Semester of Graduation

fall 2023


Master of Arts (MA)


Geography and Anthropology

Document Type



In 1998 ornithologist John P. O’Neill donated an ethnographic collection of 434 objects he was gifted from researcher Charles Fugler or purchased from persons in Pucallpa, Peru, during his time there studying Amazonian birds. I evaluate 18 feathered objects. According to O’Neill, the cultures responsible for the items are the Cashinahua, Aguaruna, Achual, and Arawak. Eighteen of these items are beautifully crafted arrangements of feathered clothing and objects. The collection includes five headdresses, five bouquets, a hat, a necklace, three tassels, a backrack, a scarf, and a hair tie.

The objects and the seventeen species of bird used are active and ever-changing depending on their context and interactions. These seventeen species recognized are: Cairina moschata; Mitu tuberosum; Platalea ajaja, Pilherodius pileatus; Egret thula; Harpia harpyja; Psophia leucoptera; Ara macao; Ara chloropterus; Ara ararauna; Amazona ochrocephala; Amazona farinosa; Ramphastos tucanus; Ramphastos vitellinus; Psarocolius decumanus; Psarocolius montezuma; and a species of nightjar. Far from trash, the objects are endowed with potential to act and transform. Interactions between and among the objects, environment, and persons are ever-changing. Changes of constituents and various factors reciprocally and perpetually bring the objects, materials, and people into existence.

In the case of these items, from material to cultural artifact the items maintain their distinct histories. The qualities of birds transfer into the items and the wearer under certain circumstances. In doing such, the wearer of an item “becomes avian” in the sense that they may gain some ability of the species present in an item. Thus, the materials are agents as they can influence and affect.

Apart from instilling the qualities of a bird, the feathers uphold and represent aspects of birds’ lives. When worn, a feather’s history can be comparable to the history and life of a wearer. The differing potentials of feathers can be investigated through evaluating the items’ aesthetics. The overall style and design of the objects reveal what the item could achieve. In the case of the items of the O’Neill collection, clothing can kill, enhance sexual attractiveness, grant authority, access the heavens, and allow one to sing in the voice of an enemy



Committee Chair

Chicoine, David