People ask me all the time what my favorite subject is to photograph. That’s tough. I like what is in front of my lens at that given moment. But, if I am forced to come up with something, I really think owls might be one of my favorite species to photograph.
What is it about these birds of stealth that are so intriguing? It’s like there is this whole mythology that these birds are wrapped up inside of. Mythology, that is the product of countless millennium worth of fire side tales and attempts at making sense of the world.
For the Greek, the owl was the symbol of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. For the Romans these birds of the night were a sign of impending doom. North American Indians also held such drastically different views of the owls as well. Many eastern tribes viewed the owl as a symbol of medicine, healing, and wisdom. Yet in the West, tribes saw the owl as the harbinger of death. These competing views of owls across the Americas played no small part in one very unique story in US history. That of the first man of African birth to set foot onto what is now the continental US.
Born free in Morocco, Estevanico was captured by a Portuguese raid in 1513 and sold into slavery at the age of 10 to a very wealthy would be conquistador, Andres de Dorantes. Several years later, Dorantes joined the ill-fated Narvaez expedition leaving Havana to conquer the wilds of La Florida, bringing Estevanico along with him as his personal servant.
Florida has a long history of deterring colonization. A mixture of geography, climate, and the ferocity of the Mississippian tribes (this is all way before the Seminole), forced many an expedition to turn heals and flee. The Narvaez expedition for which Estevanico was a de facto member of, was no exception.
A force of 300 men made landing in Florida and set out on foot. Almost instantly they came under attack and within short order, the conquistadors where fleeing for their lives back to the coast. Fashioning together make shift boats, they set sail hoping for Mexico. The fleet made it to the coast of present day Galveston Texas before being dashed to pieces on the shoals of the barrier islands. From one bad situation to the next, the 80 survivors of the shipwreck were quickly taken prisoner by one of the local tribes. For five years the Spanish lived as prisoners. What had at first been a force of 300 men was reduced to 80 by the sea, and only 4 by the end of their 5 years stint as prisoners before escaping and taking refuge with a neighboring tribe.
It was during their stint as prisoners that Estevanico would set himself apart from the rest of the fray. Because of his unique history as a Moroccan, enslaved by the Portuguese, and sold to the Spanish, Estevanico had been forced to become a master of many languages. During his 5 years on Galveston, he learned to speak the natives language fluently.
Estevenico intrigued his native captives. His quick ability to master their language made him the liaison between the Indians and the Spanish and for whatever reason, certain members of the tribe began to teach him their medicine and arts of healing. From Moroccan slave, to Spanish conquistador, to Indian prisoner, to medicine man and shaman of the New World – this was the life of Estevanico.
After 5 years spent with the Galveston tribe, Estevanico and the 3 surviving Spaniards set out on foot for Mexico City. By this time, the black medicine man had developed an almost Messiah like reputation through Gulf Coast tribes. The 4 travelers become known as the Children of the Sun (because they traveled east to west) and as they moved across the landscape people would travel great distances to meet them. They were ushered into villages with fanfare and even developed a following of natives wishing to learn from or be healed by Estevanico. These followers become something of an entourage who kept the 4 company as they continued their travels in what was something of a parade. The 4 ex-prisoners had become celebrities all across the region with each tribe falling over themselves to offer aid to the legendary medicine man.
For these southeastern tribes, the owl had always been a symbol of medicine and knowledge. Estevanico, therefore adorned himself with the feathers of owls. Feathers of barred and great horned owls surely made up his regalia. From medicine gourds to, as some historians write, feathered earrings, the symbolic nature of the owl feathers that Estevanico wore was the key to their success and safety upon setting out for Mexico.
e owl had always been a symbol of medicine and knowledge. Estevanico, therefore adorned himself with the feathers of owls. Feathers of barred and great horned owls surely made up his regalia. From medicine gourds to, as some historians write, feathered earrings, the symbolic nature of the owl feathers that Estevanico wore was the key to their success and safety upon setting out for Mexico.
Skipping ahead nearly a decade, Estevanico and his companions reach Mexico City and news spread of the Moroccan’s rapport with the natives that the entourage had encountered. The Viceroy of Mexico took a distinct interest in Estevanico’s story upon his arrival and instantly elevated his status from slave to a man of great prestige in the New World colonies.
Three years after arriving safely to Mexico City, this same Viceroy asked Estevanico to lead a reconnaissance expedition into what would become Arizona and New Mexico. The Moroccan immediately agreed and in 1539 set out on foot with a small party of soldiers led by a Franciscan Priest into Arizona.
Estevanico preferred to stay a day’s worth of travel ahead of the party. This way the many tribes would encounter him first and he could then send a runner back to let the rest of the party know if it was safe to proceed and what to expect. The runner carried a cross back to the priest each time they encountered a village. The size of the cross dictated the size of the village that they had found.
At last, Estevanico entered into the territory of the Zuni people, who lived in great pueblos. News of this was sent back to the priest and his party of soldiers in the form of a very large cross to inform that the biggest city yet was just a days ride ahead. The excitement in the camp that night was overwhelming. Tales of these great pueblos had filtered down into Mexico over the years and thoughts of Aztec sized civilization danced in their heads.
The following day, the reconnaissance party trudged north following the runner as their guide to Estevanico. As they neared the great pueblo of the Zuni, they realized that not all was right. Guards had been posted outside of the pueblo and it seemed as if the entire town was up in arms. It was not long thereafter that they encountered the body of Estevanico laying just outside of the pueblo.
The Moroccan born medicine man had never entered the Pueblo. Instead, he had been put to death. His crime was that of wearing owl feathers – the very same feathers that had announced his high status and position as a skilled medicine man elsewhere.
You see, for the Zuni, as with the rest of the Southwestern Indians, the owl was the harbinger of death. To see an owl was a bad omen. It meant that someone was going to die. To the Zuni, the sight of Estevanico adorned in so many feathers was not a welcomed site. Estevanico’s presence herald death to the Zuni. Instead of open arms and shouts of joy, Estevanico was met with clubs across his skull. Better to not openly invite the grim reaper himself into ones town.
Its ironic that the very thing that made him a celebrity throughout the tribes of the Gulf Coast was the same thing that brought his swift death once reaching the pueblo tribes of the desert. This is the power that owls have had throughout known history. From a pronounced medicine man to death incarnate, one man wearing a few owl feathers experienced the full spectrum of human reverence for these birds of the night.
Yeah, I definitely think that owls are my favorite subjects to photograph!