The Significance of Feathers in Native Cultures

Feathers are a prominent symbol of the culture and history of Native Americans. Some of the most noteworthy achievements in the life of a Sioux citizen are those in which his family honors him for the things he has done. In the Sioux tribes and many other tribes across the country, Native Americans honor the achievements of their community, family and friends by awarding an eagle feather.

Eagle feathers today mark every modern-day milestone from military service to graduation, sobriety, life events or career achievement, and the award of an eagle feather is of great significance. To have enough eagle feathers to wear a headdress is a sign that the individual has performed great works in life.

However, the use of feathers originated in more serious and difficult times. They came when individuals guided communities, protected an encampment, captured resources from an enemy or necessarily took a life.  They also served as symbols of celebration, such as when someone earned a name, got married or served the community. And not long ago, wearing a headdress was the equivalent of a decorated military veteran.

Traditionally, Bald Eagles or Golden Eagles were the source of these feathers and Native Americans took only what they needed. Today, there’s an additional kind of stewardship involved. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes the spiritual and cultural significance of eagles to Native Americans and operates the National Eagle Repository to provide Native Americans with eagle feathers and other parts from naturally deceased eagles. Even then, a permit, proof of tribal enrollment and waiting period is required due to high demand.

Across America, there seems to be a disconnect when it comes to feathers, headdresses and what they mean to the Native cultures from which they originated. For tribal members, no matter the reason, to be sporting these items as attire or costume dishonors our cultures and traditions.

Misunderstanding across cultures is common, so it’s important for Native Americans to clearly communicate the significance of feathers — one of the few traditions that still passes through our generations. Today, awarding feathers is about celebrating life and marking our accomplishments, while continuing something significant that Native peoples have done for centuries. This is important, as there was a time when celebrating our traditions was forbidden, and it took many years of activism for that restriction to be lifted.

All that can be asked of anyone is to remember the roles traditions play in Native cultures and to rethink that Halloween costume or headdress you might wear to the Redskins game. The intention behind an action does not make up for the disrespect it may carry, and the entire Native population had to fight for the right to continue the tradition of eagle feathers in honoring their people.

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