Dena’ina Ethnoornithology: I want more!

So here is another fantastic book that I just can’t get enough of: Bird Traditions of the Lime Village Area Dena’ina: Upper Stony River Ethno-Ornithology. It’s written by Priscilla Russell and George West, with comments by James Kari, for the Alaska Native Knowledge Network. You may have read Priscilla Russell’s “Tanaina Plantlore” (which is a great ethnobotany), George West’s “A Birder’s Guide to Alaska,” or James Kari’s “Topical Dena’ina Dictionary” or “Shem Pete’s Alaska.”

Bird Traditions of the Lime Village Area Dena’ina can be divided up into two parts: background information and bird classification.

The first half, background information, is composed of priceless research on traditional Lime Village Dena’ina bird-harvesting strategies (including information on the seasonal cycle, teaching methodology (who teaches whom and how), sharing (who shares the catch with whom under what circumstances), and the construction of traditional hunting equipment (such as snares, arrows, and blinds)). Additionally, there is an entire chapter on the traditional foods and products made from the birds.

The second half, bird classification, lists all of the bird species in the Upper Stony River area in traditional taxonomic order (at the end of which there is a separate section for “probable” species). Each species listing includes a black & white drawing of the bird (courtesy of West), it’s name (this includes its English name, scientific name, Dena’ina name and translation of the Dena’ina name), and a short description. The description for non-harvested species is usually short (about half a page), and includes seasonal plumage identification and habitat information. The description for harvested species, on the other hand, can run up to two pages, with information on hunting methodology, preparation for food, and its other uses, in addtion to its plumage and habitat. [page 108, pictured to the left, actually continues onto page 109 with information about feathered-skin garments and feet-amulets]

One of my favorite chapters in the book is “Beliefs About Birds.” Although only two pages long, it provides wonderful information about how the Dena’ina “feel” about harvesting birds. One paragraph of especial use to the zooarchaeologist concerns the correct disposal of bird remains:

“People involved in the death or use of the bird are responsible for correctly disposing of the bird’s remains. For example, the bones of waterbirds should be returned to water and the bones of land birds left on land under a tree or in another secluded area. The bones should never be left on a trail. Taking correct care of the bones shows respect for the bird and aids in its quick return to life. If the bones are disposed of carelessly, the bird has a slow, difficult time coming back to life. Not only does this cause needless suffering for the bird, it means fewer birds and less food for people.” -p.42

For a zooarchaeologist working with faunal remains from a Dena’ina or related site, knowing that the oral history states that waterbirds were not usually deposited in a midden with land fauna may significantly affect excavation design or interpretations of the faunal analysis. I personally have never worked with faunal remains from a Dena’ina site, but I would very much like to know whether other archaeologists have found a pattern reflective of this oral tradition.

This book is the only Arctic ethnoornithology I have been able to find… it represents a really exciting subdiscipline of ethnozoology. I personally believe that ethnozoologies are of great benefit to zooarchaeologists. We may be able to glean information about species use, subsistence biodiversity and site seasonality from our bone assemblages, but we can’t determine what the cosmological significance of those represented species were to the people who harvested them. That is where ethnozoologies and oral histories come into play.

I hope that more ethnoornithologies and the like will continue to be produced, and traditional ecological knowledge and cosmologies will be preserved and published. I love the science of zooarchaeology (we’re not nearly as subjective as those lithics people! who agrees on what a Chindadn point is, anyways?), but I also think that, as a discipline, we should try to focus on more than just species identification and descriptive statistics.

Three of the last five Society of Ethnobiology conferences have had an ethnoornithology session… I hope this trend continues! (see their website at

Also, for those interested I just found a new group page titled the “Ethnoornithology Research & Study Group”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s