Early Accounts of Birds and Feathers Used by the Southwest Indians

By: Albert H. Schroeder

Originally Published in 1991

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Interpretation of prehistory is basically dependent upon ma­terial culture items recovered in association with features of different time periods and/or areas. Identifica­tion of the use of specific objects recovered from ruins to a great ex­tent draws on ethnological studies relating to similar objects. Another source for data of the latter type is archival material.

Journals of early observers some­times provide leads relating to the identification and use of an artifact. This type of source is particularly valuable since indigenous customs and uses of artifacts in early historic times might have differed consider­ably from those observed by ethnol­ogists in recent years. Also, in some instances, an ethnic group might have discarded an early historic period practice by the time an eth­nologist studied the group. In short, with data from the documents, one can determine what changes in cus­tom or use, if any, occurred between the various periods of observation and more recent ethnological studies. In turn, the archaeologist will be able to more accurately postulate use of or custom relating to similar objects or features in prehistoric times.

The accuracy of the interpretation, of course, will depend on the amount of detail provided in the documents and the knowledgeability of the recorder at the time. The results of a study of a specific trait or custom through the historic period will pro­duce an ethnohistorical trait use and lineage study. If the same approach is used to reconstruct through time the changes in the culture pattern of an ethnic group, the result will be an ethnohistory. Historical documents are important reference collections, particularly the earliest records if one is attempting to project an ethno-history back into prehistoric times.

This paper makes no attempt to produce an ethnohistory trait use and lineage study on feathers. It is strictly a survey of the early docu­ments to determine the variety and amount of information available for, and the feasibility of, such a study on this specific item. If details of the association of feathers with other material items or their relation to specific features and customs are lacking, whether in documents or prehistoric sites, interpretation is severely handicapped and reference must be made to recent ethnological studies for clues to reconstruct the past. If early historical associations or use differ from recent data, change obviously occurred and all the more caution must be considered in projecting into the prehistoric past. If there is a significant sighting of a bird mentioned in the docu­ments that differs from present distri­butions, such will prove of interest to the ornithologist as well.

Documents of the early historic period, such as those used herein, reflect first impressions. The chron­iclers were unfamiliar with the cul Kure of Southwestern Indians, and as a result comparisons were sometimes made to the customs of Mexican Indians or the recorder presented his own ideas on the basis of his Euro­pean cultural background. Sketchy observations, colloquial terms, and questionable or differing interpreta­tions by the Spaniards tend to further confuse the picture. However, this is the material with which we have to work, and perhaps future excava­tions in historic period sites will help to clarify questionable or incomplete data.

One final note: because the turkey is a New World bird, there was no word for it in Spanish; instead, the word for chicken (gallina) was fre­quently used. The context, however, usually makes it clear which bird was intended.

Spanish Period of Exploration, A. D. 1540-1609

The first recorded history of Ari­zona and New Mexico begins with Fray Marcos de Nazi’s account of his journey into the area. (For a recon­struction of his route through Ari­zona, relating to locales identified below, see Schroeder 1955.) While on the lower San Pedro River of southeastern Arizona, Fray Marcos was given quail (codornices) by the Indians (probably Sobaipuris). In the region between the Tonto Basin and Zuni, he noted partridges (perdices) slightly smaller than those of Spain. He also remarked that the gourd rattle Estevan carried into Hawikuh had two feathers, one red and the other white. This was a rattle the Zunis recognized as one used by a people to the south (Yavapais or Sobaipuris?), evidently an enemy.

In 1540, Hernando de Alarcon went a short distance up the lower Colorado River in an attempt to make contact with the Coronado expedition going north by land. (For a brief discussion of the distance he traveled upstream, see Schroeder 1952.) While among these Yuman-speaking Indians, Alarcón noted a deerskin head covering with a crest bearing some feathers, a sash with a bundle of feathers hanging like a tail in back of a person, and women wearing a large bunch of feathers, painted (?), and glued (?), tied in front and back (turkey feather skirt?), otherwise being naked. These people also gave undescribed feathers to a woman of legend who lived by a lake. When these Indians were given a cross, they put some feathers on it and took it to their master. Alarcón also remarked that he took Spanish hens and cocks (Spanish chickens) up-river to trade. This is the earliest definite reference to chickens in the Southwest.

Francisco Vazquez de Coronado’s expedition of 1540-1541 provided a fair variety of data on birds and feathers. En route north from Mex­ico, while passing through Sonora, chickens like those of Castile (gallinas como Gas de castilla —Hammond and Rey translated “chickens” throughout and Winship used “fowl”) were noted (possibly Span­ish chickens acquired by the natives through trade prior to Spanish entry into the region, much in the same manner as iron reached a tribe of Indians above the Conchos River-Rio Grande junction before 1581 [Hammond and Rey 1927]). In Son­ora, royal (Winship says “tame”) eagles (águilas caudales) were used as an emblem of power.

Coronado observed that not many birds were seen in the Zuni country because of the cold, but they had a few (turkeys) larger than those of Mexico which he was told were used for feathers and not eaten, though he did not believe the latter. (Other statements that follow indicate that turkeys were given to the Spaniards to eat along with other food items.) He also described cloth among the Zunis painted with birds and fish.

Melchior Diaz’ exploratory scout of early 1540 reported, on the basis of secondhand information, that the Zunis had many tame chickens (gallina en la sierra). The Traslado de las Nuevas account referred to them as chickens (gallinas) larger (mayores —Winship uses “better”) than those of Mexico. Another narra­tive, the Relación del Suceso, said these Zunis had some Mexican chick­ens (gallinas) which were raised more for their feathers than for food (this suggests they did occasionally eat turkey) because they made quilts (turkey feather robes) of them, lacking cotton there. Castañeda re­ported both feather and rabbit skin robes at these pueblos. The above Relación also noted that these Zunis offered plumes to water, usually at springs.

The Relación Postrera de Cibola mentions cotton, yucca, and rabbit skin blankets at Zuni but not turkey feather robes, and adds that they possessed some chickens (gallinas). The same fowl (gallinas) are referred to by this source among the Rio Grande pueblos, but in this case blankets made with the feathers of this bird are mentioned (it appears that both statements refer to turkeys).

Hernando Alvarado, ordered to explore east from Zuni, recorded chickens (gallinas) like those of Mexico at Acoma. The Relation del Suceso also mentioned chickens (gallina) here. Castaneda stated that turkey cocks with very large wattles (gallons de papada muy glandes) were given to the Spaniards at this pueblo. He also noted here a spring by which had been placed a wooden cross of small sticks adorned with plumes and flowers.

Among the Southern Tiwas, Alvar­ado reported chickens (gallina) in great abundance and coats (robes) made with feathers of these birds (gallinas). Coronado stated that these people gave the Spaniards hens (turkeys). The Northern Tiwas of Taos did not raise chickens (tur­keys), nor did the Pecos. The Kere­sans of Zia, according to Coronado, and the Hopis, according to Castañeda, gave the Spaniards “hens” and “native fowl” (ayes de la tierra — turkeys) respectively.

Remarks concerning Rio Grande Indians in general refer to native hens and cocks (gallinas de las tierra y gallos de papada) and that all, including Taos and Pecos, had some feather quilts made by fastening them with thread (cordage) to form a smoothly woven blanket. Alvarado noted that these people also offered powders (pollen or flour), feathers, and even blankets they wore to crosses erected by the Spaniards. Plumes and roses were put on the arms of the cross, some being tied on with strings.

According to Castañeda, cranes (guillas —sic for grullas), geese (ansares), crows (cuerbos), and thrushes (tondos) were observed feeding in the planted fields along the Rio Grande. He also reported that chickens (gallinas) of the variety (calidad) found in Mexico also Mc-curred in the northeastern part of what is now the Texas Panhandle and that Indians of Mexico traded rich-colored plumes (of macaws) for use in feather crests to the Indians living to the north (in Arizona?) of Nueva Galicia. (See Schroeder 1982 for locale in Texas Panhandle.) In support of the above statement, it should be noted that while Cabeza de Vaca was in Sonora, he learned that the Indians of The Valley of the Hearts or near vicinity gave parrot (papagayo) feathers in exchange for turquoise to people who lived far to the north in very large houses (Ban­delier 1890).

The Rodriguez-Chamuscado ex­pedition of 1581-82, which came up the Rio Grande, provides informa­tion on other groups. Indians above the Conchos-Rio Grande junction gave feathers to the Spaniards. About 13 days travel up the Rio Grande from the above junction, other Indians (perhaps a little below El Paso) gave them two bonnets made of many macaw feathers. Turkeys (gallinas de tierra) were seen in the southern Piro pueblos where each Indian had his own turkey corral holding 100 birds. These Piros and the Southern Tiwas made atoles (corn-flour gruel) with meat of buffalos and turkeys.

Bustamante’s report and Gallegos’ testimony relating to the same ex­pedition indicate that the Piros had turkeys (gallinas or gallinas de la tielra—Bolton translated this “chick­ens” while Hammond and Rey used “turkeys”) for their own sustenance and that the Southern Tiwas also raised large numbers. The pueblos in the Galisteo Basin had large flocks of turkeys, many of which were given to the Spaniards along with corn and flour. Flagon (San Là-zaro?) was one pueblo specifically mentioned by name as having and giving turkeys. These people (Galis­teo Basin in general) had sticks adorned with plumes which a dancer who had been lashed gave to the spectator Indians so that they could place them in the fields and in pools of water to bring rain.

Luxán’s narrative of the Antonio de Espejo expedition of 1582-83 adds more data. The Patarabueys on the Conchos River had a large lock of hair on the crown of their head to which they fastened white and black feathers of geese, cranes (grullas), and sparrow hawks. The Otomoacos on the Rio Grande above the junc­tion with this river gave the Span­iards “ornaments like bonnets” with colored feathers which they traded from the direction (west) of the sea (Nueva Galicia?).

The Piros, who raised turkeys in quantity, made turkey feather quilts, especially for sleeping use, and used similar quilts in place of cloaks. These Indians gave the Spaniards turkey cocks and hens. Espejo men­tioned shrines, in the Piro pueblos and in the middle of the roads, to which the people offered painted sticks and feathers. At a pueblo visited to the east of the mountains (Abo or one nearby) Luxán reported that the Spaniards were given more turkeys.

While among the Southern Tiwas, many turkeys were noted and re­ferred to as dew-lapt cocks and hens. Here some visiting Keres brought turkeys as presents for the Spaniards. When the expedition proceeded through San Felipe, Santa Ana, and Zia, more turkeys (gallinas) were received. Espejo mentioned a parrot (“eurraca”-magpie, which Bolton mis­translated “parrot”) in a cage just like those of Castile. At Zia, it was noted that women wore a turkey feather blanket over their dress, and at Acoma the dance-women wore “Mexican blankets” (cotton) with paintings, feathers, and other trap­pings. This latter pueblo also pre­sented the Spaniards with turkeys (gallinas de la tiella) as did the Tanos of Galisteo Basin.

When the expedition arrived among the Hopis, the women, girls, and children were said, according to Luxán, to be in the mountains with their flocks. Espejo said they saw no turkeys (ayes de la tierra) here. A newly erected cross in the main plaza of Walpi exhibited many feath­ers and pinole (corn meal) which also were scattered on the ground beneath it.

The Verde Valley of central Ari­zona was reported as a warm land in which there were parrots. The Quere­chos (Apaches in the locale of pre­sent Laguna) dressed one of their women with a “feather crest” like that worn by the woman they cap­tured from the Spaniards who had obtained her from the Hopis where she also had been a captive.

The journal of the Gaspar Castaño de Sosa expedition of 1590-91 also mentions receiving turkeys (gallinas) at San Lazaro in the Galisteo Basin as well as at the Tewa pueblos of Nambe and Tesuque. Reference also was made to turkey (gallina) feather robes at Pecos and to a sighting of a magpie (ullaca) in December near Cerritos, downriver from Pecos.

Chronicles dealing with Juan de Onate’s first colony in New Mexico and explorations outward mention turkeys at Acoma. At Zuni they only received rabbits, but do record these Indians offering to crosses carried by the Spaniards that which they offered to their idols—flour (corn meal), sticks painted in various colors, and feathers of native fowls (turkeys).

Near the edge of and in the Verde Valley, “Castilian partridges” (quail?) were recorded, and the valley proper was said to have great numbers of birds. In general, the Pueblo land was said to be plentiful with native turkeys, and the people had the practice of worshipping with feathers and offerings of almost everything, including birds.

The Valverde inquiry, which re­viewed the results of Oñate’s coloni- zation in New Mexico to 1801, stated that the only domestic animals were the native fowl of Mexico (gallinas de la tierla de Mexico), which in Spain are called turkeys (pavos) or in Mexico “native hens” (gallinas de la tierra). These were said to be raised for feathers to make blankets rather than for food or eggs. The Indians gave the Spaniards a few as tribute. Ovate also sent his men out for fowl and blankets. Also men­tioned was the offering of small birds of various colors to sculptured idols of stone or wood. If the idol was a god of the fowl, it had some feathers tied to the head with a string. It was also reported that when the Spaniards went out to obtain tribute from the Indians, they would desert their pueblos and take their fowl with them, but leave the other provisions.

On a stream (Arkansas River?) near Quivira (in Kansas) were Cas­tilian quail and turkeys, according to this report. Another investigation in 1602 recorded a statement by Mi­guel, an Indian captive taken from the Quivira area to New Mexico in 1601, that a turkey like the one shown to him also occurred in his home area on the plains. Brief refer­ence also was made to the Pueblo people wearing cotton and feather blankets and raising native fowl.

A review of Vicente de Zaldivar’s services under Onate in New Mexico also mentions Castilian partridges and turkeys, specifically along the rivers of the plains, and also that the Keresans of Zia and Am gave turkeys (gaffinas) to the Spaniards.

The group of documents covered in the above survey are those of the Spanish period of exploration. These have been purposefully selected as a unit because the indigenous cultural practices and materials in use at the time probably had not been affected by the brief Spanish contacts of the exploratory period. For this reason they will serve well for comparative studies relating to more recent indi­genous developments or to those of prehistoric times. Data from the initial Spanish colony of 1598-1609 also are included.

These early historical data cover a large area of the Southwest and neighboring territory and provide coverage relating to all the pueblos as well as some other ethnic groups. A detailed study of later historical records might well add sufficient information on several of these ethnic groups over a period of several centuries to reconstruct a trait use and lineage study on feath­ers from A.D. 1540 to the time of the most recent ethnological studies. The data that follow are a sampling of the documentary material from later periods which provide informa­tion relative to the subject matter treated above.

Initial Spanish Settlement, A.D. 1610-1680

In the 1620s, Zárate Salmerón mentioned feather blankets, for which the Indians raised many tur­keys (gaflinas de la tlerra), and further that Pueblo Indian food in­cluded “wild chickens” (sic-galfinas monteses—translated “wild turkeys” by Lummis 1899). He also men­tioned partridge and quail larger than other places.

Father Alonso de Benavides, who served in New Mexico in the 1820s, observed that on wood gathering expeditions, the Pueblo people took turkey feathers with them to place as offerings in ant hills as well as on heaps of stone which nature had formed in a curious manner (wishing shrine?). Women attempting to re­duce offered some small feathers, meal, and other things to a stick or stone they set up as an idol. He also stated that a Tewa from Santa Clara, who was to approach an Apache (Navajo) as an emissary, had an arrow with a colored feather instead of a point at its tip and that the Tewas also gave this Indian a pipe made of reed (cane cigarette). These Indians indicated with a feather how far down they had smoked. The arrow was to be shot to the Apaches (Navajos) when the party reached their first rancher, and the enemy would come in peace. He also re­ported that at Zuni, tall Indians, apparently captains, came into a room wearing plumed headdresses and carried arms in a warlike fashion.

In the middle 1800s it was re­ported that the Zunis or Hopis of “Jongopavi” had feathers and idols. In an underground kiva on the west side of the church at Isleta, kachina masks were seen. Beneath one was a wreath of flowering grass, some feathers, and a short petticoat with a border of beads. In the province of Las Salinas, east of the Mangano Mountains, it was claimed that the padres used Indians to hunt prairie chickens. Here, also, a dance was described in which one Indian fasts and later distributes feathers to those he knows. Another source adds to the above, stating that another In­dian placed feathers and flour on the ground upon which the man who fasted stations himself and that this act was repeated to the north, west, and south (Hackett 1937, viol. 3).

Permanent Spanish Settlement, A.D. 1693-1846

There are numerous documents and Spanish publications relating to this period and reference is made only to a few to illustrate the con­tinuance of customs relating to feath­ers and birds as well as to indicate the type of data available on birds in general.

Espinosa, in remarking on the habits of the Pueblo Indians im­mediately after the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680-92, stated that they were now accustomed to tilling the land and tending their sheep, swine, chickens, and livestock, the basis for this statement being derived from Hackett (1942, vol. 8). It was the claim of the San Juan Indians, at this time, that one of the reasons they rebelled was because of Spanish efforts to abolish the ancient practice of placing offerings, including feath­ers, ground maize, and almagre, on stone piles (Espinosa 1942).

Father Luis Velar wrote in 1716 that at San Xavier and other ran­cherias, the Pimas raised many ma­caws with “feathers of red and other colors, almost like those of a pea­cock”, which they stripped from the birds in the spring for use in adorn­ment. He also noted that the Pimas offered feathers to departed ones.

Fray Juan de Torquemada in 1723 published a work on the Indians that included the Southwest. He noted that the natives along the Rio Grande raised many turkeys (gaflinas de la tierra) and made robes from their feathers. They also offered plumes to coarse rocks that they had built up (wishing shrines). He referred to a “temple”, a high room measuring 10 by 20 feet, all painted, wherein there was an idol of stone or clay seated on the right side of the temple with a basket with three eggs of a turkey (gallina de la tiella) in it.

The Rudo Ensayo, in addition to describing the environment and ani­mal and plant life, mentioned a number of birds of Sonora (north to the Gila River) prior to 1783 ‘ands gives the Indian names as well. Brackets below are mine.

Trail (1820s to 1846) should be con­sulted as well as the narratives of the early trappers and visitors in the Southwest, such as James 0. Pattie, Thomas James, Kit Carson, Josiah Gregg, etc. At best, these latter will provide an occasional reference of interest concerning birds and Indian use of feathers. One source that spans the late Spanish period and the Mexican period refers to quail (co­dornices), partridges (perdices), “wild hens (wild turkeys)” (gaflinas de las tierra (pavos monteses)), and grouse (gallinetas) in connection with hunting in New Mexico (Carrol and Haggard 1942).

The Early American Period

Many of the early American ex­ploring expeditions had on their staff capable scientists who described the geology and the wildlife of the country through which they passed. See for example the zoological listing of the bird collections made by Mall­hausen along the lower Colorado River and east across northern Ari­zona to the Hopi villages in 1857-58 when he accompanied Lt. Joseph C. Ives’ party (1861). These bird speci­mens are described in the General Report on Birds, vol. 9 of the Pacific Railroad Report, which includes the results of other explorations and surveys. Others, such as Abert’s New Mexico Report of the middle 1840s, contain references to the environ­ment and the birds of certain areas and occasionally record Indian use of birds, i.e. turkeys and tame ma­caws at Laguna ([1848) 1962). Re­ports of early U.S. Army scouts and campaigns and Superintendent of Indian Affairs reports contain much of interest relating to Indian traits and customs.

Of pertinent interest to this paper are the observations of John Bourke about 1880 among the Southwestern Indians. In the following data I omit his references to chickens, unless of specific associational interest, and have arranged the data on the pueblos into linguistic groupings for more ready reference and compari­son. However, one must consult Bourke’s journal text since he often makes general comparisons from one pueblo to another in regard to customs.

Zuni. Here Bourke saw a pet raven, wooden dolls with feather ornaments on the back of the head (Kachina dolls), a number of eagles kept for their feathers in wicker cages on the ground, boxes con­taining feathers of the sparrow-hawk, blue jay, turkey, and eagle wrapped in paper, old man tying feathers to sticks which were to be planted in the ground to insure good crops and bring rain, and men wear­ing eagle and turkey feathers on their hats or head. He observed eagles being plucked on May 18 and saw owl pottery forms. He learned that the Zunis had “parrot (?)”, eagle, crane (grulla), and roadrunner (po) clans, kept turkeys and chickens but the last were not eaten for meat or eggs but raised for sale, caught eagles when they were young, had clowns who used feathers in their dances, did not burn owl feathers near their fields for fear of causing drought or bringing winds and hail, and painted eagles on their pottery or shaped pots in this form. Ap­parently they did have parrots (most probably macaws since Bourke uses “huacamayos” most of the time).

Acoma. No eagles were seen, but the eagle clan as well as “huaca­mayo” (macaw) and turkey (galfina de fa tierra) clans were represented. Feathers from their turkeys were planted in their fields to insure good crops.

Laguna. Turkeys were observed here as well as turkey forms in their pottery. They also planted feathers in their fields and used them to tickle their throats to induce vomiting. This pueblo had eagle, huacamayo, tur­key (largest clan), and roadrunner clans.

Zia. The only bird clan here was the turtledove. An eagle was kept in an abandoned house and turkeys were observed, feathers of which were buried in the corn fields. _

Santa Ana. Many turkeys were seen as well as four or five eagles in cages. The turkey, turtledove, and eagle clans existed here.

San Felipe. Two or four eagles were noted as well as many turkeys, but only the turkey and turtledove clans were recorded. These people had feather boxes and huacamayos obtained from Sonora which were kept in cages. They too buried

feathers in their corn fields.          _
Santo Domingo.
Like San Felipe, these people had Sonoran huaca­mayos in cages.

Cochiti. Eagle and turkey clans existed here, but only turkeys were seen.

Jemez. Three caged sacred eagles were seen on top of the houses and a few turkeys in the village. The eagle clan was represented and the kivas had paintings on the walls depicting eagles, ducks, and turkeys, including a hunting scene of Indians shooting turkeys in trees. These Indians buried feathers in their corn fields.

Sandia. A bundle of parrot feath­ers was noted in one house.

Isleta. The parrot (pájaro azul de afuera) and eagle clan were re­corded here and they also had parrots.

Isleta del Sur. A bundle of eagle feathers was seen in a house. These people had eagle, turtledove, and goose (ganso) clans which they called galling de to sierla as opposed to turkey or galling de to tiella.

Taos. Three caged eagles were seen here.

Picuris. A tame eagle in a cage as well as an eagle clan were noted. These people wore turkey, eagle, and owl feathers in their hair and planted them in their fields to bring rain. Their arrows were plumed with owl feathers.

San Juan. Their last eagle died three years prior to Bourke’s visit,

and the eagle clan was still active. However, tail feathers of eagles and green boughs were seen on the floor of the kiva, left over from their last “dance.” Parrot feathers, obtained from Zuni and Isleta, were abundant here and eagles were plentiful in the mountains so they did not keep any in cages. These people buried feath­ers in their fields. They also had adobe houses which were half under­ground for their hens.

Santa Clara. These people buried eagle feathers in their harvest fields and had an abundance of down and plumage of eagles and parrots in all their houses. They had clans repre­senting both of these birds.

San Ildefonso. Parrot feathers, blue on the outside and yellow inside, were seen. The eagle clan as well as eagles in cages also were noted. Two buffalo heads exhibited eagle, turkey, and parrot feather trimmings.

Pojoaque. These people formerly had parrot or macaw feathers.

Jambe. Huacamayo feathers had been seen in all pueblos (Tewa) except Pojoaque, and here they were kept in little long boxes of cedar (juniper?) or cottonwood. He also saw eagle, turkey, and sparrow-hawk feathers.

Navajos. Their war bonnets were decorated with eagle or wild turkey feathers. The buckskin masks worn in their dances had two eagle feath­ers and a crest of horsehair. Though they ate wild turkey, they cared little for chicken.

In general, it would appear from this spot check survey that there is a considerable amount of data in the documentary and published records bearing on feathers and birds of interest to the ethnohistorian and to the ornithologist seeking information on birds of earlier periods. A more intensive investigation of the records should add substantially to this study. Obviously, the same type of investigation could be made on other objects and customs of Indians throughout the historic period. The same applies to archaeological trait distribution studies, which we sorely need.

Time-space studies of specific traits in the documents not only will serve to form a pool of comparative information, but will contribute a considerable body of data essential to any study of culture change. If combined with similar distributional studies of Southwestern archaeologi­cal material, anthropologists will have a 2,000 year time scale over a large area of the Southwest on which they can trace development and diffusion of specific traits, traits assemblages, trait complexes, and ultimately patterns.

Cite This Article

Schroeder, Albert H.. "Early Accounts of Birds and Feathers Used by the Southwest Indians." Expedition Magazine 33, no. 2 (July, 1991): -. Accessed February 25, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/early-accounts-of-birds-and-feathers-used-by-the-southwest-indians/


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