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  • Sharron Montgomery Pena

Feathers and Sacred Journey

Feathers represent spirituality in many different religious beliefs. Even the bible speaks of the holiness and purity of feathers because angels are the purest and most divine creatures of God’s creation. Wiccan practitioners use feathers to smudge or cleanse spaces of negative energy. It is however the Native American people who hold the sacred feather in utmost importance in prayer and ceremony. It embodies a direct connection to the bearer of the feather, the Creator and to the spirit of the bird.

I am fortunate to have spent time with the Native American people at various powwows where we have been hired to provide programs, as well as in private settings. I have experienced things that many may only read about or hear about through second hand accounts. Yet I am certainly no expert on the medicine of feathers. It is however their connection to feathers that brings us into the sacred circle with our birds, and allows us to learn as well. We are honored be a part of these exciting events that bring the Native people from all tribes together and a crowd of enthusiastic and adoring spectators.

The eagle feather is the most sacred of feathers and you will usually find it adorning the ceremonial dress (regalia) of many of the dancers, especially the dance considered men’s traditional. These dancers embody the spirit of the warrior and their bravery and strength is carried forward in the powerful medicine of the eagle’s feathers.

Women often wear a single eagle feather on their head as well. Eagle feathers are also used in prayer as the eagle is considered the bird that flies the highest in the sky and on its wings carries our prayers to the Creator.

Most people often visualize the bald eagle as the “eagle” of legend, but I have seen many golden eagle feathers among the dancers as well as the feathers of immature bald eagles (brown and white spotted).

The red tailed hawk is another bird of prey that symbolizes protection for the warrior in battle. The feathers are also associated with prayer and ceremony. Depending on the individual tribe, the importance of the red tailed hawk may be of similar significance to that of an eagle. I have seen red tailed hawk feathers and occasionally other raptors’ feathers adorning regalia, but in my experience, the eagle feathers are more common especially in traditional dances.

These feathers are treated with the utmost care and respect. They are never left lying on the ground, and often dancers will bring a stand so that they can be suspended off the ground in between dances, or rounds. Feathers are often protected in cedar boxes to discourage insects and are presented to the wearer ceremonially or passed down among family members.

Overall, Native Americans are exempt from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act which prohibits the general public from possessing feathers, parts, or entire birds of prey without proper permitting. It is this recognition of the feathers' religious and cultural significance which allows a certain amount of recognition and dignity to the ceremony and traditions of Native peoples, a small token considering all that has been lost over the past hundreds of years since the Europeans landed on the North American continent.

I believe that when we bring our birds into these powwows and festivals that we are given a unique opportunity to share the living example of what these feathers represent. We love to demonstrate the grace and persistence of the hunt. We aspire to bring the sacredness of the feathers to life in the beauty of the flight. Want to know more about Native culture? Make sure that you are getting your information from tribal sources. Attend a powwow and ask the people who want to share their heritage with you, they are the true keepers of this knowledge.

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