Monday, May 9, 2011

Whats the big deal about the Decorah eagles?


Many folks have recently been watching a live camera feed of an eagle nest and a pair of eagles tending three eggs that have hatched.  Along with many others I have had a link to that camera show on my page for some time now.  As Native Americans our family has a special association with eagles.  I have often been asked about this relationship, so I would like to share some thoughts and feelings about eagles.

Let me be clear that I cannot speak for all Native Americans.  I am Osage.  My wife is Choctaw.  I won’t even pretend to speak for Osages or Choctaws, just for myself.  There are hundreds of different tribes of Native Americans.  These tribes are often lumped together with such labels as Native Americans or American Indians.   In fact there are very wide variations in cultures among these tribes.  We have some similar beliefs and customs, but many that are unique and very different from each other.  I can really only tell you about how some Indians feel about eagles.   If I were to try to tell you about all Indians it would be like a Frenchman telling you about all Europeans.  He may know something about them, but he does not have the same cultural understanding or beliefs as a Spaniard, or an Italian.  This is part of why it is rare for Indians to try to explain things about our cultures in detailed writings.  We are so often misunderstood by those outside our cultures.

A recent federal court opinion indicated that the part of the Endangered Species Act which allows for Indians to obtain permits to use U.S. government issued eagle feathers for religious purposes, cannot be used to allow non Indians to have the same permit.  There is much controversy about these issues.  Questions of sovereignty, religion, and definition of who is an Indian are endless.  I’ll make no attempt to investigate most of those issues here in this limited discussion.  I will only say that I believe the U.S. government’s recognition of the importance of the eagle feather to some tribes and the issuance of these permits has changed the way some other Indians view the use of eagle feathers.   

Tribal elders have told us that Choctaw spiritual ceremonies used to feature the swan wing as an instrument of prayer and blessing.  Swan wings were traditionally held in high regard as a tool and symbol of Choctaw culture.  Historians have reported that Osage people used to view wild turkey feathers in a similar way.  It is common today for Choctaw and Osage people to use eagle feathers for prayer, for blessing, and for ornamentation as a powerful symbol in traditional ceremonies.  It is not the same, but is similar to some as the symbols of the Christian cross, the Jewish Star of David, etc.

My family has permits to use both Golden and Bald Eagle parts in our religious ceremonies.  Many of my friends from various tribes also have permits and use eagle feathers in our traditional activities.  In recent generations it has been one way to for all tribes to demonstrate our being Indian and to share a symbolic bond with other Indians, even of different tribes. 

Although we recognize the different tribal styles of ceremonial dress or other cultural nuances, we also recognize the cultural bond of being descendant from conquered people who no matter what tribe or manner of approach to the invading Europeans were to be displaced or eliminated in one or another way, some subtle, some outright brutal.  Some Indians fought great military campaigns, while others tried a “civilized” negotiation with ambassadors from other nations.  Whether we are descendant from the “hang around the fort” Indians or from those who tried to escape by disappearing into the wilderness makes little difference today.  We are all pitiful remnants of once great cultures.  We all lost our war…but some of us have survived. 

We now fight to retain the parts of our culture we have preserved and the right to develop our cultures in our own “sovereign” ways.  All lumped together as “Indians” we are less than 1% percent of the population in our own country.  We have little political power.  We have little economic power.  We have only the greater powers of prayer and hope…  The Law “allows” us to use eagle feathers in our prayers and as a symbol of hope, so we do. 

My family believes that all things created by our higher power (God) have a relationship to us and all other such things.  We eat lots of animals but not eagles.  We use their feathers, claws, bones and parts as ornamentation on our ceremonial clothes.  We sometimes use other birds as well.  My wife likes to see Eagles flying or roosting around our Cedar Rock Squirrel Ranch, as she believes it is a sign that all is as our higher power intended it to be, and we will have a successful day.
A pair of eagles near Cedar Rock Squirrel Ranch

I have eagle feathers in my home that I use to pray for blessings upon my home and visitors.  I have eagle feathers in my vehicles for the same purpose.  I wear and carry eagle feathers when I dance at pow wows or other Indian “doings”, to carry the previous prayers and blessings with me, including some from my late father and other relatives whom I dance for and sometimes with.  The exact form and style is not important for this writing, but the point is that many Indians from many tribes do these same things in a somewhat similar way.  We take the eagle parts into ceremonials of all sorts and use them with other elements in our spiritual practices. 
Mafo in his southren straight dance clothes during a pow wow

There is no great mystery in this for us, but rather an obvious connection to another of Wah Kon Tah’s (God’s) creations.  We prefer to use simple, natural things for the important practice of prayer and hope.  Eagle feathers and parts are just one part of this.  When I see that the baby eagles have hatched, are surviving, and making a comeback, it adds hope to the prayers for my family, friends, and other Indians. 

When I die, I will hold in my hand the center feather from a mature bald eagle tail.  The center feather is the one that can be used to choose the direction of flight.  I have already prayed many times for the correct flight and have hope that when my time comes to hold that special feather it will be as my higher power intended it to be…

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