meanings depending on the birds species, sex, patterning, colouring, migratory patterns, behaviour and so on. In turn, each object reflects more than just an aesthetic piece and can actually make a statement about the physical, social and cultural world of each ethnic group. With these powerful energies attached to the intensely coloured plumes, traditionally these feathers were the most valued goods in Amazonian culture.

‘According to Waiwai shamans, when the Sun refuses to shine he puts on his black-feathered curassow headdress, as evidenced by the dark, rain swollen clouds above their Guianan highland home. Hence, to call out the Sun, one must don a white-hot harpy eagle or great egret headdress, or a burning bright scarlet macaw headdress, in the hopes that the Sun will emulate the shaman’a changing of crowns. Colour is everywhere.’
– Barbara Baun, Arts of the Amazon

The primary use for these feathers are for wearing as ornamentation during festive and ritual occasions; generally they are not worn as part of everyday attire. Although most commonly associated with this ornamentation, plumes are also used for utilitarian objects, with the most significant role being its part in the arrow.


Photo: Alice Kohler


As with Amazonian basketry which we explored in our previous blog, it is important to note that each ethnicity shows unique styles with their featherwork, all with their own symbolism and different meaning. The possession of these feathers and their use are intimately connected with personal and social identity in Amazonia, for example, they are often seen as the sign of a successful hunter / provider and as an extension of leadership.

Certain pieces can transmit mythological beliefs and legends. The mythology of the feathers are dependent to each society and particular animals are chosen for emulation, according to which the primeval ancestors were or interacted with socially significant birds and animals. Birds from the higher end of the canopy have greater prestige than birds associated with lower strata. Men and their hunting activities are associated with birds of the higher regions, whereas women’s gardening and gathering activities are associated with birds of the lower regions. Feathers from middle-region birds such as egrets, macaws, and toucans are often used on male apparel. The most sought-after feathers for male pieces are from harpy eagles, the birds of prey that live in the uppermost stratum of the rainforest. Feathers are rarely used to decorate women’s clothing, but when they are present it is the curassow that is predominately associated with female attire because of their close association with the rainforest floor.

A passage taken from ‘The Gift of Birds – Leatherwork of Native South American Peoples’ showing the relationship between the Bororo indigenous people, the macaw and the harpy eagle:



For many Amazonian groups, birds are also source of food with specific species hunted (curassows, guans, trumpeters) for that reason. Other species such as the parrot are hunted more so for their feathers and may or may not be eaten. As highlighted above, the different birds have different attachments, and the most sacred bird in central Brazil is the Harpy Eagle, where many ethnic groups in the Xingu region capture the chicks and raise them as a kind of village mascot and symbol who lives in the centre of the village plaza.


Photo – Alice Kohler


A Reading Suggestion: 

The Gift of Birds – Featherwork of Native South American Peoples

This book published by the University Museum of Archealogy and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia accompanied the exhibit ‘The Gift of Birds – Leatherwork of Native South American Peoples’.

The book, split in to 10 chapters / essays, firstly looks at the general beauty and technology of the plumes before exploring specific ethnographic scenes from various tribes, including the Cashinahua, Waiwai and Bororo peoples. In total, the book exhibits leatherwork from 37 different ethnic groups.

An excerpt from the book, written by Ruben E. Reina;

     ‘The destruction of the South American rainforest is under way and it will bring about a series of fatal consequences. The destruction of the trees will result in the eventual disappearance of the tropical bird population, diminishing the stock of feathers used by Indians for the artistic production of feather ornaments needed in rituals. Without feathers, the South American Indians will become strangers to many of their traditional values and beliefs. They will be cute off from their own environment, devoid of the emotional intimacy with the habitat that sustained them for so long.
     As the trees are felled and the birds depart, the natives of this rainforest must confront a dearth in all spheres of life, a cultural want of significant proportions. The people may remain Indian but adopt a new lifestyle evolving in accordance with the economic principles of world cultures.
     However, if these South American Indians are given the opportunity to maintain their traditional philosophy as caretakers of this natural tropical habitat, they will reinforce their own identity. If the rainforest survives the present destruction, Indians may find strength and pride in keeping fundamentals of their long-established culture and continue to build upon it without using their rich heritage.’

Xapiri have a few special featherwork pieces in our own collection, if you would like to find out more, please do get in touch.

Until next time,

Love & Health,