Editor’s note: In the Jan. 7 issue of the Casper Journal, Greg Fladager reported on cultural concerns many Native Americans have around eagle deaths at wind farms in Wyoming. To better explain the Native perspective on the eagle, Fladager interviewed members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe’s Council of Elders. The following story is an account of the interview concerning their spiritual traditions.
Most stories have a beginning, middle and end. But this one began before anyone remembers, the middle is always changing, and the end never comes. That’s what they were trying to tell me about the eagle.
“It’s always been there, and it will always be here,” said Crawford White, one of the four “old men” on the Northern Arapaho Council of Elders.
My plan had been to learn about the eagle’s significance in Native American culture, but it had become apparent my journey wasn’t going to be in a straight line, perhaps more of a circle. It was my second meeting with elders who have the right to speak for the Northern Arapaho tribe on their spiritual traditions, and I wasn’t much further along than when I began.
“I was going to leave it to you where you wanted to start,” I said at the beginning of the interview (after a traditional offering of tobacco). “The nature of the article is a feature, and it’s explaining your view of why the eagle is what it is, the sacredness of it, the spiritual things around it, the integration within your culture, because I don’t think people really understand that. I mean, they may have a vague idea that it’s special, but they don’t know why, and they don’t know how much, and they don’t know how integral it is.”
There was a long pause.
“I’m not sure quite where to begin,” I added cautiously. “I don’t know how to …”
“It’ll come,” White said gently.
After some thought, I finally said, “I guess we could start at the beginning.”
“Yeah,” one of the elders said, laughing.
“It’s very sacred. Very sacred … pretty high,” Crawford began, raising his hand over his head. “Sometimes we pray to it. We talk to it, we ask it for healing, we ask for good things. It’s a messenger to the Creator, and I don’t know how to really explain how high it is to us. It’s supreme. And a lot of our Indian people use that, not just us, other tribes, [it’s] that protection. Other tribes have their own way of using that.”
Crawford put the eagle in the context of the Northern Arapaho creation story, saying its significance was difficult to convey to those unfamiliar with native ceremonies and culture.
“After the creation – the water, the trees, the animals, people, everything the Creator created, man, woman, everything – and before He was going to go, man asked him, ‘Wo’ei, Wo’ei, wait, wait! How are we going to talk with you when we need help? How are we going to communicate?’ And the Creator told him, ‘I am the grass – through them you talk to me – I am the tree, I am the water, I am the bird, I am the animal. Through them you talk to me.’ What he said was, the body is sacred, and in our language, the heart, we say ‘be’teeh,’ that means holy; the backbone, ‘cecee,’ that’s the same name as the [sacred] pipe. The body itself is ‘be’teehnoo,’ holy body. So that’s why we respect everything. When I say Mother Earth, from there on, it’s our Bible.
“At times even the little bugs, the flies, all those things, sometimes you see in our paints [body paint at the Sundance], there’s quite a bit in the Arapaho way,” Crawford continued. “It kind of gives you a little bit of understanding who we are, the Arapahos. That’s why it’s so hard to explain to them out there.”
With us all the time
Crawford noted that certain sacred aspects of the eagle are only passed on orally, through direct teaching and experience.
“Over here, it’s really pretty sacred. Some things that we don’t even – there are some unwritten laws that we have to go by, that we don’t even like to have … unwritten laws have been handed down to us,” Crawford said. “So we have to go by those things, so this limits what we can say and what we can do because it’s so sacred. That’s the best way I can put it, of why we use it. We use it in our ceremonies, all of our ceremonies, not just one. It’s with us all the time.”
The conversation then took another turn as Leonard Moss spoke of the need to protect the traditions, particularly around the annual Sundance, the highest ceremony in the Northern Arapaho culture.
“It goes much deeper than what’s written in the books. It’s like a tradition, a lot of old people tell us this, it’s not written, unwritten laws, like Crawford said,” Moss commented.
“There are a lot of things that I don’t know about; I learn something new every day, I think all of us do,” Moss added. “But I just follow the protocols, how things are done. I do that, I just follow that, and it goes much deeper than that. But you have to ask questions, ‘How come we do this, how come we do that?’ And I don’t like to ask questions (laughter).”
“How come the eagle?” I asked.
“Well, it’s been used by the tribe for years. I don’t know, it probably goes way back because they used it in the Sundance. They used it to [get] help for us there,” then said Nelson White. “Why do they hang it up in the fork [the crux of the center pole in the Sundance arbor]? I don’t know … just go along with what they’re doing. There are other things that go along with that ‘something’ up there, it’s there all during the Sundance.”
Steve Weber, a close friend who had arranged for the meetings with the elders, then asked a question.
“So at the Sundance, these guys use eagle bone whistles and wings, so what’s the significance behind people calling like eagles and waving the wings? Can you talk about that at all?”
“Beeneah’a – whistles. Beeh’h – that’s the wind, asking for wind, a breeze, to bless yourself,” answered Crawford. “Like I say, that eagle is sacred, he knows. You use those wings and at the same time, you’re calling it. There are lots of reasons why we do things, those little things, that have meaning to our ways.
“There is a teaching that we have,” Crawford said. “Like your body, your body is sacred, don’t abuse it, because that’s the Creator’s power – it hears, it sees, it hurts – that’s the Creator’s power. He gave it to you. Take care of it, because your body is sacred.”
Crawford spoke of the sweat lodge, a purification ceremony that plays an important role in the Northern Arapaho culture, literally and symbolically.
“The same way with our ceremonies, our sweat lodges, there are meanings to the sweat lodges, our Arapaho sweat lodges,” Crawford said, while noting the domed shape of the lodge. “It’s the turtle, because the turtle is the one that brought us land. Those things, you think about them, it’s got to be that way; and there are a lot of misconceptions about what they call the sweat lodge … it’s a turtle.”
“Is there a time when maybe we were more like eagles then we are now, in different ways, spiritual ways?” Weber asked.
“As I said, the eagle’s pretty high. You can’t put yourself with him, you’ve got to stay below him. You can’t overstep your boundaries. Stay down here, be humble. That way you’re safer,” Crawford answered. “Eagles are important, very important, so we can’t just say, ‘All right, you could write anything about that eagle.’ We have to talk about it, we have to OK it.”
Why the eagle?
There were several others at the meeting, including George Leonard, a native healer, and Telano Groesbeck, who assists the elders.
“I just wanted to say something, back to Greg’s question that he asked earlier about why the eagle? Why not the crow, [or] the goose, maybe the owl, whatever, why the eagle?” Telano said. “I asked the same question to my Grandpa Felix when I was about 9 years old. ‘Why do the Native Americans hold the eagle so high?’ He kind of laughed and said, ‘You don’t know?’ And I said, ‘No, I really don’t. How do you explain it?’ And he said if you ever watch an eagle, it can walk on Mother Earth and it can fly to where the human eye can’t see it. So when he’s down here, he’s gathering our prayers … He’s a messenger; he takes everybody’s prayers up when he’s soaring around up there. That’s what he’s doing. He’s bringing [their prayers] up to the Creator. That’s what he told me. I said, ‘So, other birds can do that too.’ And he said, ‘But not as high as the eagle, to where the human eye can’t see.’ That’s what he shared with me about why the eagle, why that bird of all birds.”
“What it boils down to is prayer, like you heard Nelson say about creation, a messenger … He’s a symbol of hope. For a service member, our veterans, they’ve made sacrifices so that we can enjoy freedoms, the freedom of religion,” Leonard said. “On the flagpole there’s the eagle. It’s on top of things, like the Marine Corps emblem, they’ve got Mother Earth and the eagle on top. Wherever you look, it’s there. So in a lot of ways, that’s a symbol of strength, courage, however you’re going to look at it. It can also go in a lot of ways, it can go to a lot of directions, it goes all over, and it’s the king of the sky … There are a lot of ways we can go to communicate with the Creator. We pray and burn sweet grass. The eagle helps.”
“Let me ask just one or two more questions,” I said as the time was wrapping up. “Is it the spirit the bird inherently carries? Is it something you almost have to intuit, or is it an experience, or …?”
“It’s a spirit,” answered Crawford. “You know in springtime, when you hear the thunder, when you first hear that thunder? That’s that eagle hollering, waking everything up – the grass, even the ones underground. They wake up. It’s a new year for us. That eagle is the one waking everybody up, new life. Just thought I would mention that,” he said.
I should mention that as I was writing the story, a golden eagle (the one in the picture) came and landed on the roof of my home.
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