Rabbitbrush Rambler: Before American turkey dinners

Before supermarkets sold frozen turkey and aluminum roasting pans, before Norman Rockwell painted the big family dinner, before Pilgrims and Squanto gathered at Plymouth, before Spaniards introduced their slow cookers  – the adobe hornos, before people in northern Rio Grande pueblos dug pits for cooking meat, before cliff dwellers at Mesa Verde– also known as the Anasazis or Ancestral Puebloans – were gnawing on drumsticks, the Mayans of Central America were domesticating wild turkeys.

The original wild turkeys might not have been as sweet and tender as we like them today, but they assuredly were better than no meat at all when deer hunting was poor.

But the wild turkeys raised by Mayans, Ancestral Puebloans, and subsequent Pueblo tribes were undergoing improvement over their wild brothers and sisters, because the birds were enjoying some corn grown in gardens. Agriculture moved north from Mexico, the Paleo-Indians in the Southwest adopted their techniques of cultivating crops and watering them through ditches. Hence, corn, beans, and squash fed not only the growers but also any opportunistic wild turkeys and other wild fowl such as quail that invaded the gardens and became domesticated.

Waste not, want not. Besides the meat provided by turkeys, their turkeys’ feathers had uses such as ornamentation in ceremonials or making blankets and capes for warmth and shelter from rain or snow.  
At Mesa Verde in sequential periods the diners could have been early Paleo-Indians, Archaic People, or Basketmakers. Until, that is, they mysteriously left in the 1200s, leaving wild turkeys to nibble on their seeds, bugs, and bitter acorns at Mesa Verde.

But to the east, south, and west, some of the departing people established new pueblos built of mud and stone. Based on oral tradition and ethnology, they are descendants of Ancestral Puebloans at Mesa Verde and occupy pueblos in the Rio Grande region and elsewhere. Wild turkeys were found in some of these pueblos, too, although the story is not like turkeys following Hansel’s and Gretel’s crumbs. Wild turkeys most likely were there in the beginning.

In our Northern Rio Grande Region, just south of the San Luis Valley, some of the Tewa-speaking and Tiwa-speaking tribes established pueblos, following their exodus from Mesa Verde. The wild turkeys in the pueblos were the same species as those that nibbled on weeds, seeds, bugs, and bitter acorns on Mesa Verde, geneticists tell us. Subspecies differed in other locations, but, wherever they were, in the chewing they were not like the fat, juicy fowl that supermarkets sell us, or much like the fancy “heirloom” breeds that some specialists fancy.      

The Native Americans living in the pueblos continued to grow crops of corn, beans, and squash, and to eat turkeys, perhaps seasoned with such herbs as sage or oregano. Seasonally, some of the northern pueblo dwellers came into the San Luis Valley, remaining long enough to plant and harvest small crops, as rock art on the east side of the Valley suggests. Stone hoes found in Saguache and Mineral Counties, as well as sandal left in a cave, are other hints of visits during the growing seasons.

While these farmers from the pueblos were here in summer growing crops and in autumn harvesting them, they surely must have harvested a wild turkey or two to feast upon. Those farmers probably felt as grateful for the food as people will be on our Thanksgiving Day.

Blessings to all!