Feathers | On the ridge of the upper mandible a broad stripe of most lovely yellow extends from the head to the point; a stripe of the same breadth, though somewhat deeper yellow, falls from it at right angles next the head down to the edge of the mandible; then follows a black stripe, half as broad, falling at right angles from the ridge and running narrower along the edge to within half an inch of the point. The rest of the mandible is bright red. The lower mandible has no yellow: its black and red are distributed in the same manner as on the upper one, with this difference, that there is black about an inch from the point. The stripe corresponding to the deep yellow stripe on the upper mandible is sky-blue. It is worthy of remark that all these brilliant colours of the bill are to be found in the plumage of the body and the bare skin round the eye.
All these colours, except the blue, are inherent in the horn: that part which appears blue is in reality transparent white, and receives its colour from a thin piece of blue skin inside. This superb bill fades in death, and in three or four days´ time has quite lost its original colours.
A Spanish monk reported that the Incas were able to “fl y like birds” over the jungle and the Spanish religious authorities were so worried about the shamanistic powers of feather textiles that they ordered them to be destroyed. In a military camp near Cuzco the Spanish discovered more than 100,00 dried birds. The feathers were stored for uniforms, and soldiers were being paid in them.
Feather art was used in many ancient societies in South America, but most of what has survived originates in pre-Columbian Peru and nowadays, Mexico. From the early Maya to the ill-fated Aztecs, nobles, priests and warriors literally worshipped feathers and delighted in arraying themselves in cloaks, headdresses, ear spools, necklaces, bracelets and arm bands of brilliant feathers. Moctezuma possessed his own aviary of exotic species, so large that it required 300 attendants to care for the birds, and also maintained his own group of feather artists. There are only eight of the countless pieces of pre- Columbian feather work still in existence, the piece known as Montezuma’s Headdress being the most striking. It is quite large, 166 cm high and 177 cm wide and is composed of 500 green-gold quetzal tail plumes and trimmed with white, blue and red feather bands and small gold rosettes. After the slaying of Montezuma during the Spanish invasion of Hernando Cortéz, the crown/ penacho was was confi scated by the Spaniards, and found again in the 18th century in a storage chest at Ambras Castle in Tyrol from where it was brought to the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna. By 1566, when the headdress was listed in an inventory of the castle, its Pre-Columbian origin had been lost and it was called “a moorish hat”.
Since 1986, descendants of the Aztec Nation and the Mexican government have been asking the Austrian government to return the feathercrown. Currently, a replica of the head piece can be found in the Anthropological National Museum of Mexico City, which is built over the remains of Montezuma’s residence. Since 2011 a temporary loan is being considered by the Museum of Ethnology Vienna. The transport issue, concerns of conservation, and political and legal questions still have to be clarifi ed. Negotiations are continuing.
When the Ayoreode chiefs of Paraguay were defeated and taken into the missions they left their furs and feathers behind; they had lost their pride and the right to wear them.
1904 | John W. Robinson, a graduate of the all-black Tuskegee state school in Alabama, USA opens a cotton growing school and experimental farm in German colonized Togo. Tuskegee was the main power base of Booker T. Washington, who had been born in slavery, was the dominant fi gure in the African-American world at the turn of the last century. In a speech at Atlanta in 1895 he had laid out a programme of black-self improvement while accepting the Jim Crow laws of racial discrimination. He also proclaimed the virtues of a ‘New South’ built on cotton, which depended on the picking skills of African- Americans, a workforce highly disciplined by the sharecropping system that had replaced slavery.
Meanwhile in Africa, in southern Togo, the Ewe people were already growing cotton of their own and the regional markets offered “very durable cotton cloth”, but the fi bre price was too high for an export business. Only women grew cotton, which they ginned and spun themselves, selling the yarn to weavers of all whom were men. In non-monogamous relationships it meant women had independent incomes. In the eyes of German colonialists women in female dominated households had too much power. From the very start colonialists, backed by the racist intellectuals of the Verein für Sozialpolitik think-tank, wanted to change cotton agriculture. As with other Europeans they wanted to break the USA’s monopoly on cotton fi bre calling for a “cotton Kulturkampf against America”. They aimed to create a Volkskultur in which nominally free farmers would produce cotton for the world market of their own free will, but would be forced to if they didn’t. Modern methods of the plough and labour discipline would make for internationally competitive cotton. At the same time the shift to the plough and the physical strength it required it would weaken women’s power and lay the basis for the colonial-patriarchal dream of the bourgeois family as the norm.
Through links made by members of the Verein organisation with the group around Tuskegee and Booker T. Washington, the idea came that the expert American Negro would be the perfect role model for the people of south Togo to become world market cotton producers. They were guaranteed to be respectful to the colonial authorities and would bring both seeds and expertise, and set up as farmers themselves. Four of them arrived in 1901 and also brought ploughs to replace the hoes that women had used. They were fanatical about ploughs but the various draught animals tried were all killed by the Tetse fl y so that one of the ‘experts’, Calloway, had them drawn by men acting as animals and this became a norm, a vicious irony of colonial progress. There was an increase in the export of cotton, and women’s power was weakened, but by 1904 the colonial power abandoned the exemplary Negro farmers approach and instead one of the original four, John Robinson set up a cotton school in Togo at Nosté. It was to be a three-year course for rational cotton farming and every district in the colony had to send students to it. They were forced to go in order to be ‘free’ farmers. But unlike the Tuskegee Institute, they were not to learn anything that would give them academic qualifi cations. The students used a variety of informal resistance strategies, which the colonizers put down to an inherent tendency to “laziness”, while at the same time they lost prestige among their own people. This loss of prestige also undermined the colonial aim of producing model patriarchal households, the programme often produced “lonely and miserable young men, unable to attract spouses to a life on an exemplary farm under German oversight.”
All the Names in History | Chaka Nayra, the “weaving bone with the big, beautiful eyes,” is a tool made from bone of unspecified origin that appears to have been used for weaving before ending up as a curiosity alongside the other wares spread on the street seller’s blanket in Lima’s old town. And so, through a different, informal, form of circulation, it has become part of the country’s national growth. By now, if not earlier, it knows that “at bottom, every name in history is I.”1
As a tool, Chaka Nayra primarily fulfills the function of a weaving comb. In other words, its purpose is to tighten the crisscrossing threads that form geometric axes in relation to each other, pushing together the various directions defined by the threads to create a dense plane, a unified body. But Chaka Nayra is a very slender weaving bone, a very, very slender comb for long weaves, belts, or bands, or for detail work, for instance to embellish or finish a valuable, more coarsely textured weaving.
The elongated bone is decorated with various animal-shaped engravings, some mirroring the contours of the object itself and hence creating additional figures. If we turn Chaka Nayra, both on its longitudinal axis and sideways, one figure emerges from the other: here, the head of a turtle appears, there maybe a llama, a crocodile, or a heron, even a decorated elephant head with a lifelike trunk. The menagerie of figures and spirits animating this tool is brought to life by round, white recessed elements and perforations that stare at us as eyes and pairs of eyes. The body is made of a single piece, an elongated bone, with an epiphysis (the capitellum or “little head” of the bone) about the size of an apricot. It fits nicely in the hand and serves as the handle from which protrudes the roughly 11 centimeter long, slender, you could say elegantly, curved neck (or trunk). The piece is a total of 16 centimeters long. It could be made from the hollowed, bone of a sheep or llama, cut and filed down to size, then polished, or it could be made from the thighbone of a child of about two years. The bone substance appears to be too heavy to be the bone of a condor, and it’s too big to be the ulnar bone of a full-grown Catholic priest. But we cannot rule out the possibility that different weaving bones were made and/or used for certain work on specific textiles or for representational purposes. They can be characterized according to features like the size, origin, and density of the bone as well as the number of teeth on the comb.
But we are not interested here in the biological being for whose orthopedics Chaka Nayra was once significant as a bone, nor in the textile for whose woven form it was used. Rather, we are interested in the fact that Chaka Nayra wandered through multiple bodies, necessities, and production- related extensions and circulations, and that as a being, prosthesis, tool, or ethnographic artifact it represents precisely an articulation of mental and formal structures. Chaka Nayra, then, speaks to us much more as a plurality and out of the circular dance from which it springs, than about its objectuality. In brief, Chaka Nayra always describes a relationship. It speaks to us of concrete constellations, of many different individuals, of the strength and warmth of their bodies, of their relationships between each other, of specific cultural products, and, not least, of the unmistakable fabrics that in turn become skin again, offer protection, or serve as means of labour themselves.
From a Western perspective in the twentieth and twenty-first century, Chaka Nayra’s transformation may well describe the relationship between pre- Columbian forms of production and subsistence and the forms of violence of the colonial division of labor and exploitation. Conversely, Chaka Nayra attests to the fact that every prematurely aged llama, every unexpected death of a child, and every devoured priest obeys a historic or cosmic necessity, and that by recalling them we can bring them back to life as embodied labour in an attempt to pacify the justified fury of the gods.
We do not know how old Chaka Nayra is, but we do know that if we turn it once around its axis and inside out, all names of history speak to us from its living eyes.
1 Here we need to listen to the narrative of our little finger puppet from the Witches Market in La Paz. The finger puppet at once dresses our weaving bone, doubles it, mirrors it, and helps it speak. One of the names of history is supplied by none other than Friedrich Nietzsche himself. In his last letter to the famous Swiss cultural historial Jacob Burckhardt on January 5, 1889, Nietzsche wrote: “The unpleasant thing, and one that nags my modesty, is that at bottom every name in history is I.” Historians tend to refer to Nietzsche’s last letters as Wahnbriefe (“madness letters”). As the finger puppet relates, the word combination Chaka Nayra sounds nice as a name, but has no exact meaning in Aymará. Chaka means bone and nayra means eyes or big eyes. But nayra can also be understood as an extension of the eyes, or as gaze or gaze into the distance. Chaka nayra, then, could just as well be translated as “bone with the big/beautiful eyes” or “bony gaze into the distance.”