by Denny Olson

It’s been a busy winter of Christmas Bird Counts, Flathead and Mission Valley raptor surveys and Short-eared Owl roosting research. Birds are everywhere, all-the-time on this Planet. The winter, and the surveys, are not done with me yet. That’s why it seems counterintuitive to be sitting here thinking about breeding birds just hours past an overnight minus 32 degrees, still unable to see out my completely frosted windows. But it is the symbolic beginning of resident bird watching for me. Canada Jays, Great Horned Owls and Great Gray Owls are already winking, hooting, singing, and displaying toward the opposite gender. In February and March, they’ll be courting in earnest, mating, nest-building, and laying eggs.

But the earliest of all is our national symbol of past destruction, endangerment and redemption, the Bald Eagle. This bird will be cartwheeling with its mate in spectacular displays just about when this issue of the Post is published. To me, that’s the official beginning of that glorious time we call the spring breeding season. 

Eagles are a great rescue story, largely due to Rachel Carson and her minions, going from the metaphorical depths to the “They’re all over the place” heights. We think we know how they became so rare and endangered (DDT and other persistent insecticides), but causality rarely digs beyond symptoms to the multi-layered depth of problems. A Caucasian American might point to the obvious, the unrestricted killing and the use of poisons for insect control. But Native people know better, on the deeper symbolic level. To many First American Nations with a much longer time frame, Eagle represents vision and a connection with the spirit world. Eagle is a reminder that connections are far more important than differences, and a people that forgets this will have little need for messengers between worlds. Their version? The Bald Eagle was almost gone because it did not feel needed or wanted. It was waiting for our enlightenment.

Once long ago, according to Ojibwe tradition, leaders and medicine societies began to use their power for selfish reasons. They made people fear them, distorted truth, and took the lives of others for personal gain. The Creator was angry at the twisted sickness on Earth and decided to destroy everything after four days had passed. Just before dawn on the fourth day, Eagle flew from the space between dark and light, up toward the Creator. They screamed their song four times to get Creator’s attention. Creator agreed to hold the dawn until Eagle had held council. They smoked the pipe.

Eagle admitted to Creator that the world was full of evil, but he also said he had seen a few humans who had remained true to the teachings of kindness and harmony. Here and there the sacred tobacco smoke still rose from a lodge. Eagle saw humility in the ways of some people and pleaded with the Creator to call off the coming destruction in their name and offered a deal. If Eagle could fly over the Earth and report every day to Creator that there were still some who followed the good road, Creator would not destroy the world. If there was someone doing a good deed, sounding the Drum, observing the Sacred Circle through the Pipe, or thinking of the unborn, Eagle would report to Creator that there was still hope in the world. Creator agreed, saying that the deeds of the born should not overrule the promise of the unborn.

Eagle still flies to the Sun every day, and I like to think that we are still under observation by the messenger. I wonder if things today look better than they did back when the deal was struck … Climate change, overpopulation, persistent wars, famine, degradation of biodiversity, worship of selfishness, viciousness in politics – all of these must give the Eagle pause …

That’s why, when I see an Eagle soaring high to deliver the daily news, I try to send thoughts of humility, connection to everything still wonderful on our earth-bound world, and a passion to keep it that way. And I try to remind Eagle that I’m not alone in those thoughts. Witness … all of you. That’s why gratefulness is also part of my telepathic message. 

Happy power-birding this year.

(My thanks for this story and much other wisdom to an Ojibwe Midew and Mentor, the late Waasa Inaabidaa (Dee Bainbridge) of the Bad River Band of Ojibwe).