There are eagle feathers that adorn our mountain home. They came to me through ceremony or acts of gratitude from people I worked with, or shared something special with. Each of them has a story and significance and I take pride in their presence in my home and my life. There is a pair from my wedding hung in my workspace. There are two hung above our entryway as a blessing for everyone who comes here. There is an eagle wing fan I use for prayer and ceremony.
They are beautiful things. What they represent to me is beautiful too although in the beginning I had a very limited idea of the teachings they carried. I understood that they represented honor and courage and a life lived on principle but I didn’t know much else. For a time, getting an eagle feather was a huge focus in my life. I was under the assumption that to have one was to carry a stamp of approval, of belonging, of measuring up in the cultural scheme of things. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
`But I was as much a victim of misinformation as anybody, Native or non-native. Having grown up without my culture I relied on books, television, and movies to inform myself of what I mistook as genuine representation of myself. I saw great stoic and noble warriors wearing elaborate war bonnets or feathers hung from the back of their heads in battle and I believed that those feathers were all about fearlessness, courage and the whole ‘today is a good day to die’ thing,
Then I had a conversation with an elder friend when I was in my mid thirties. He was preparing some feathers for his powwow regalia and readying some to be given away at a ceremony we were attending. I told him about my fascination with the meaning of feathers to our people and he handed me one and asked me to look at it. I studied it for a while, ran my hand along its length, turned it over a time or two but I had no idea what he wanted me to see. When I gave it back to him he smiled and said there was a virtual university within that feather.
Look again, he said. As I studied it he told me where to look. He pointed to the spine and said that the spine that ran the length of it was the road of our life. It’s thicker and fuller at the base and then gradually thins and softens and disappears eventually. Just like we do. In our early years we absorb learning. Our hearts and minds and spirits drink in everything. But as we grow we tend to forget our reliance on innocence and trust and humility. We become more concerned with practical things. But the teachings are always with us. In that it represents our life’s journey.
Along both sides of that spine are hundreds of fine filaments that together make up the body of the feather. Each of those filaments represents a teaching that we gather as we travel. Each teaching helps us to become whole. There are teachings about relationships, work, community, well being, honesty, truth and principles meant to form the foundation of our days. Everything that we do as a matter of course in our life has the potential for teaching if we choose to look. So like that feather we are a sum of all the teachings we gather in our life.
One side is always wider than the other. That’s because some teachings are more vital than others but there are all necessary in order for the eagle and we humans to achieve grace, to soar higher, to see further. Then he said if I turned the feather over I would see that it becomes its opposite. That’s because there are stronger and weaker teachings that come to us through stronger or weaker choices. Our life becomes whole when we can see the teachings that come to us through the power of choice.
The eagle has the gift of vision. The feathers enable him to achieve the height necessary see a long way. When we reflect on our lives we come to recognize the effect of teachings, even those we perhaps didn’t recognize as such when they were happening for us. To be given an eagle feather is to be recognized for having the vision and the courage to live a life based on principle.
My life becomes more when I learn where to look. There are teachings everywhere and the ones I choose to find through the power of strong choice flesh my life out, make it fuller, let me soar. The eagle feathers in our home represent strong choices. They are my daily reminders.