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Unlike some of the dances we've presented on other pages, the Eagle Dance is not specific to one certain group. It is performed by many Native American Indians as part of their ceremonies. However, the details of the dance will vary from tribe to tribe. It is most commonly performed in early spring, but can be performed at any other time of the year. Because of this, we did not know which month to feature this dance under. So we chose August, simply because that is also the time of the Crow Fair (the biggest powwow) where all tribes come together.

But it is most commonly performed on the Jemez and Tesuque Reservations of New Mexico.

 

The eagle is considered a sacred and symbolic bird because of its ability to fly so high. Therefore, it is believed that it has the power to move between heaven and earth. The Native Americans have always regarded the eagle as having supernatural powers, especially to control rain and thunder. Because of this belief, many tribes such as the Iroquois, Comanche, Iowa and Midwestern Calumet have traditionally performed the Eagle Dance when divine intervention was needed for rain believing the eagle would carry up their requests to the gods.

The Eagle Dance portrays the life cycle of the eagle from birth to death. The dance shows how the eagle learns to walk, hunt and feed itself and it's family. A chorus of male dancers (wearing feathered war bonnets) provide the drumming and singing accompaniment for the dance. Two central dancers (dressed to look like the male and female eagle) have yellow paint on their lower legs, white on their upper arms and dark blue bodies.  Short white feathers are attached to their chests. These feathers are painted yellow. They also wear a wig-like cap made of white feathers with a yellow beak-like protrusion. Bands of eagle feathers also run the length of their arms. These two central dancers will make movements that imitate the eagle by turning, flapping and swaying.

It is believed that the Eagle Dance was once part of a larger ceremony that was performed by the ancients to bring rain at a time of year when crops were planted and so rain was essential.

 

The eagle is honored by North American Indians because it can fly closer to the Great Spirit than any human can.

This makes it a symbol for wisdom, power, and strength.

In some tribes the eagle also represents the sun (because it's flight symbolizes the sun's daily passage across the sky.)

 

The eagle feathers are sacred and regarded as the means by which the prayers of the Native Americans are carried to heaven. The feathers from the Golden Eagle and Bald Eagle are highly prized.  To wear an eagle feather is considered a great honor. 

Boys are often given eagle feathers when they reach maturity.

The proper handling of the eagle feather is crucial! This is especially true during the Eagle Dance.

Eagle feathers are NEVER allowed to touch the ground!  So, if a dancer drops one, he is instructed NOT to pick it up.  Instead a tribal elder (chosen in advance) is to do it. After the eagle feather has been picked up by the tribal elder, the dancer is suppose to thank him and show his appreciation with a gift.  Eagle feathers are also used to make ceremonial objects and ornaments.  They also play an important role in many Native American healing rituals.

How do you get an eagle feather? Eagles don't just donate their feathers. So getting one isn't easy. It never has been.

In the past, the Hopi Indians carried out special expeditions for the sole purpose of finding young eagles and removin them from their nests. These eagles were fed and cared for until their feathers were needed. When they were, they were killed and placed in a special burial ground for eagles.

When the Cheyenne Indians killed eagles for their feathers, they carried out a lengthy, complicated "apology" ritual beforehand. This was suppose to soothe the eagle's spirit and trick him into coming close enough so that he could be grabbed (by bare hands.)

Today, when the Native Americans need eagle feathers for special ceremonies, they apply to the government for a special permit. And, when dead eagles are found, government agencies (i.e. National Fish and Wildlife) see to it that their feathers are given to Native Americans who need them.

Return to our  August Holidays for more celebrations.

Source of Information:
"Holidays, Symbols & Customs  3rd Edition"
By Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

Note: The eagle flying animation is public domain.
It came with a white background. I redesigned it to be a transparent gif.
I also made one in reverse to fly in the opposite direction.

 

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