Requesting feathers from the CPN Eagle Aviary
The Potawatomi people consider eagles one of the most sacred animals on earth. Oral tradition teaches that eagles fly so high in the sky that they deliver messages and prayers to Creator. As a sign of reverence, the Potawatomi use eagle feathers in ceremony, while smudging and as a part of regalia. Eagles molt from mid-March to late September, and during this time, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Eagle Aviary staff collects feathers at sunrise every day. They clean, smudge and sort them according to type and size before safely storing them in cedar cabinets, awaiting to fill CPN tribal members’ requests.
“That process actually really begins with the health and wellbeing of the eagles,” explained CPN Aviary Manager Jennifer Randell. “The bird will not molt if they are not healthy or are overly stressed.”
It requires a tremendous amount of energy and nutrition for birds to grow and replace feathers, and if strained, the trauma can become visible as lines that run across the shaft.
“Each stressful event will be reflected in their feathers,” said CPN Aviary Assistant Manager Bree Dunham. “We keep an eye out for stress bars, not just for the feather, but to know if we are providing the proper care and enrichment or if the level of exposure and amount of tours is affecting the eagles.”
Because of the importance that eagles hold in Potawatomi culture, many members incorporate eagle plumes into their regalia, including fans, bustles and more. However, each project requires specific types and sizes of feathers.
“Fans can be constructed from wing or tail feathers, depending on the type and design of the fan. Sometimes smaller plumes or body feathers may be used to ‘trim’ or finish the fan,” Randell said.
When Tribal members receive feathers to create a fan, staff suggest looking for the natural curve of the feathers and placing each in a way that mimics the natural wings appear on eagles.
“Keep in mind, our eagles have been injured. Most have a significant wing injury. They may actually be missing a portion of their wing,” Randell said. “Each eagle and the characteristics of those feathers are unique, so it is often hard to match a left of one to the right of another.”
For projects like bustles that require a large number of feathers, staff encourages CPN members to reach out to the National Federal Repository, but the Aviary also works with Tribal member over time, which includes multiple applications.
“Should individuals need more feathers for a fan or regalia, we ask that they include that in their application,” Dunham said. “While we may not be able to fill that request in one application, we can match feathers consistently.”
CPN members can request five feathers per application. Forms are accessible online at cpn.news/featherreq. After the aviary receives a request, staff confirm the individual is a Tribal citizen through Tribal Rolls. Before filling the request, CPN Tribal Chairman John “Rocky” Barrett also signs and verifies an applicant’s enrollment.
Aviary staff take tremendous pride in being able to provide this service to the Nation, smudging themselves and their workspace with mindful reverence.
“We take extra care to send these applications out in a good way,” Randell said. “We are all human and have bad days. But on those days, should one of us loose our temper or not be in a good place, we do not handle feathers or an eagle.”
Once staff fill a request, they cut foam to protect the feathers, and then safely place them inside a folder to be sent to or picked up by the applicant.
“Any member of a federally recognized tribe can have an eagle feather. Our applicants are required to be 18,” Randell said. “However, anyone, of any age, may be gifted a feather, whether it’s coming of age ceremonies, graduation, veterans coming home from deployment, when someone’s family member walks on, to honor that life, and many other ceremonies.”
Sometimes during naming ceremonies, the individual receiving their Potawatomi name will receive an eagle feather.
“Once you have been named, you then may be asked to name someone, and the namer will need a feather to preform that ceremony,” Randell said.
Once a feather has been used in ceremony or in regalia, if it falls on the ground, respect should be given to that feather.
“It represents a warrior who has fallen in battle. An elder veteran must pick up that feather and take care of it,” Randell said. “They decide if the feather(s) should be given back to the individual.”
Traditions also exist around women using and touching eagle feathers during menstruation.
“They have the ability to give life and are more powerful carrying that energy of creation. For this reason, women do not handle feathers during their moon time,” Randell said.
Feathers have two sides and represent the important role both men and women hold in the world.
“Like the day and the night, man and woman, or fire and water, we need those things to have balance in our lives,” Randell said. “Women speak for water, and our men are the fire keepers. Our ceremonies reflect that duality and the importance of both.”
Receiving an eagle feather is an honor and one of the highest gifts a CPN member can receive.
“From that day forward, you must carry yourself in a way so that you don’t disrespect that gift,” Randell explained. “Those feathers are a reminder of the duality in life, Mamagosnan (Creator) above us and the earth below, and we are a part of both.”
For more information on requesting feathers and feather care, visit potawatomiheritage.com. For regalia supplies, including fan handles, leather, beads and more, visit the Potawatomi Gifts website at giftshop.potawatomi.org.
Caring for Eagle Feathers
Feathers acquired from the Citizen Potawatomi Nation come from living eagles cared for at the CPN Aviary. Most of the eagles are permanent residents who were injured and are unable to be released back into the wild. These eagles require long-term permanent housing or they face euthanasia. Offering these eagles a permanent home and caring for them allows us to collect naturally molted feathers each year during the early spring and summer months. Once collected, these feathers are cleaned, if necessary, and prepared for dispersal to tribal members. The feathers are taken care of in a respectful Neshnabé way and are prayed over and smudged before they are sent to the applicants.
Feathers acquired from the Fish and Wildlife Services' National Eagle Repository, or Federal Repository, have almost certainly been frozen and thawed. The eagle was likely killed in the wild and exposed to the elements for some time. In some instances you may receive a whole bird. The wings and tail are the portions used for ceremony. The balance of the bird is generally not used, and should always be disposed of in a respectful way through ceremony. You need to put tobacco down in a private place where a fire can be started. Pray for guidance from the Creator, Mamogosnan, in using these feathers. Smudge yourself and all who assist in the ceremony. Remember that the eagle is a creature of the Winged Nation in our tradition that delivers the message each dawn to Mamogosnan. That prayer smoke still rises from the lodges of the Neshnabé – shows Mamogosnan that there are still faithful on this Earth. Because of the existence of the faithful, Mamogosnan makes the sun rise and the Great Circle of Life goes on another day. After placing cedar on the ground around the fire pit, start a fire with flint and steel where the tobacco was placed, burn sage and fan the smoke all over the remains of the bird. Then place the remains on the fire with our four sacred medicines: cedar, sage, tobacco and sweet grass. Burn as much as possible; bury the ashes and bones that remain in the ground at a depth where other animals will not dig them up. Offer a prayer in each of the four directions, and then thank the spirit of the eagle you now carry.
Using Eagle Feathers
Single feathers can be personalized and decorated by sewing a piece of leather around the quill and beading a pattern with a peyote stitch. One can also fasten a strip of leather to the quill with each end of the end of the leather strip paralleled on each side of the feather quill end, loop down, wrap in red yarn all the way down the quill end onto the leather, and tie off. The loop can then be used to tie the feather onto a flag or regalia - or simply as a handle.
Single feathers may be combined to create a fan and have a beaded wooden handle. Loose feathers should be stored in a cedar box to keep them away from moths. Instruct any others who receive feathers from you that they should be kept clean, away from animals, especially dogs, and smudged regularly. They should be told the story of the Eagle delivering the message to Mamogosnan that there are still faithful on the Earth, exhibited through rising prayer smoke, and convincing the Creator that this land should not be destroyed by cold from the sun not rising. That is why we fan the smoke up with an eagle feather when we bless a place or pray with smoke - the eagle is delivering the message, and the Earth is saved another day.
If feathers are dropped or dishonored in any way, they should be prayed over and smoked off. Only people of sufficient age to assume the responsibilities of ownership should have eagle feathers. The old traditions say that a young woman from the time of ovulation through menstruation is carrying the ability to make life, and manifests a spirit gift from Mamogosnan that is stronger than her feathers. For this reason, it is said that the respectful behavior to her feathers is to refrain from using them during the time of that cycle. This is a personal matter best left to the discretion of the feather owner, but a new owner should be told of the matter. Men should never use their feathers when a new life is being created. Always keep dogs away from the eagle parts, ceremony, and feathers.
Constructing a Whole Wing Fan
Remove all flesh from the feather tips and dispose of it as you have disposed of the other remains of the bird. Any body down or small feathers from the wings not used in your fan should be disposed of in the same manner.
If you are making an eagle feather fan, use the portion from the outer joint up (less all but seven of the round ended feathers), stripping the flesh and skin from the outer joint back to the shoulder joint. The bone (about 4" that will be in the handle) should be cut and bored out to remove the marrow, and braced into a straight position with a wood splint to elongate the angle at which the handle will be relative to the fan. Place the entire splinted bone structure end of the fan into desiccant (Twenty Mule Team Borax works very well or commercial desiccant is available from a taxidermy supply company) and leave for seven days. The bone end should be free from any odor by then or it has not been well cleaned. It is advisable to put the entire fan under a layer of desiccant in a long box. Carve the handle from cedar, split into two halves with a place for the bone carved into each inner face of the two halves. Put the two halves together and bind with sinew or leather twine. Cover the wood with a sewn rawhide leather cover reversed onto the wood after sewing and allowed to shrink. Decorate to your satisfaction with beading. You can choose to hang a small Megis shell from the upper beading on the handle. You should store and care for a fan in the same manner as single or loose feathers.