The Tale of a Turkey Cinderella for Thanksgiving

Since November is the month of Thanksgiving in the United States (and since turkey is usually thought of as the main dish for the traditional Thanksgiving meal), I thought it might be fun to look into Turkey Mythology for this month’s blog post. What I found is that the American Southwest’s Zuni tribe have a legend, commonly known as The Poor Turkey Girl, which shares many similarities to Cinderella.

The ancient Zuni peoples kept turkeys as domesticated animals (sort of like we keep cattle and sheep today). According to the Zuni legend, wealthy families in Mátsaki (the Salt City) owned flocks of turkeys, but they themselves did not attend to the turkeys. Rather, they had slaves care for the turkeys. One poor slave girl was known to be very kind to the flock of turkeys she herded to and from the plains around Thunder Mountain, and in turn, the turkeys were very obedient because of her kindness. Like Cinderella (from more popularized versions we are perhaps more familiar with), this poor turkey girl wore patched, tattered, and dirty clothes and received little in return for her gentle care of the turkeys.

Cinderella scrubbing the floor from the Disney 1950 film
Cinderella scrubbing the floor from the Disney 1950 film

According to the Zuni legend, the poor turkey girl passed by Old Zuñi one day as she herded the flock of turkeys. The herald-priest of Old Zuñi stood atop a roof, announcing that the Dance of the Sacred Bird would take place in four days time. To the Zunis, the Dance of the Sacred Bird was a blessed festival, especially cheerful to young maidens, who were allowed to participate in the dancing. However, the poor turkey girl had never even seen the Dance of the Sacred Bird before, much less participated.

Just as Cinderella longed to somehow go to the Ball, the poor turkey girl longed to see the Dance of the Sacred Bird, but along with Cinderella, the poor turkey girl also keenly felt her circumstances, thinking herself too ugly and ill-clad to join in on the festivities. Hence, the poor turkey girl watched from afar as the other villagers of Mátsaki busily prepared for the upcoming festival. Turning to her turkeys, she told them of her dream to go to the dance.

Gobbler turkey walking proudly photo by Skeeze at
Wild Turkey Photo by Skeeze at

Not once did the poor turkey girl think that her flock of turkeys understood her wishes, but as the people of Mátsaki left for the festival on the fourth day, one of the big gobblers strutted up to her, fanning out his tail and stretching open his wings. Then he stretched forth his neck and told the poor turkey girl that the turkeys knew what she yearned for, and that they wished she also could enjoy the holiday. The gobbler went on to tell her that if she would return them from the plains early in the afternoon, the turkeys would dress her so beautifully that no one at the festival would recognize her. (Sound familiar, Cinderella fans?) The gobbler said that “especially the young men, will wonder whence you came, and long to lay hold of your hand in the circle around the altar to dance.” Then he asked her, “Would you like to go see and join in on the dance, being merry with the rest of your people?”

The poor turkey girl scarcely knew what to say, she was so surprised. The willingness of the turkeys to help made her happy, but she didn’t think they really would be able to provide her with garments good enough to attend the festival.

The old gobbler told the poor turkey girl to trust the turkeys, for they could help her, but he also warned she must not get so caught up in her good fortune that she forgot about the turkeys. The old gobbler cautioned, “Keep in mind that you must return to us before the sun sinks below the horizon. If in the excess of your enjoyment, you should forget us, who are your friends—yet depend upon you so much—then we will think, ‘Behold, though our maiden mother is so humble and so poor, she deserves her hard life because if she were more prosperous, she would do unto others as they now do unto her.’” (Does “be back by midnight” ring a bell to you Cinderella fans?)

The poor turkey girl promised to do as the turkeys said, so the old gobbler instructed she should give her clothes to the turkeys, who would renew them. Obediently, the poor turkey girl took off her ragged mantle and threw it on the ground in front of the gobbler. He seized it in his beak, spread it out, trod on it, spread his wings over it, and finally returned it to the poor turkey girl as a beautifully embroidered white cotton mantle.

Wild turkey gobbler puffed up and fanning his tail by Skeeze at
Wild turkey gobbler puffed up and fanning his tail by Skeeze at

As other turkeys came forward one by one, the poor turkey girl gave each an article of her clothing; each time the garments came back as if new and exquisite. Then the turkeys encircled her, singing, clucking, and brushing her with their wings. As if the turkeys were her fairy godmother, when they retreated, she was as fresh and beautiful as the fairest maiden in all of Mátsaki.

Finally, one old turkey came forward and told the poor turkey girl, “Only the rich ornaments worn by those who have many possessions are lacking, but we turkeys have keen eyes and have gathered many valuable things, lost from time to time by men and maidens.” He then presented the poor turkey girl with a stunning necklace and another turkey came forward to lay an elegant pair of earrings at her feet.

As she left for the festival, the turkeys reminded her to “Remember our words of advice, and do not tarry too long.” The poor turkey girl reassured them that she would surely keep her turkeys in mind.

Not soon after arriving, the poor turkey girl found herself invited to join in the dancing around the altar at the center of the plaza with the finest youths vying for her hand. Forgetting about her turkeys, the poor turkey girl danced and danced and danced as the sun sank down toward the west. Not until the sun had dipped below the horizon, with the dance over, did the poor turkey girl remember her promise to the turkeys. (Uh oh, the midnight hour has come and gone. Just as Cinderella races to return before the spell wears off, the poor turkey girl remembers she has a promise to keep!)

The poor turkey girl ran out of the festival as swiftly as she could run, but by the time she got back, she found that her turkeys had left their cages, running up the Canyon of the Cottonwoods, behind Thunder Mountain, through the Gateway of Zuñi, and up the valley. The poor turkey girl raced after the birds, but they were too far ahead—she could only hear their voices, singing. Still, she scrambled after them to the base of the Canyon Mesa at the border of the Zuñi Mountains where the turkeys spread wide their wings and flew away over the plains.

Native American dreamcatcher made of red willow and feathers by Walkingbird96 at
Native American dreamcatcher made of red willow and feathers by Walkingbird96 at

The poor turkey girl threw up her hands in despair as she realized that with the sweat of her effort and the dust she had kicked up from chasing the turkeys, her appearance had changed back to what it had been before. She was the same poor turkey girl that she had always been. …Poor Turkey Girl… 😦

Unlike Charles Perrault’s Cinderella, who is rescued from her bitter life in the end by the prince, in this Zuni tale, the poor turkey girl returns to her same meager existence.