by Denny Olson

I am an Eagle. 
The small world laughs at my deeds,
But the great sky keeps to itself 
My thoughts of immortality           

 – Taos Pueblo Song

It felt like a coffin. I was lying on my back in what appeared to be a shallow grave. It was two feet deep and lined with old lichen-covered rocks. It was late winter on the prairie, but on this day the sun previewed summer, and there was no snow where I rested. As I lay there, watching the blue-white midday sky, a dark form silhouetted itself high in the sky, flying in from the east, the direction my head pointed. Another one came in from the same direction. They began to circle each other lazily, and tightened the spiral until they were almost touching. Suddenly, one of the forms flipped over. The move was startling in its contrast to their smooth flight. Talons locked, they plummeted in freefall, cartwheeling over like a critically injured kite. Almost at the ground they separated and began again to capture the updrafts in slow flight. It was 1972, and I did not know then about the romantic habits of Bald Eagles in March. 

When I first found the old eagle-catching pit, I had only laid down inside from curiosity. I wanted to know what those young Mandan boys had felt during this rite of passage. In order to allow their own spirits to travel to Father Sky, they had to lure an eagle messenger down to them. The pit was covered with vegetation and a tethered live rabbit sat above the boy, as bait. When an eagle struck, there could be no mistakes. If the bird was not grabbed exactly right, above the powerful talons, there could easily be crippling injury — both to boy and bird. I tried to feel the euphoria and adrenalin they must have felt, knowing the danger and opportunity which came with the Eagle. If the boy was successful, he would pull two tail feathers, a gift from the spirit world, and let the Eagle return to the sky, a gift to the Wind and the Sun. 

I was given the gift of the Eagle mating dance only minutes after I laid down. It was up to me to make sense of this pleasant surprise. I’m still working on it. 

To Native people, eagles were the emissaries from the sky. Eagle feathers were sacred pieces of spirit — never worn as casual adornment, but as reflections of a person’s vision and accomplishments. They were expressions of bravery, good judgment, humility and special perspective. Feathers were, and are, constant prayers floating on the wind, back and forth from our world to another which is invisible to us. Eagle feathers are the dreams of the seer, the freedom of choices, the link between the material and the ether. The flight of the Eagle is the release of our earthbound nature, and the joyous passage to the next world. When we transcend any of our human limitations, we fly with the Eagle.

It is irony that environmentally aware white Americans want to protect eagles and they resent traditional uses by a people who lived harmoniously with Eagle for thousands of years. How did Eagle get so rare and endangered? A white American might point to the obvious, the unrestricted killing, the use of poisons for insect control. Done, of course, primarily by white Americans. Native people know better. 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. According to many native elders, the Eagle once was almost gone because it did not feel needed or wanted. And a case could be made that it is still waiting for our enlightenment.