My Grandfather often talked about Lakota history and our legends as they play an important part in teaching youth about our culture, traditions and spiritual protocol. Spiritual people and elders with such knowledge, speak reverently about the eagle, a proud bird who lives in two worlds.
Few Lakota youth today are aware that one of the reasons we hold the eagle in such high regard is because the eagle is an ancestor of ours as well as a messenger of the Thunder Beings. My grandfather spoke of a legend now nearly forgotten when the Thunder Beings sent a great flood which cleansed the land but wreaked destruction upon our people because our people were not living the way they were supposed to live. The eagle looked down from the sky during the flood and observed a young Lakota girl clinging to the branches of a tree.
The eagle respected the courage and tenacity of this young girl. He came down and swept her to safety to live in a high place in the Black Hills. There the eagle hunted for and cared for the young girl. When she grew to adulthood, the eagle’s care, respect and devotion were recognized by the Thunder Beings and his clawed feet became legs and his wings became arms.
Amazingly, the eagle who had given up his sky kingdom for love and the Lakota woman eventually had seven children from whom it is said we have descended. The blood of our people whose lives were lost in the flood became our sacred pipestone which is found at only one place on this earth. From this point on, the eagle’s brothers never forgot the connection between them and man. To this day, if a man is lost and he prays with faith, he may look up to the sky to find an eagle to show him where there is food and water.
In today’s secular world, monuments, medals, trophies, awards, ribbons and certificates are awarded for accomplishments. Yet this is not the Lakota traditional way to honor people. The eagle throughout our history has watched over us in the skies and gifted us with decorations of honor from his wings, tail feathers and plumes.
One of the symbols for our highest honor is but a feather from our great Chief of the sky. A sacred feather fallen or captured from such a venerable source is forever memorialized in the hearts and minds of our people.
Long ago before acculturation and forced assimilation, our warriors and leaders led by example and they incorporated traditional virtues of courage, wisdom, honesty, fortitude, humility, generosity and loyalty as part of daily life. An eagle feather represented a heroic deed, perhaps a life saved, or something extraordinary, a way to gain favor with the women and the feather was much sought after. Spiritual men could earn feathers for healing and helping people.
Our leaders and warriors (living legends), proudly wore their honors or feathers into battle. Even warriors from different tribes recognized our heroes and tried to take the feathers from them during battle, “counting coup.”
Leaders such as Chief Joseph, Tecumseh, Chief Rain-in-the-Face, Chief Sitting Bull, Chief Bull Bear, Touches the Clouds a warrior, Brave Buffalo a Heyoka, Chief Roman Nose, Chief Satanta and others defended their people and also their culture and spiritual way of life. Feathers were a part of a traditional honor system. Young warriors were eager to do brave deeds to prove themselves worthy of an eagle feather also with hopes of capturing the attention of a female whose favor they sought.
There was a story behind how each feather was earned. Some warriors were awarded feathers for bravery after death that were given to their families who honored their warrior’s brave deeds and memory by carrying the feathers. Children had to earn their own Lakota names which had meaning. They had to prove to be worthy to wear their father’s headdress of eagle feathers.
When members of the leadership Strong Heart Society died, according to Lakota custom, wives or relatives kept their staffs and feathers to honor their courageous deeds and memory. Women could wear the feathers, the same markings and carry the same banners and regalia as their warrior husbands or relatives and were also eligible to wear their own feathers too.
Today due to centuries of acculturation, cultural erosion has diminished the value of eagle feathers for they have become commonplace. The eagle is disappearing just as our Indian blood is disappearing. The eagle’s body parts, wing feathers, tail feathers and plumes have become nothing more than a commercial commodity.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the conviction of Samuel Wilgus, Jr. an arrogant white man who was criminally prosecuted by federal authorities for a 1998 illegal possession over one hundred (100) eagle feathers. How many eagles were murdered to get these feathers? The law is far too lenient, in my opinion and this criminal, who is also a self admitted fake Indian, should have received one year in prison for each eagle feather that he illegally possessed. In the old days, a warrior society would have put him to death.
The federal permit process itself encourages inflation and devalues the meaning of eagle feathers because it ignores the spiritual protocols and Indian customs and traditions which placed a high value upon the eagle. A person who is totally ignorant about spiritual protocol or one who has minimal Indian blood can easily apply for a permit to possess eagle body parts and feathers and obtain them.
If one has Indian blood of 1/100, that person is ninety-nine percent something “other” than Indian. Don’t make us laugh. At some pow wows, the head of our sacred ancestor the eagle is paraded around on a stick. Is this the way to honor a relative who is cherished? This seems to me to be more like a “dishonor guard” than an “honor guard.” Something alive and sacred would represent our heroes better.
Our people have lost a truly valuable spiritual/merit system which once helped to create our heroes and legends. Too many people who have not earned eagle feathers and are not worthy are wearing eagle feathers. In the old days, a person had to be brave enough to earn the feathers and brave enough to defend these feathers from being taken, even to the point of death. Is anyone willing to do this today?
Eagle feathers have become status symbols and desirable objects of materialistic people. Non-Indians proudly show off their illegally obtained eagle feathers, saying they are “adopted” Indians, robbing us of our history and our distinguished symbols of honor.
A person can instantly become a “Chief” today and at our sacred Sundance, carry the largest eagle feather fan that money can buy. The poor Indian and those who follow our customs and traditions sit back unadorned but worthy and are forced to watch this shameful exploitation.
I remember my grandfather’s words, “I have become a stranger to this earth and the world has changed. But I have been unchanging. Will they put me too in a museum when there’s no longer any Indian blood left or will you, my granddaughter, defend my remains and remember what I have taught you about respect of our relationship to each other.” Was my grandfather speaking about himself or our ancestor the eagle?
Wambli Sina Win (Eagle Shawl Woman) is currently an Associate Professor and
Director of the Bacone College Criminal Justice Studies Department in Muskogee,
Oklahoma. Her grandfather was John Fire, Chief Lame Deer Tahca Uste, a well
known Lakota Holy Man from the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
One of her sons is also a medicine man. She has served as a Tribal Judge for the
Oglala Sioux Tribal Court, as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, a Tribal Attorney and
as a legal Instructor for the U.S. Indian Police Academy at Artesia, N.M. You
may contact Wambli Sina Win, J.D. at firstname.lastname@example.org She can be reached
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