Jonathan’s Feather Delivery Service

They need ’em, he’s got ’em.

By S.L. Wisenberg

Jonathan Reyman always knew what he wanted to be when he grew up–an archaeologist–and where he wanted to work: Egypt. Starting when he was seven, he’d spend entire days in the American Museum of Natural History, exploring and talking to curators. With a book to guide him, he taught himself to read hieroglyphics. At home in suburban New York, he slept under an afghan his grandmother crocheted for him, adorned with the mask of Tutankhamen. Sometimes he’d lie in bed with his hands crossed like a mummy.

Now 56 and a professional anthropologist, curator, and former professor, he has yet to see the pyramids or the temple of Ramses II. Reyman pursued his passion all the way through grad school at Southern Illinois University. But in 1967, just as he was poised to start his dissertation on Eastern-Mediterranean trade routes, the Six-Day War broke out. “No one was going to put research money in the Middle East,” he explains.

Thirty-three years later, Reyman speaks without bitterness or regret, and that has partly to do with the feathers that fill his two-room office at the Illinois State Museum Research and Collections Center. Quill-sized red and blue and green ones are neatly lined up on a long table, hundreds more are in plastic bags, and almost a dozen boxes of them are sitting on the floor.

Eventually–decontaminated, washed, dried, and sorted–the feathers will make their way to Pueblo Indians in Arizona and New Mexico, where they will be used in feast-day dances, planting rituals, and other traditional ceremonies. It is these feathers, and the process of getting them from zoos and hunters and bird owners to the Pueblos, that has illuminated Reyman’s life, made him feel of use, blessed, even.

What shifted his focus from the Middle East to the southwest was chance and a sunrise.

With the end of the Six-Day War, the region remained volatile, so Reyman took up an offer to help a linguistics professor make the drive from Southern Illinois University to the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico. They reached their destination late at night. In the morning Reyman climbed out of the camper and watched the sun rise over a low mesa. “The cliffs were gold,” he remembers. “The sky was turquoise. I was overwhelmed.”

The day got better and better; he’d heard that the Pueblos were difficult to work with, but since his professor knew the people, the two anthropologists were welcomed. “From the moment I was there, I felt at home. The food, the people, the scene, were just wonderful.” After all, he says, “I liked deserts.”

He began to research Pueblo religious ceremonies. One day he watched a Cochiti Pueblo feast-day dance. The dancers carried a pole topped with a ball, decorated with corn, beans, and long red and blue macaw tail feathers. After the dance he was approached by a religious official, who asked him if he’d enjoyed it. Oh yes, Reyman said. Do you know where we could get macaw feathers? the elder asked. Reyman didn’t. “Well, maybe you’ll think of something,” the man said simply.

Like other pueblos, this community had trouble finding feathers for use in their ceremonies. Their ancestors had obtained feathers through trade with other Indians from what is now the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Modern international regulations prohibit the export of macaws and parrots except for scientific purposes, and in recent years the Pueblos were paying smugglers as much as $100 a feather. Some Pueblos would buy live birds and pluck them themselves, endangering the birds’ health.

A solution did not occur to Reyman as he went about the next decade and a half, writing his dissertation on southwest ceremonies, conducting fieldwork, and teaching anthropology, including North American archaeology, at Illinois State University. Then one day in 1982 he went to his local pet store in Ottawa to buy rawhide bones for his Brittany spaniel. He noticed a scarlet macaw in the corner, its bright molted feathers on the floor. He had an idea, and asked the store owner to save feathers for him. By the fall of that year he had about 400 parrot and macaw feathers. He bound them up in brown paper and took them on his next visit to the southwest. When he arrived, he knocked on the Cochiti elder’s door. The man opened up the package and, picking up the conversation begun years before, said, “Aiyee–you thought of something.”

Since then Reyman and his Feather Distribution Project have provided about five million turkey, parrot, and macaw feathers to 27 different pueblos in New Mexico and Arizona. Demand is heavy, because once offerings are made with them, the feathers aren’t reused. Pet store owners, zoos, breeders, and hunters–especially members of the National Wild Turkey Federation–send Reyman feathers; during turkey season he receives about a package a day. Because different communities need different feathers for their rituals, Reyman, with help from volunteers, must sort them before sending them out.

The project is not part of his job as a research associate of the Illinois State Museum Society, but his boss, Michael Wiant, a former student of Reyman’s, invited him to use the museum facilities after he was hired in 1993. “It’s just good, a good thing to do,” says Wiant. The project also builds goodwill between the Pueblos and the museum, he says.

Reyman spends from 20 to 40 hours a week on the project on top of his full-time job. He uses his own funds to reimburse postage and pay other expenses–which he estimates has come to “many thousands” over the years. Other than that, no money changes hands. Says Wiant, “There isn’t anything higher in any religion than giving a gift that has no requirement for reciprocity.”

Reyman’s professional tasks range from researching information for outdoor placards on Rails-to-Trails sites to planning displays of the museum’s Native American collections. Sometimes his two jobs converge, since part of his regular job is outreach and education. On this particular spring morning he is scheduled to present a slide show at Washington Middle School in Springfield. He’s bringing along his pet macaw Chip, who’s riding in a dog carrier in the back of the van.

In the school library he introduces himself and then Chip, so named because he once used his powerful beak to reduce a wooden chair to chips. “He doesn’t bite,” he says, “but if he’s angry he can take off your finger.” This causes one boy to mutter, “If he comes here, I’m taking off his head with this chair.”

Reyman knows how to use his prop. He shows the students that upon hearing “pretty boy,” Chip will spread his wings. “He has the vocabulary and cognition of a two-year-old child,” he says. (“So he might do better on his history test than Larry here?” jokes Rich Eggleston, the teacher who invited Reyman.)

At the front of the room, Chip is rather quiet on his perch; Reyman says that’s because he’s nervous. But when he drops a Brazil nut he says, “Uh oh,” and when Reyman says, “Gimme four,” he holds out a claw. He can tell knock-knock jokes, his owner says, and once spoke to an unwitting telemarketer when the phone was held to his beak.

Reyman emphasizes that owning a macaw is a big responsibility. The birds can live to be 70 or 80; Chip is provided for in Reyman’s and his wife’s wills. He’s also a social animal, requiring two hours of play a night.

Showing slides of pottery, artifacts, and ceremonies, Reyman explains the many reasons Pueblos have a special relationship with birds. “In one creation story, people lived in the underworld. Birds led them to a hole so they could climb out.” Turkeys are the most important bird, and have been used for more than a thousand years–for food, possibly as pets, and as a source of material for robes, prayer sticks, flutes, and whistles.

While Pueblos raised turkeys, they had to import macaws and most parrots. The planting rituals that use exotic feathers must have originated with tribes in what is now Mexico, where those birds were native. Bringing feathers to the Pueblos, Reyman explains to the students, helps preserve their freedom of religion.

“All macaws and parrots are endangered in the wild,” he says. Between 85 and 100 percent of smuggled birds, he says, die before they get to their destination. His audience gasps in disgust when he shows a slide of birds that are dead or diseased as the result of smuggling. But he doesn’t blame poachers, who are just trying to make a living. The solution, he says, would be for birds and other plant and animal life to stay in place, and for the poachers to find jobs in ecotourism.

Because Chip is not a pure breed but a cross between a blue-and-gold and a scarlet macaw, his feathers cannot be used. Neither can those of his companion, a Senegal parrot named Hercule Parrot; Senegal feathers were not traditionally used by the Pueblos. The two birds spend their days caged in the Reyman kitchen, listening to National Public Radio.

The students’ questions afterward are about the care, feeding, and personality of Chip. But then two boys come up to ask if their parrots’ feathers could be used in Pueblo rituals. Reyman’s answer is yes. Another phones Reyman later to arrange for him to speak to his Boy Scout troop.

When feathers arrive at Reyman’s office, he puts the unopened packages in the center’s walk-in freezer for 48 hours to kill bacteria and larvae. Then, in his basement at home, he washes the feathers in a mild detergent. He puts the small ones in the clothes dryer and lays the larger ones out flat, sometimes hurrying the process along with a blow dryer. Finally, consulting order forms, he packs them accordingly and mails them off or delivers them in person.

“What he’s doing for the community is very good,” says Tessie Naranjo, who distributes feathers among her people at the Santa Clara Pueblo, in New Mexico. “Other people call him foolish, [but] he’s given us an incredible gift.”

The feathers are an important link to the past, says Naranjo, former chair of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act review committee, which monitors the return of Native American cultural items from museums. In the Tewa language, she says, a beam of sunlight is referred to as a parrot’s tail. This particular usage dates back to before 1540; that’s “a clue that macaws and parrots were being used” that long ago, says Naranjo.

Reyman says he’s been criticized for being an Indian wannabe, for supporting pagan religions, for violating the separation of church and state (though technically his employer, the Illinois State Museum Society, is private). He remains an observer, he says, and when he’s given special access to private rituals, he doesn’t write about them. “I want this kept separate from my professional life,” he says. “If I wrote about the ritual, they would turn their back on me. It would break the bond. There are things outside people don’t have a right to know.

“Everybody deserves religious freedom. People have been trying to make [Native Americans] into white Anglo-Saxon Protestants for centuries. If you don’t protect the rights of the least of us, no one is safe.”

These questions may soon be moot, as Reyman has given himself five years to turn the project over to the Pueblos so that he’ll have time for other pursuits. Though he’s happy with his change of focus three decades ago, he says, “I regret having never been to Egypt. But there’s still time, and I might at least visit someday.”

For more on Springfield see the Visitor’s Guide on page 35.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kristina Krug.