The sinew hanging off the feathers is used to help build them into fans for ceremonial use.

Sacred Feathers—and the Tribes That Need Them

WORDS BY ELIZABETH HLAVINKA

PHOTOGRAPHS BY AMY LI

The Frontline explores how a Comanche-led feather repository is helping return bird parts and feathers to Indigenous ceremonies, a practice the extinction crisis threatens.

The Yuchi people, who reside in northeastern Oklahoma and number roughly 3,000, wear the feathers of the whooping crane before performing their annual ceremonies. The agreement with the bird is simple: when they sing the whooping crane’s songs, they must wear his feathers. 

 

But over time, feathers from the whooping crane, a five-foot-tall bird whose migration can begin in Texas and end in Canada, became harder to come by. Due to habitat loss and hunting resulting from European colonization, the bird’s population dropped to around 1,400 in 1860 and hit a nadir of 15 birds in 1941.

 

More than a century had passed since the tribe had a means to consistently access feathers again. Until one day in 2011 when Scott Stafford, second chief at the Yuchi ceremonial ground Duck Creek, returned the first of many feathers for ceremonial use. The feathers came from the molted plumage of a whooping crane being rehabilitated by the International Crane Foundation, a wildlife center dedicated to the birds.

 

“If we don’t have them, it is extremely detrimental to our annual ceremonies and what we observe,” Stafford said. “It is extremely important to maintain that connection.”

 

The whooping crane is one of over 1,000 bird species under threat of extinction. Climate change is predicted to further reduce avian populations and impact migration and breeding cycles. But an Indigenous-led effort is underway to ensure that tribes don’t lose access to the feathers they need. Feathers are an essential part of many Indigenous practices, allowing tribes across the country to maintain traditions their ancestors started long ago.

Golden eagle feathers photographed using refracting light and iridescent paper. “Perfect” pictures weren’t the objective, photographer Amy Li said. “The eagle feathers alone are perfect: pristine, soft, and with unusual colors and rare patterns.”

The Yuchi’s ceremonial feathers were delivered in 2011 with the help of a repository at Sia: The Comanche Nation Ethno-Ornithological Initiative, which collects feathers from zoos, wildlife rehabilitation centers, and similar facilities to be redistributed to Native Americans across the country. Although codirector and cofounder Kwihnai Mahkweetsoi Okweetuni (whose Comanche name means “He Who Saves the Eagle From the Water” but is also known as Troy) and senior cofounder and codirector Waha Thuweeka (whose Comanche name means “Two Raven” but is also known as William) have been providing tribes with feathers for decades, the repository officially opened in 2010 within Sia in Cyril, Oklahoma. 

 

Today, Sia—which means “feather” in Comanche—is open to the public on an appointment-only basis. The pandemic put a pause on many Indigenous ceremonies as people stayed home to remain safe from the contagious virus. This October, Kwihnai Mahkweetsoi Okweetuni was finally able to deliver feathers again and share an in-person ceremony with the Apache—the first time since COVID-19 began. 

 

“Probably about 40% of people dancing were wearing Sia feathers,” Kwihnai Mahkweetsoi Okweetuni said. “It’s really nice to be in ceremony and know that all Sia’s feathers are making this impact.”

 

Welcoming guests through Sia’s front door is an eagle nest, reconstructed from fallen twigs and sod that Kwihnai Mahkweetsoi Okweetuni and Waha Thuweeka collected while out doing fieldwork in a nearby historic eagle breeding ground. It’s an effort emblematic of Sia: collecting, restoring, and redistributing in moderation and with respect. 

“When we pray, the eagle is what takes our petitions to the Almighty.”

Kwihnai Mahkweetsoi Okweetuni
Sia: The Comanche Nation Ethno-Ornithological Initiative
Many tribes consider the crow sacred. The feather is most revered while still on the live bird.

Sia is called Piah Puha Kahni (Mother Church) in Comanche, and Kwihnai Mahkweetsoi Okweetuni and Waha Thuweeka hold the title of Kweeni Puhakat (Eagle Priests). Sia not only hosts the feather repository, but also serves as an educational center containing hundreds of historical artifacts and a home for rehabilitated birds of prey. The center performed the first bald eagle artificial insemination in 1982 and has released more than 400 golden and bald eagles back into the wild since 1975. Sia is a sacred place, preserving traditional Native practices and helping tribes all over the nation maintain their connection to the land.

 

Various ceremonies among more than 900 tribes across the country may require feathers from canaries, hawks, woodpeckers, or other birds. Some might need to be from a male or female. Others call for birds of a certain age. Sia hosts a collection of these feathers and also collaborates with various wildlife facilities to help tribes gain access.

 

Whereas the Yuchi have a sacred relationship with the whooping crane, the Oceti Sakowin (or Great Sioux Nation) in South Dakota have a special relationship with red-tailed hawk feathers. The great Lakota war leader Tasunka Witko (Crazy Horse) wore these feathers each time he went into battle in the 1860s and 1870s. Today, many Oceti Sakowin soldiers enrolled in the U.S. armed forces wear these feathers in the likeness of Tasunka Witko while in service and thereafter, said Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s Veteran Service Officer Robert Dunsmore. 

 

“They got to wear them during battle in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Dunsmore said. “That was meaningful for them as protection and a prayer source.”

Feathers in a circle are considered sacred by many Indigenous cultures.

The Comanche send prayers to the Almighty through eagles by using whistles made from their wing bones and fans made from their feathers, Kwihnai Mahkweetsoi Okweetuni said. To the Comanche tribe, golden eagles are the only animals that can fly “high enough and far enough to see the face of God,” he said.

 

“When we pray, the eagle is what takes our petitions to the Almighty,” Kwihnai Mahkweetsoi Okweetuni said. “We’re too humble to go directly to God so we use animals as intermediaries … We pray through all the eagles in the world, and when we’re in ceremony and prayer, we can feel where there are imbalances.”

 

Because of spiritual practices like these, Native Americans have a fundamental right to feathers, but historically, accessing feathers from endangered bird species has been challenging. Conservation policies like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 forbade the possession of endangered bird species parts. After amending the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act in 1962 to permit Native Americans legal possession of eagle parts for “religious purposes,” the federal government later established the first eagle feather repository in 1970. It also ran another non-eagle program until it shut down in 1999 due to a lack of resources and personnel. It wasn’t until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in ​​1978 that tribal ceremonies were explicitly protected under federal law. 

 

Although the government issued a policy statement in 1975 and another in 2012 that said Native Americans were permitted to possess feathers from endangered and migratory birds for ceremonial use, “feather raids,” in which federal agents invade ceremonies and confiscate feathers, continued to occur.

 

“Why it took so long to issue the permit [for gathering and storing feathers] to outside sources had a lot to do with the fact that the feds couldn’t do it, but they weren’t going to let anyone else do it, either,” Waha Thuweeka said. “They were enforcing laws that impacted Native religious use in a profound way, yet they were not providing any relief to the situation.”

 

In 1971, Waha Thuweeka submitted the first application to establish a tribal feather repository, in part, as a continuation of his father’s collection. His father began to preserve feathers in the 1950s as ranchers who perceived golden eagles as threats to their livestock slaughtered some 20,000 of them. 

 

But it wasn’t until 2010 that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to establish the first non-eagle feather repository within Sia and then another that is federally run in Arizona. Today, Sia is the only program of its kind that is entirely Indigenous-run, providing tribes with a formal and legal means to access feathers from various endangered bird species. 

 

“If they don’t give you access for 100 years, then you don’t know this feather is used for that and this is used for that and this eagle bone whistle is used for this,” Kwihnai Mahkweetsoi Okweetuni said. “And once you start losing all that over the generations, then you start making things up and you have no true medicine, the culture that your people have learned.”

Here are a golden eagle wing fan and a first-year golden eagle tail set that’s ready to be turned into a fan. A coup stick is also pictured above, which is used in battle. By touching an enemy with the stick without killing them, Indigenous peoples force them to live and carry shame for a lifetime.

The early 20th-century environmental legislation that didn’t initially consider Indigenous people is one of many examples of U.S. government policy making it difficult for Natives to continue cultural practices, said Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy, associate professor and department chair of Native American Studies at Cal Poly Humboldt and member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe in Northwest California. Many policies intended to protect Indigenous rights still exclude the 400-plus federally unrecognized tribes in the country.

 

“We have resisted, we have built resurgence movements, and we have consistently made it clear how important we see it in this world—not just for us but for the world in general—that we continue these types of ways of understanding our place here,” Risling Baldy said.

 

Sia delivering whooping crane feathers to the Yuchi is one of many examples of the center helping to preserve culturally significant traditions. On the Pacific Coast, Sia has also worked with the Wiyot people, who use feathers from the endangered California condor in ceremony.

 

That practice was disrupted in 1860 when a militia attempted genocide on the Wiyot Tribe during its annual World Renewal Ceremony. The tribal members lost their native Tuluwat Island in what is now California’s Humboldt Bay—but the survivors of that atrocity have bought some lands back. Eventually, the city of Eureka formally returned most of the island to the tribe. 

 

In 2014, the Wiyot people were finally able to finish the World Renewal Ceremony that had been violently interrupted 154 years prior. The ceremony was made complete with condor feathers provided by Sia. 

 

“Those are some of the things we try and do to make people whole—to give them access to the feathers they need so they can make themselves whole,” Kwihnai Mahkweetsoi Okweetuni said.

 

For the Hoopa Valley Tribe, the use of feathers in ceremony is a way to stay connected to the K’ixinay (or “First Peoples”), Risling Baldy said. Her tribe believes the K’ixinay lived in a time before human beings and animals and that these fantastical figures—who inspired and spiritually embodied the animals, stones, trees, and rivers that followed—made and set the world into balance.

“We are not the most important thing—we are actually a part of this larger ecosystem—so us using these feathers is a reminder of how we all interact with each other.”

Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy
HOOPA VALLEY TRIBE

For her daughter’s coming-of-age ceremony, Risling Baldy gathered blue jay feathers with the help of family and friends to make a veil, which is created to mirror what the K’ixinay used in their first ceremony at the beginning of time. The K’ixinay were often depicted as having long, flowing eyelashes resembling feathers. 

 

“A lot of it is really in honor of not just the beauty of the being, but that we need to understand the interconnection between what we’re doing in our everyday lives and the other peoples that live here and are a part of that life too,” Risling Baldy said. “We are not the most important thing—we are actually a part of this larger ecosystem—so us using these feathers is a reminder of how we all interact with each other.”

 

These coming-of-age ceremonies were once public celebrations, but they became fewer and fewer with the threats colonization introduced to Indigenous women, according to Risling Baldy

 

This sort of generational trauma has made many Indigenous people distrust the government. Although Sia installs identification chips in feathers to prove their Native owners in case of feather raids, people have historically been hesitant to bring out spiritually important objects like feathers out of fear that their items will be confiscated or that they will be charged with a crime, Kwihnai Mahkweetsoi Okweetuni said.

 

Over the past decade or so, that fear has begun to wane. Tribes in northwestern California like the Hupa have since brought their coming-of-age ceremonies back. The blue jay veils—intended to keep the girls from looking backward or forward and, rather, staying in the present moment during the celebration—have been revitalized, as well. Physically shrouding the girls in this sacred moment, the veils require them to carefully consider each step they take forward.

 

These ceremonies are held to practice presence, celebrate life, and heal. They are a means to connect to the land and listen to its needs—and feathers are an essential part of maintaining that connection. After all, the plumage molted or recovered from these birds is an inherently sacred connection to the life form from which it came. It can also serve as a connection to the life form from which we all came—to sacred moments that we are graced to bear witness. 

 

As climate change reveals the imbalances that extraction and colonialism have created in nature, Earth’s messages have become difficult to ignore. Callous hunting and pollutive practices have nearly decimated many avian species altogether, impacting the ecosystems in which they play vital roles. 

 

But populations of birds like eagles and whooping cranes are slowly being nurtured and revitalized. They are returning to their place in the ecosystem, shedding feathers of their past so that new ones can grow. With their energy returning to ceremony, these birds have allowed tribes to maintain ancient practices that have kept the balance of the natural world in check for millennia. 

 

Just as Native Americans continue to be resilient against the threat of colonialism, so too do their ceremonies—complete with feathers, gathered one by one as gifts from the winged creatures who offered them.

A tail set from a first-year female bald eagle.

Correction, November 16, 2022 2:41 pm ET
The story has been corrected to reflect the accurate number of historical artifacts. The previous number of tens of thousands included documents and photographs, which are technically not artifacts.


Correction, November 16, 2022 5:05 pm ET
The story has been corrected as a transcription error resulted in a quote by Kwihnai Mahkweetsoi Okweetuni to say "sends" when it should've said "takes."


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