The honorable ivory-billed woodpecker has returned from the dead and is
living in a wildlife refuge in the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas. It seemed
to disappear in 1944 and was long presumed extinct.
This spirit bird's reappearance 60 years later reinforces a wise
instruction by Native elders: "Never give up on anyone."
From time immemorial, the handsome, broad-shouldered bird thrived in the
bottomland forests and bayous of what is now the southeastern United
States. After 50 years of developers clear-cutting old-growth trees in its
habitat from North Carolina to Texas, the ivory-billed woodpecker was left
with few places to live.
In recent decades, the federal government and private parties have declared
certain ecosystems as Important Bird Areas. The ivory-billed woodpecker
re-emerged in one of these areas, which should encourage the Bush
administration - whose strong suit is not environmental protection - to
establish more such safe places for the homeless.
John James Audubon painted this bird in the early 1800s, comparing its
stylish chiaroscuro markings to a "great Vandyke" painting. Audubon
described it as 21 inches long, with a 30-inch wingspan and three-inch
bill, and a "dark glossy body and tail... large and well-defined white
markings of its wings, neck, and bill, relieved by the rich carmine of the
pendent crest of the male, and the brilliant yellow of its eye."
Muscogee artists have been depicting this bird for thousands of years. A
flurry of e-mail and voice messages spread the word among Muscogee people
that the ivory-billed woodpecker lives.
My friend Rob Trepp, a Muscogee researcher, sent three images of the bird
that Muscogee artists etched on shell and in clay over 2,000 years ago. He
says the bird "is found in many iconographic settings, sometimes pictured
alone, wings spread; other times pictured in fours, heads only, at the four
cardinal points around an inner image."
I had lots of questions about this important bird. Rob checked with
Muscogee cultural experts George Cosar, John Fixico and Ed LaGrone; and I
asked my dad, Freeland Douglas, who's always my first call on Muscogee
language and cultural matters.
Here are their consensus answers about the ivory-billed woodpecker.
Woodpeckers - toski in the Muscogee language - are medicine birds,
respected for their persistence and power to "pull things out." Singers of
toski songs "take on the power" and gain the "ability to pull things out of
The largest and strongest of the toski is cvkvlv, the ivory-billed
woodpecker. Traditional Muscogee medicine practitioners still use "songs
about cvkvlv." Its own song was recorded only once, in 1935. Prior to the
release in April of video footage from one year ago, the last documented
sighting of cvkvlv was in 1987 in Cuba.
Cvkvlv is pronounced CHUH kuh luh - "kind of like chocolate, if you need a
mnemonic," wrote Trepp. The word is a "progressive contraction" that
references the "fine feathers at the back and the color of the bill."
Cvkvlv is preserved in a Muscogee/Cherokee family name, Chuckluck or
Cvkvlv is called a rather rude name by scientists: Campephilus principalis,
which is Latin for grub-eater. Audubon observed that its main food consists
of beetles, larvae and large grubs, but it eats ripe forest grapes "with
great avidity," along with persimmons and hagberries.
He also noted that the "ivory-bill is never seen attacking the corn." I
think this respect for sofkee (corn) must have further endeared cvkvlv to
I never met cvkvlv, but I feel as if an ancient, beloved friend has come
home after a long absence.
I had a similar feeling 10 years ago, about a butterfly. I had checked into
a conference hotel and turned on CNN to see what news I'd missed during the
flight from D.C. to Albuquerque.
The news anchor was saying that scientists in northern California were
elated at the re-emergence of the formerly extinct teal blue-tailed
butterfly that disappeared from the Plains in the late 1800s.
This caught my attention for several reasons, not the least of which was
the phrase "formerly extinct." Now that is news.
But the big news to me was that the teal blue butterfly was real. During my
first Sun Dance in South Dakota, the ceremonial leader told me to listen
carefully to the messages of the blue butterfly. I looked for blue
butterflies for years and finally decided they were magic beings, and maybe
I'd see them and maybe not.
Hearing that they vanished for a century made me imagine that the blue
butterflies saw what was happening to the Indians and the buffalo on the
Plains and said, "We're outta here."
The news that they traveled to the West Coast and were presenting
themselves to elated scientists made me laugh and cry at the same time. I
felt as if I were greeting a familiar stranger with an important message. I
could hear my respected elders saying, "See why you should never give up on
Then and now, I think how Native peoples have been pushed out of our
natural homelands and how long we have lived at the edge of extinction. The
Native population hemisphere-wide was over 100 million in 1491. By 1900, it
was under 1 million.
In the U.S. at the turn of last century, there were fewer than 240,000
Native people. The good news is that there were 2 million American Indians
by 2000 and that Native populations are increasing in every country.
It is a miracle of survivance that there are Native people alive in
sufficient numbers to assure a future as Native people.
It still is touch-and-go for Native heritage languages, traditional
religions, sacred places, salmon and myriad other precious treasures, but
no one should count them out.
Native people are revitalizing heritage languages as fast as humanly
possible, even some that have been pronounced extinct for 150 years.
More and more Native young people are living within traditional religions,
one ceremony at a time.
Native sacred places and salmon remain viable, despite the best efforts of
government and developers to destroy them.
So, hail, cvkvlv. Hail, blue butterflies. Hail, all the formerly extinct
living beings that refuse to die and stay dead. Never give up on anyone.
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the
Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian