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Indigenous Owl Perspectives Part III: Tukur – A Highland Maya View

Written by Arcia Tecun

I remember learning the word ‘tecolote’ when I was growing up and thinking it was a Spanish word for owl. I later learned that while it is commonly used throughout Mesoamerica it is actually a Nahuatl word, an Indigenous language of central Mexico. Nahuatl has had a significant influence on the Mayan territories further south especially after modern imperialist influences in the region. I would later learn that búho is a Spanish word for owl. There are also several other names for owl, one of which is personally connected to me and my ancestral lineages, and that is tukur. Tukur means owl in both Kaqchikel and K’iche’ (two different but related Maya languages spoken in Iximulew-Guatemala). There are other Mayan names for owls as well, but tukur is a general name shared by many people in the Highland Maya context of Iximulew.

This post is inspired by my Wīnak/Winaq (Person-People, a.k.a. Mayan) heritage where owls are also known as powerful messengers. Sometimes they are known as messengers from the underworld, the realm of the dead, or of death itself. However, at least in my experience and understanding death is not necessarily negative, and in my own personal view it also carries a symbolic message of that which is beyond the physical plane or the realm of the living. This is because of the night and realm of darkness that Tukur are generally associated with. Darkness like death is also not negative but instead an important part of a cosmic worldview often expressed in Spanish as cosmovisíon Maya. In the Pop Wuj/Popol Vuh, a record of highland Maya cosmogony (creation), Tukur summons the hero twins to the underworld to face the lords there. In this creation context Tukur are not causes of death but messengers from that realm and a warning of death to come, which the hero twins Hunahpu (One Hunter) and Xbalamke (Jaguar Deer) ultimately face and overcome when they defeat the underworld lords through their trickster wit, and in winning chaaj chaay (Mayan/Mesoamerican ball game).

I recall learning that the appearance of an owl in your dream is particularly significant. There are also owl appearances that are good omens, all depending on the context and circumstances. For example, Tukur is also a nahual (totem) in the Cholq’ij (A feminine calendar of life, and one of three principal Mayan calendrical systems), which is associated with at least two different month totems or signs. If you are born on one of these totemic months associated with Tukur then you may have a unique relationship associated with this bird relative, which would add complexity to interpreting encounters. While I personally honour and respect this tradition and practice my own understanding and version of it, I do not see owls in human care in the same way because they are expected encounters in my view. An expected encounter for me differs from unexpected encounters such as in a dream or in a setting outside of an aviary, but not everyone agrees with that, so I remain flexible to a variety of interpretations, meanings and practices.

One thing for sure is that Tukur is an important messenger and totem in my living ancestral tradition. Yet the various forces of empire and colonization have also had a tremendous impact and I personally see and experience this through the stigmatizing of Indigenous practices and beliefs with altered or exaggerated interpretations of them. These in turn at times may be adopted or become part of some but not all contemporary Indigenous life experiences and perspectives. For example, while I have shared my own views and practice regarding Tukur above, I have also experienced these same views accused of being ‘demonic, primitive or unscientific’. I have observed Tukur at times be stigmatized within communities as a result of colonial systems and thinking that impact interpretations and alter practices.

Sara Curruchich is a Kaqchikel-Maya musical artist from Iximulew-Guatemala who has released a song about Tukur filled with dense symbolic imagery and sound that reminds and shares a deeper memory and relationship to Mayan cultural meanings of Tukur. She said this song drew from the communities that see Tukur as an important messenger, which in this song is used as a symbolic point of connection with the essence of our ancestors who have passed from the physical realm. The director for this music video Jayro Bustamante shared that for him Tukur is a representation of the spirit of the ancestors that look after us from the beyond. I have interpreted some of the lyrics as, “listen my mother would say, underneath the moon the voice of Tukur is heard, messenger of stars and time … I heard someone sing, saying to me it was the wind. I knew it was you.” The song invokes deep time and genealogical depth and breadth with connections to grandparents through the elements of wind with Owl as messenger. The music video Tukur includes a wooden image of Tukur among other symbols and is sung primarily in Guatemalan Spanish, which includes one of the Mayan words for Owl in it.

Whether you are someone who looks forward to an owl encounter through an aviary exhibit, bird show, bird watching, or not, next time you see, hear or think of an owl I hope this blog post series will come to mind. This series is an example of Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK) along with the previous posts Né’éshjaa’- A Messenger and Tracy Aviary and Navajo Nation Zoo, which in one sense of the definition is about honoring a deep legacy of sustainability that emerged out of the intimacy of living in and with place and non-human animal relatives over a long period of time. IEK is made relevant in everyday life because it is an embedded legacy of generations of empirical observations remembered in ancestral connections that echo through living Indigenous cultures. Conservation is a social act so as we work towards protecting and respecting the ecologies we depend on to live, we must also remember Indigenous cultural perspectives and what they offer us as we advocate for a more dignified and sustainable society.

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