Last week, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) posed as buyers on e-Bay to shut down a group in Alberta who were accused of selling, among other things, eagle feathers and eagle bustles to the public. Many of us find this positively horrendous. I’m certainly thankful that the RCMP are doing their part in shutting down this travesty to our Anishinaabe cultural heritage.
So that should have been it. But something else was nagging at me for the past few days since I read the story.
The underlying problem remains – there is a market for these “products” and those buyers are most likely First Nations people.
When I was very young and first learning from our Elders and traditional people, I was always surrounded by eagle feathers. While I was helping out with the pipe and with drum, I was using feathers for these purposes. Later, I was fortunate enough to be gifted with this greatest of honours. I can even pin-point the first time an eagle feather was given to me. It was during a celebration dinner at Casey’s in North Bay when I was given a small feather by my mentors.
I was told that this was the highest honour that one person can give to another Anishinaabe person. I was given the story of migizi (bald eagle). It was instilled to me that we must respect these sacred items. They all have a Spirit and a purpose. We were to clean them, dress them, keep them in a safe place, make proper use of them, feast them once a year or pass them on if we were not able to do these things. Since that time, my bundle has been filled with eagle feathers and two eagle whistles, and an assortment of other eagle parts for specific ceremonial purposes.
Still, to date, I do not have enough eagle feathers to put together a full eagle bustle. Yet we’re seeing more and more eagle feather bustles, headdresses and pieces of regalia on the pow-wow trail.
I’m confident that most of the regalia are coming from legitimate sources. Eagle feathers bustles are passed down from dancer to dancer. These are gifted in a good, kind way. Some Individual feathers can be collected near eagle nesting sites. On very rare occasions, full eagles can be found – dead of natural causes or the victim of a predator. When this happens, it is said that these eagles give up their lives so we can make use of these items.
Many more eagles are killed “accidentally” at the hands of man. From time to time, trappers find bald eagles and golden eagles in their traps. Some are electrocuted on power lines. Others come to an unfortunate end as road-kill on the highway. The Ministry of Natural Resources sometimes receives these eagle carcasses and, depending on the district offices, have protocols to provide these to Anishinaabe communities. Although avoidable and tragic, these incidents could be considered to be accidental.
With the sad loss of these majestic birds, comes the good fortune for Anishinaabeg to use their feathers and body parts.
Unfortunately, we’ve heard too many stories of unscrupulous hunters poaching bald eagles and golden eagles for their parts. This case in Alberta is just the most recent. A few years ago, there was another high profile case in British Columbia.
It’s easy to point the fingers at these hunters. It makes us angry. We all feel there is no place for this type of hunting. The eagle is one of the most important birds for us and taking them in this dishonourable manner is outright wrong and intolerable.
But it is far more difficult to look back at ourselves. The reality is that somewhere, there are First Nations people that are buying these eagle parts. Somewhere in Indian Country, dancers are buying these eagle bustles. A market – black, grey, red or otherwise – requires a product and a consumer. It’s simple supply and demand.
When we purchase eagle feathers, bustles, eagles staffs, eagle whistles, claws, wings, heads – we are degrading the Spirit. We are relegating these sacred items to products or commodities. As such, we are showing absolute disrespect to our brothers, migizi (bald eagle) or ginew (golden eagle).
Let me be clear, when we acquire eagle feathers and items in this way, or when we use items acquired in this way, they are no longer sacred. Could this be why we’re seeing so many eagle feathers falling during pow-wows?
When we put down our tobacco as an offering, we have to ask our own Spirit and the Spirit World around us – “What is migizi or ginew saying to us?” You’ll quickly realize that distinctive cry of the eagle surely isn’t one of freedom, it’s one of pain.
As a member of the Eagle Clan, migizi dodem – I hope the answer we all find protects my clan brothers. I also hope that our cousin ginew is also looked after.