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.
It takes around a year or more to fill a request depending on size and type of project the request is for, time of year the application is submitted, steps required to complete the application and the rate at which the eagles naturally molt.
“That process actually really begins with the health and well-being 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 an eagle’s natural wing shape.
“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 encourage CPN members to reach out to the National Federal Repository, but the Aviary also works with Tribal members 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.