Earning My Eagle Feather
(A symbol of Respect, Integrity, Character and Wisdom)
First let me say that “An Eagle Feather” can not be purchased, rented or acquired in any way.
It is only given openly and freely by a First Nations Native to a person that he/she trusts and respects.
Our local Historical Society was holding a dedication ceremony. They invited the local First Nation tribe to participate.
The natives built a Sweat Lodge. They dug a hole then built a dome over the hole and covered it with tarps leaving a small door to crawl into the lodge. They built a big fire and heated large rock until they were red hot. They then put the hot rocks into the hole in the lodge. The Sweat Lodge ceremony consists of three (5 minute sessions) in the lodge with 5 minutes outside the lodge to cool down. It is supposed to be a spiritual experience communing with earth, fire, air and water.
I could only take the first 5 minute session. In the first session, you are asked to think about the women who brought us into this world. In the second session the participants were asked to think about all the bad thing that have been done to women. And in the third session everyone is asked to think about you can make it up to the women you have wronged in any way.
After the Sweat Lodge Ceremony was completed, the natives served a Moose Meet supper.
After the supper I went over to the man who directed the Sweat Lodge. I asked him: “Sorry for my ignorance, but what do I call you, a medicine man?” He responded: “As a white man, you can call me a medicine man, but I have earned the title of Sun Dance Chief”. He turned and walked away, clearly disgusted with this ignorant white man.
About 6 months later, I was hired by the Band Council to teach Behavioural Psychology (People Skills) to 24 of their front line community workers. These were local natives who worked directly with their own community. (Nurses, social workers, teachers, counsellors, ambulance drivers, addiction counsellors)
The first thing you need to know about First Nations people is that the start time is “when I get there”. 9:00 am still means I’ll be there when I get there. What I learned was that “when we start I will have their undivided attention until we are done”. In other words don’t sweat the small stuff.
I arrived at 8:30 to set up and start at 9:00 sharp. Well they all got there by about 9:20.
I arranged the chairs in a circle. Before I could open my mouth, a very large “Reluctant” guy stood up and said: “You can’t have a talking circle, you are not one of us”. So, I arranged the chairs in the shape of a “D” and he seemed to be OK with that.
Sitting beside my “Reluctant” guy was the Sun Dance Chief from 6 months ago. I was thinking that this was going to be a very interesting five days.
The first four day went reasonable well. I could see the lights turn on so to speak in each participant. I could see that they got the points I was trying to give them. At the beginning of each day I could tell that some of them had tried to apply their new bit of learning. Everyone participated in the role playing. (Practicing the Counselling and Coaching Communication Process).
On the last day, I asked them “What do you want to do now?” They said: “We want you to go out of the room and we will pick a person we want you to do a role play with.” I could tell I was being set up. OK let do this. When I came back into the room, there was the Sun Dance Chief (William) waiting for me with a grin on his face. He was a bit of an actor anyway with his Sweat Lodges.
We were put in the center of the room on two chairs facing each other. The others were in a circle around us. In this role play, they wanted William to play a character who was suicidal and an alcoholic. I was to be his counsellor.
We started the role play and without a word of a lie, the room seemed to fade away. I was no longer aware of the other people around us. It was just William and me talking.
We began talking about his interest in suicide. In exploring other things in his life, I found that his kids were the greatest value to him. We talked about how he would kill himself. But what turned his thinking around was “What message he would be telling his kids if he did kill himself”
Near the end of the role play I asked him to promise to call me if he got serious about suicide again. He said: “You’ll just try to talk me out of it.” I said “of course I would, but you might listen too”. Reluctantly he muttered “I promise”.
We were just about done when I went back and said: “That promise to call me just isn’t good enough, I want a commitment not just a promise”. He struggled with that and squirmed in his chair. He finally said: “OK, OK I’ll make that commitment.”
We finished the role play and the group went through the normal debriefing. I felt at the time that it was the best role play that I had ever done. The point of the role play was to demonstrate the uses of the training I was giving. I was trying to show them how to use this stuff. I was hoping that “they” would learn some things.
We finished up the paper work and settled into a “calm” before the graduation ceremony.
I gave out the first nine certificates. They were all proud of their participation and for what they had learned. They congratulated each other and were genuinely happy for each other.
I then called for my first “Reluctant” guy. I still remember how huge he was. He thundered across the room and gave me a bear hug. He whispered in my ear: “Thanks man, I haven’t been able to talk with my kids in years, now I can.” I was a little choked up especially hearing that from a man who looked like he could squash me like a bug.
I then called for William (our Sun Dance Chief). As he walked across the room, he pulled out of his jacket two object that were just a bluer at this point. He gave me a bear hug too then stepped back, ready to make a speech for everyone’s benefit.
He said: “You have given us a gift that we can use to help ourselves, now our people can help our people. When you give me a gift, I will give you a gift.” He then handed me an Eagle Feather and a Sweet Grass Braid. The room erupted in applause and whoops.
The school principal leaned around to me and said: “A little choked up are you?” I was shocked, dumfounded, blown away to say the least. I wasn’t fully aware of the significances of what had just happened. All I could say was: “Thank You”.
There is no question that the First Nations People have been mis-treated by the white man. Now here I was, just another white man coming onto their reservation trying to tell them what to do and how to do it. They had a perfect right to be annoyed and even vindictive. They were neither. They were open to “Learning” no matter who the source was. The truth was that I was learning too. What I saw was truly changed people (ready and willing to help each other) and genuine appreciation for my efforts.
When I got home I started to research the meaning and significance of the Eagle Feather to all First Nation People. An Eagle Feather is the highest honour that a First Nation Native can give to any person (especially a White Man). I am one of the very few White Men ever to be given an Eagle Feather.
It represents: “Openness, Honesty, Strength, Integrity, Character and Wisdom”.
I am truly honoured.
Most White Men view the Indian as second class citizens, lazy, un-educated and drunks. This is simply not true. They are smart, resourceful, willing to learn and better themselves.
Like us (the white man’s world) the Indians have been tainted even tortured by the religions of the world. But I have found that most of the First Nations People that I worked with are reverting back to their own spirituality. They are beginning to re-study their own language, ancestry, ancient teaching and ceremonies. They are learning how to become who they are truly meant to be.
I have learned that these people do not express themselves like the white man does. The difference is “EGO”. The white man’s ego is up front and always on display. The Indian’s ego is personal and kept within himself.
The First Nations People truly appreciate the value of relationships (with each other and with the white mans’ world). Honor is valued and trust & respect are given openly and freely (until there is a reason not to). Old grudges are not used against new people. New people are treated based on how they treat others.