Kenora Daily Miner and News / Friday, August 20, 2010
There are a handful of eagle feathers in our home. Each of them comes with a story and each of them brings a particular energy from that story. When I look at them I recall the emotions and the honour I felt when they came to be in my possession. They represent something valuable and their worth goes beyond money.
Above my head in my writing space is a white feather. It was given to me by a member of the Sechelt Nation when I spoke there. It belonged to his grandmother and he wanted me to have it in recognition of my storytelling. In front of me in the same space are two golden eagle feathers bound together. They are a symbol of my marriage and the spiritual nature of that union. Two more hang above our door as a blessing to all who enter our home.
There are no feathers hanging from our rearview mirror in our truck or car. I have none dangling from any of my baseball caps or cowboy hat. There isn’t one tied to the neck of my guitar. I see a lot of other native people who do that but I remember the traditional teachings I was given about eagle feathers and choose to not offer mine for public display. They are linchpins to a way of being that ask only for my ongoing example of principle.
See, an eagle feather is an honour. It’s a symbol of character displayed. It’s a symbol of a principled life in action and more than anything it’s an indication that the people whose lives touch ours have recognized a special contribution, a valuable addition we’ve made to the circle of humanity. They’re not meant for show or vainglory. They are a device we use to connect ourselves to, and remind ourselves of, the essential spiritual nature of our lives.
That’s why the big flap over the right of native people to kill eagles for feathers frustrates me so. Sure, I know how much we depend on the symbol of those feathers in our ceremonies and in or celebrations and I value their significance on our powwow regalia. But when they discovered the butchered carcasses of 50 bald eagles on Vancouver’s North Shore in 2005 the clamour started. Outsiders claim that there is a huge black market for eagle parts. Native people claim that eagle feathers are a vital traditional and cultural symbol.
What’s ensued is a question of legal wrong and cultural right and vice versa. Canadian law says bald eagles are endangered and there are laws to protect them. Native people view the harvesting of eagle feathers as a cultural right and therefore beyond the scope of legality. The argument settles around what is an appropriate measure of justice when a people’s spiritual lives are involved. It makes for heady talk and the issue isn’t likely to be settled any time soon.
So the fight moved to the political arena. Native leaders cite section 235 of the Constitution. They claim that the right to take eagles is a treaty right. Well, it’s not. But we do have a right to the perpetuation of our spirituality and our traditions – not because we’re First Nations specifically but because we’re human beings. Everyone has the fundamental human right to know who they are and who they were created to be. Native leaders are in pursuit of that human right.
But it irks me how conceited and ego-driven our leadership can be. Instead of explaining to the Canadian public the value of eagle feathers to the perpetuation of our spiritual lives, the particular strength of that symbol to our cultural lives, native leadership gets all huffy and puffy, beat proudly on their collective chests and attributes it all to racism. Well, it’s not.
Bald eagles are protected because we’re not the only ones who see their value to the planet and to our vision of ourselves as people. We’re not the only ones who know that the loss of one heartbeat affects the common heartbeat of all of us. So we need to begin to educate our neighbours to those things that are vital to us. We need to speak people to people to clear up misconceptions and hearsay. We need to seek resolution to differences using the tool of good talk because that too is traditional and cultural and sacred.
To carry an eagle feather is an honour. It’s the representation of a life lived according to principle and to the desire to be spiritual, good-hearted, kind and compassionate. We can’t lose sight of that. We need to remember the recognition of integrity that allows us to wear them or keep them. Integrity talks. It tells its story. Our rights are gained through an earnest sharing of our stories.