Thoughts by Richard Bleil
While in Rapid City, I was honored to have attended several rituals and gatherings of the generous and beautiful Lakota people and on the Rosebud reservation. I’ve written before about some of my experiences (certainly not all) with the Sundance and the sweat lodge and following ceremony to which I was invited. I’m not sure if I wrote of my experience in their Powwow although I believe that I have from the aspect of attending it wearing a police shirt.
But what I do not believe I’ve written on is the role of the Eagle Feathers. I’ve seen these in two of these events, the Sundance and the Powwow, and been simply amazed in both. Before I begin, I think I would like to take a moment to describe the Peace Pipe, a real thing in the Native culture, and far more significant than people might think. A lot of friction occurs between the Native People and police as, on rare occasions, these pipes end up in evidence rooms. The police often do not understand the cultural significance of these pipes, and often handle them with disregard and no more respect than one might handle a rock that had been used in an act of vandalism.
Historically, during the expansion of the west tobacco was smoked, but also very expensive. The Native People used it, as I understand it, as an offering in religious experiences, putting small amounts of it in little pouches and on the ceremonial Sundance tree as a gift to Mother Earth. (I really hope I’m near the correct understanding of this.) To offer tobacco to a traveler was not just a nice gesture, but a rather expensive gift at that. The pipes themselves are a very high spiritual significance, something I would liken to the toe bone of a saint to a Catholic. When they offer it the pipe, they’re offering something a great spiritual significance to themselves. The heads of these pipes are not fixed to the tube, and if you do not know how to properly hold the pipe, the head can easily come off and fall to the ground, a great insult to the one who offered it.
That the Native People hold such objects in such high spiritual regard is a tribute to their spiritual connection with Mother Earth. During certain seasons, the Native People will walk through the pathways around Mount Rushmore with a holy man. On occasion, when the Holy Man’s spirit speaks to him, he will stop and affix a small colored ribbon to a tree, and they will stop and pray. Non-Native visitors will often find these ribbons and remove them, which is honestly a way of desecrating the holy location. This is probably not intentional in most cases, but it does demonstrate the cultural differences and misunderstandings that are far too common.
The Eagle Feather is held in extremely high spiritual regard. At the Sundance, visitors such as myself were really not permitted to participate in any great way (although I did take our hosts up on the offer to make a flesh sacrifice, wherein thirteen pieces of my own flesh from each shoulder were offered up as prayer). Mostly we could sit in the guest area and watch as the Native People entered and exited the holy area to dance, their form of prayer. At the end of this remarkable religious event, we were asked to stand at the edge of the spiritual center, just outside of it, as the Native People walked past us on the inside, in the spirit world. It was not just a greeting, per se (as one might expect in a Catholic ceremony for example), but rather a spiritual cleansing. Each Native participant brought their very own personal Eagle feathers and cleaned the evil spirits from us. They would “brush” the aura near our bodies (never actually making physical contact), and shook the evil spirits clean from their feathers. Think of being outside and wiping a spill off of a picnic table with your hands because you forgot the paper towels. You’d scoop in clean, then shake your hand off. Dozens of Native Americans did this as they passed me, using the power of their Eagle Feathers to clean my filthy spirit. It was humbling, and remarkable.
At the Powwow, I witnessed the opening ceremony for the event. A Powwow, as I understand it, is a gathering of many tribes of Native Americans. Representatives of the Lakota Rosebud reservation were present, as well as participants from many other reservations and tribes. The opening ceremony had representatives from all tribes in full garb dancing to Native drums. Having seen the dancing at the Sundance, I suspect (but do not know for certain) that it was a prayer, no doubt for a healthy and good event. Suddenly, among the dancers, I saw an Eagle Feather (which is really not just one feather, but a group of feathers held together in a fashion analogous to a hand fan) on the floor. One of the dancers dropped his Eagle Feathers.
We, you and I, would probably have bent over, picked it up, and danced on, but the Eagle Feathers are too important to the Native People to just treat them like any ordinary object. The dancers respectfully danced around it, being careful to avoid contact with them until the dance (or perhaps prayer) had come to an end. The feathers remained where they fell, not moved an inch, as the Native people left the area. Then, nothing. A delay, until the announcer came on to explain that the feathers could not be moved until the proper ceremonies had been completed. There were prayers meant to show reverence to the feathers, to apologize to them for having hit the floor, and request permission to pick them back up.
It’s not the feathers. It’s reverence, and spirituality. They were not paying homage to the physical matter that comprised the feathers themselves, but rather to the spirits of Mother Earth, and to the ancestors which were represented within them. It’s a level of spirituality and respect for ancestors, for Mother Earth and what the feathers represent that is so rare in most other cultures today. It’s a connection that we lack, and that we must get back to if we ever hope to heal as a people.