When the Eagle Feather Drops
By Boye Ladd
More than 200 years ago, there was a story about two tribes who were bitter enemies, always fighting over hunting territories, horses and women. At that time, most tribes were nomadic on the Plains, following the buffalo and game.
There was a large war party, estimated in the hundreds, whose dust from their horses could be seen for miles. The battle went for days, as war parties charged and then retreated. Many coup and scalps were taken.
During one of the invading party's retreats, a feather had fallen and was left behind.
Only distinguished warriors have the right to wear eagle feathers. Each eagle feather represents life taken in battle. The notching and coloring of eagle feathers represented various brave deeds in the taking of the enemy.
One of the warriors who was in pursuit noticed the eagle feather and notified the war chief. The chief stopped the pursuit and told his warriors, "If these people are truly warriors and respect this feather, they will come back to retrieve it."
So they immediately set up an ambush and waited. Finally, that night a small group of the enemy returned, searching the ground and bushes. As they approached the feather, they were captured, tied and blindfolded.
The captured enemy began singing their death songs since their fate was inevitable.
But, when they were taken to the village, the chief gave a feast and gifts to the captives. He announced to his people, "Even though we are bitter enemies, the respect and meaning of the eagle feather is the same. We are all taught by the same Great Spirit and should respect his teachings." Their wounds were taken care of, they were given fresh horses and sent on their way with this message.
This message still remains among many of the traditional tribes of the Plains who follow the powwow way of life.
"If our ancestors could stop an entire war to retrieve an eagle feather, then it shouldn't be too hard to stop a powwow to do the same."
Historically and, traditionally, it is the right of any wounded warrior to retrieve a fallen eagle feather. The eagle feather is the spirit of a fallen warrior and can only be matched in power by the same. This practice still remains over the centuries and should not be altered because of the consequences. Recording and photographing such a ceremony is strictly forbidden. The spirit will show itself in its own time, especially to the young and innocent.
One cannot emphasize enough the importance of maintaining a clean body and spirit free of any "bad medicine" at powwows, especially in the presence of many distinguished warriors.
Over the last 30 years, powwows have become more than just a profession, but a way of life. Ceremonies such as this have not changed because this is the foundation upon which the powwow was originated. It is the right of all veterans, dressed in (regalia) or not, to dance in any powwow arena.
Those tribes who adhere to strict traditions and customs will allow only wounded veterans to dance and retrieve the spirit of the feather.
The powwow of today uses four veterans, to represent the four directions, to dance around the feather. The first two verses are straight verses with no downbeats, paying respect of the Creator and the spirit of the fallen warrior. The next four verses will have the dancers charge the feather on the downbeat. The downbeat represents the cannon and gunfire in any song, so in the case of this ceremony, the veterans are charging the gunfire of the enemy.
Each will charge with his right hand extended to "touch" or take coup. Those who have not taken coupe will use an eagle fan, because they are not strong enough to touch the spirit. Again, this is very important to follow, because of the grave consequences to be paid if one insults the spirit.
After the sixth verse, the honored veteran will pick the feather up with his left hand and give a war whoop to acknowledge the capture of the spirit of the feather.
When receiving or touching anything holy, one must always use the left hand. This tradition is respected by all traditional tribes. Once the feather is picked up, the warrior will face the east and acknowledge the spirit world in his own language. It is imperative not to lie during the whole ceremony because of the presence of the deceased warrior.
The veteran is addressing both the spirit of the fallen warrior and the spirit world, and he must appease the spirit by telling an actual war story. This story should be humble, with a lesson or message for all to learn from.
Many times these stories have saved lives because of the lessons contained in them.
When the story is finished, the warrior will return the eagle feather to the person who dropped it. By bringing the spirit back from the spirit world, it will return to its owner. The owner will usually give whatever they can as payment for such a ceremony. It is usually determined by the amount of respect that the owner has for the spirit of the eagle feather.
It is a wise thing to ensure that all eagle feathers worn in the powwow arena be properly obtained and cared for traditionally. The feathers should be respected for what they are— a life."