As a child growing up in Spokane, Wash., Cyler Conrad followed the usual customs to celebrate Thanksgiving.
That included dressing up as a Pilgrim in elementary school, enjoying what he called “faux turkey dinners” in school and, of course, enjoying, with his family members, a nice turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day.
“To me the bird was always associated with Thanksgiving, the idea was that this is what was eaten, this was the bird associated with the original [Thanksgiving] event,” the adjunct assistant professor of archaeology at the University of New Mexico’s anthropology department said.
The turkey, he said, “is something so important to the formation of the United States, who our identity is in America.”
But the turkey was equally important to the identity, culture and survival of the ancestral Pueblo people who lived in the country centuries before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, as Conrad discovered when he began researching the history of the birds through their droppings.
Yes, that’s right. There’s plenty in that poop to tell us how those people managed those gobblers.
Some Pueblos created their own rooms in their adobe homes for turkeys. Some kept them in separate pens. Sometimes they would tether them with a rope, or single out a bird for its own special pen, suggesting in some cases they were treated as pets.
Pets that could provide feathers and blankets, bones for making musical instruments and, maybe sometime down the line, end up on the dinner table.
“The Indigenous people of the Southwest were clearly benefiting from the turkeys, but the turkeys were benefiting from that human relationship with access to food, protection, all sorts of interesting things going on in that environment,” Conrad said.
In some cases, he said, turkeys were buried alongside humans.
“That’s something special; that’s something we will never fully understand,” Conrad said.
The relationship between Pueblo people and turkeys remains a little-known chapter of the history of this region, despite the occasional study or report on the issue. In 2013, Eric Blinman, director of the Museum of New Mexico’s Office of Archaeological Studies, and Stephen Post, the office’s deputy director emeritus, wrote about it in an issue of El Palacio magazine. Those experts cited previous archaeological studies of Pindi Pueblo, about six miles southwest of Santa Fe. “Pindi” is the Tewa word for turkey.
Conrad followed suit with a paper published in August about Pueblo turkey management practices, writing that the Pueblo people “engaged in a complex relationship with turkeys,” which would be drawn to the pueblo by an offer of maize (corn). For the most part, Pueblo women and children were tasked with taking care of the turkeys, he wrote. And, over time, a Pueblo story about Turkey Girl — a young orphan who is protected by the turkeys she cares for — developed and was passed on from generation to generation as an homage to the beloved turkeys. That story suggests young girls and women “were probably taking care of turkeys within these different” pueblos, he said.
Discoveries of large layers of turkey excrement in some former Pueblo villages indicate nearly every pueblo probably kept turkeys in some domesticated form, according to Conrad’s report. Some pueblos allowed the turkeys to roam freely during the day before being corralled at night.
Turkey eggs could be used as paint, he said, and turkey imagery shows up on a lot of ceramic art pieces and on pueblo walls.
Masses of turkey droppings can still be easily found in those caves as well, he said. He said anyone can go out and study those droppings, which are “well preserved” — so well that in some cases people might come across droppings and assume they are “recent, a year old, a couple of months old.”
That excrement, he said, can tell us a lot today about those turkeys: what they ate, how many lived in any one pueblo, what their pens may have been like and how the turkey space was integrated into the larger Pueblo community.
One common theme of Conrad’s research is that there was really no common theme in how pueblos managed those turkeys because each pueblo “managed turkeys in whatever way they needed based on time and place.”
And, Conrad said, evidence shows pueblos that kept a lot of turkeys didn’t keep a lot of dogs. “One way to protect turkeys was to limit the number of dogs in an ancestral pueblo,” Conrad said. However, given male turkeys sport potentially dangerous spurs, he said, “If I were a dog I would not try to ruffle the feathers of a turkey.”
For the most part, pueblos kept turkeys for various uses into the 1500s. Once the Spanish arrived in the region, they brought their own line of domesticated animals, including turkeys, Conrad said. While some pueblos kept turkeys from that point on, it’s unclear if they were once wild turkeys or turkeys brought in by the Spanish or later-era Americans moving west from the East Coast.
Conrad, who also works as a tribal technical liaison at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said he hopes his paper and others like it draw attention to the fact that turkeys were ingrained in the culture, practices and communities of Indigenous people long before we started slicing up store-bought turkeys.
As such, the turkey is “owned by the Native American peoples in the United States. This is really their bird.”