"Eagle Dance" by George Catlin. 1845-'48. Image credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum
Evidence of the Bald Eagles iconic stature in American culture can be found everywhere -- from the coins on your dresser to TV commercials,but few folks realize the extent of the eagles influence on native American culture. To learn more, I sought out Abenaki writer and traditional storyteller Joseph Bruchac, the best-selling author of Keepers of the Earth and other childrens books.
Whats the earliest mention of an eagle in Native American history? You can find eagles frequently mentioned in the glyphic writings of the Mayans and Aztecs of Mexico and central America. According to the Aztecs, their capital city of Tenochtitlan (where Mexico City now is) was founded in the 14th century, its site chosen because they saw an eagle there clutching a serpent.
According to the traditional native stories of what is now the United States, eagles were here before there were people and there are stories told, for example, among the Pueblo nations of the southwest such as the Zuni of a boy becoming an eagle. It is also a part of the story of the Iroquois League of Peace. There are countless stories throughout the continent that show the great respect and even awe in which the eagle is held. Why is the Bald Eagle so revered so many tribes? It is widely regarded as the chief of the birds. Its flight takes it highest into the sky toward the place of the Sun and the Great Mystery, the Creator. Its large, black and white feathers, are widely used for regalia and to honor people. An eagle feather is often used in blessing someone by fanning them or touching them with the feather.
Did any tribes think ill of the Bald Eagle, and why? There are some stories--such as those told among certain of the tribal nations of the northwest--of a time when there were Giant Eagles that hunted and ate humans. In some versions, those eagles are killed by a hero figure and from their feathers came to eagles we have today. But you could not say that any tribal nation thought ill of eagles--unlike owls. Owls were often seen as bringers of bad omens--such as impending death. And owls were often associated with bad magic or sorcery.
Have some tribes traditionally forbid killing Bald Eagles? Eagles were killed for their feathers, in some cases such as among the Pueblo nations of the southwest, eagles would be kept in cages for that use. Plains people dug eagle catching pits, with brush over the top. A dead rabbit would be placed in top of the brush and the person catching the eagle would wait beneath to reach up and grab the eagle by its legs. Then it would be smothered (never struck, for that was disrespectful). But this was not done often nor by everyone. Only as needed. And the eagle was always honored ceremonially and thanked for giving its life.
What do you remember about the first time you saw one in the wild? I was a kid trout fishing with my Dad in a pond called Little Round Top, not far from Indian Lake in the Adirondacks. There was a thirty foot tall pine tree snag sticking up out of the water near the pond edge, close to where we were fishing. A Bald Eagle came swooping in and landed on that pine snag. Then it folded its wings and turned to look down at us. It was a moment that took my breath away, one I'll never forget.
How do you view the Bald Eagle? I personally view the Bald Eagle as one of the most majestic and beautiful of American birds. It always thrills me to see one in flight, and I feel as if it is a good omen.
E-mail Jim at email@example.com
Jim Wright writes The Bird Watcher columnist for The Record and the Herald-News. He is the author of four coffee-table books about wild places, and the deputy marsh warden of the Celery Farm Natural Area in Allendale, N.J. Got a question or suggestion?
You can view the Duke Farms Bald Eagle nest on streaming video here.