Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


The Significance of the Eagle to the Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



Among the many birds held in superstitious and appreciative regard by the aborigines of North America, the eagle, by reason of its majestic, solitary, and mysterious nature, became an especial object of worship. This is expressed in the employment of the eagle by the Indian for religious and aesthetic purposes only. The wing bones were fashioned into whistles to be carried by warriors or used in ceremonies, and the talons formed powerful amulets or fetishes, having secondary value as ornaments; the feathers were, however, of the greatest importance. The capture of eagles for their feathers was a hazardous branch of hunting, requiring great skill. Among some tribes eagle-killing was delegated to certain men. Owing to the difficulty of getting within bowshot of the bird, it was often trapped, or the eyrie was visited to secure the young. Eagles are still kept in captivity by the Pueblo Indians as in the time of Coronado (14th Rep. B. A. E ., 516, 1896). The striking war bonnet of the Plains tribes was made of eagle feathers and was highly valued, for it is said that one pony was the price of a perfect tail of 12 feathers of the "war eagle;" i. e., the white plumes with black tips. Other varieties, with bars across the feathers, are regarded as inferior (Mooney). Warriors of the Plains tribes usually wore the feathers of the golden eagle only, and it is probable that the customs of many tribes prescribed like discriminations as to feathers of different species. Many tribes wore one or more eagle feathers in the hair, and these feathers were often cut, coloured, or otherwise decorated with some cognizance of the wearer. It was the custom of the Pillager Chippewa to allow a warrior who scalped an enemy to wear on his head two eagle feathers, and the act of capturing a wounded prisoner on the battlefield earned the distinction of wearing five. Fans made of the primary feathers of the eagle formed an accessory to the costume of the Sioux and other tribes. Eagle feathers were also attached as ornaments to the buckskin shirts worn by men, and war costumes and paraphernalia, including shields, were ornamented with them. As one of the prominent totemic animals, the eagle gave its name to many clans and religious fraternities. It is probable that nearly every tribe in the United States recognising clan or gentile organization had an eagle clan or gens at some period in its history:


The eagle held an important place in symbolic art. It was depicted by all the methods of art expression known to the Indian, appearing on pottery, basketry, textiles, beadwork, quillwork, shields, create, totem poles, house and grave posts, pipes, rattles, and objects pertaining to cult and ceremony. It was also represented in the primitive drama connected with ceremonies. Many tribes possessed eagle deities, as the Kwahu, the eagle kachina of the Hopi of Arizona, and the Eagle god of the Miwok of California.


Among the Haida, passes made with eagle fans were thought to be effectual in conjuring, and this use reappears in many tribes. The wing-bones were often employed as sucking tubes, with which medicine-men pretended to remove disease. The Tlingit and other North Pacific tribes used eagle down for ceremonial sprinkling on the hair, masks, and dance costume; it was also scattered in the air, being blown through a tube or sprinkled by hand. The Pawnee and other Plains tribes as well as the Pueblos also used the down in ceremonies, and it was probably a general custom. Among the Hopi the eagle is generally associated with the Sky god, and its feathers are used with discs to represent the Sun god (Fewkes).


The use of eagle feathers in religion is nowhere better shown than among the Pueblos, when downy plumes are attached to masks, rattles, prayer-sticks, and other cult objects entering into ceremonies. For this purpose a great quantity of feathers is yearly required. The Hopi clans claimed the eagle nests is the localities where they formerly resided, and caught in traps or took from the nests eaglets, whose down was used in ceremonies. The eaglets, when required for feathers, have their heads washed; they are killed by pressure on the thorax, and buried with appropriate rites in special cemeteries, in which offerings of small wooden images and bows and arrows are yearly deposited. The interior Salish also are said by Teit to have property in eagles. Near the present Hopi villages there are shrines in which offerings of eagle eggs carved from wood are placed during the winter solstice for the increase of eagles. Among the Zuñi, feathers shed by their captive eagles have special significance, though the feathers are also regularly plucked and form a staple article of trade.


Then mythology of almost every tribe is replete with eagle beings, and the wide-spread thunderbird myth relates in some cases to the eagle. In Hopi myth the Man-eagle is a sky being who lays aside his plumage after flights in which he spreads devastation, and the hero who slays him is carried to the house in the sky by eagles of several species, each one in its turn bearing him higher. The Man-eagle myth is widely diffused, most tribes regarding this being as a manifestation of either helpful or maleficent power.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 135-137.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College