The Bald Eagle: An American Symbol Before America Existed
Before it was a US national emblem, the Bald Eagle held special significance within the religious beliefs and legends of several Indigenous cultures.
Eagles are commonly regarded as majestic and powerful creatures. As birds of prey, they’re members of the order Accipitriformes, which also includes many other types of raptors such as hawks, kites, and ospreys. They have captured humankind’s imagination for millennia, as proven by myths from around the world as well as the bald eagle’s place as a recognizable symbol for the United States. Yet before this bird was chosen as a US national emblem, it held special significance within the religious beliefs and legends of several Indigenous American cultures.
The Eagle’s Significance in Pre-Colonial America
Eagles can be found in the stories of many civilizations all over Turtle Island. Most bestowed honored tasks and roles upon these birds, crediting them as divine messengers or chiefs among the birds. In an article discussing the bald eagle’s recovery from near extinction, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service offered a short list of these legends:
- One Navajo story depicts a warrior changing one of a slain monster’s offspring into an eagle to prevent it from growing up and adopting evil ways.
- Among the Dene peoples of Alaska and northwestern Canada, the eagle embodies gratitude in its offerings of food during lean times to a prince who’d fed it salmon when sustenance was plentiful.
- The Pawnee regard the eagle as a fertility symbol thanks to its tendency to nest high above the ground and its attentive watch over its young.
An archived 2003 piece from Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center details even more evidence. Various artifacts have been discovered showing how Indigenous cultures venerated eagles, including their features in headdresses and other clothing items.
An Endangered Species Returns to Greatness
Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring” called attention to the devastating effects of careless pesticide use on our ecosystems. Writing for American Bird Conservancy, Rebecca Heisman discusses how Carson’s emphasis on DDT’s impacts on bird populations helped launch environmental activity and new government policies. The bald eagle was one species that benefitted from these activities, as it was granted legal protections in 1978. Thanks to the growth of its populations, it was removed from the endangered species list in 2007.
Modern Use of Eagle Feathers
Eagle feathers are still considered sacred today by many Indigenous people. As one Mohawk man explained to independent historian Glenn Welker, wearing or holding these feathers is thought to honor, and gains attention from, the Divine. Feathers are also included in ceremonial regalia and used in the Sun Dance rites of Great Plains cultures to carry prayers of the sick to the Creator. The Pawnee Nation’s website explains the significance of eagle feathers in how its flag is displayed. This banner is customarily attached to an old Pawnee lance with a spearhead at its tip. Affixed to it are four eagle feathers, representing the four bands that comprise the entire nation.
Currently, U.S. federal laws govern the possession and use of eagle feathers. However, they restrict ownership to individuals who can prove that they’re members of federally recognized tribes. Continued controversy surrounds these statutes, especially because those unable to document their Native ancestry are shut out of the process. A June 2015 Arizona Public Media piece also divulges that the waiting list for eagle feathers is lengthy, with potential recipients getting their requested feathers after several months.
A Magnificent Bird With Timeless Symbolism
The American bald eagle holds a distinctive place in many Indigenous American cultures. Once threatened with possible extinction, this species has made a major comeback over the last several decades. Contemporary legal realities pose challenges for Native people wishing to use their feathers for ceremonial and religious purposes. Nevertheless, reverence for the creatures continues into the 21st century.
The Legend of Turtle Island
Studying the Turtle Island story leads to some fascinating discoveries about both Indigenous peoples from the past as well as those in North America today.
Long before Canada became the country we know, Indigenous peoples flourished across the North American continent. From the Mi’kmaq groups near the shores of Cape Spear, to the Tlingit living around Mount Saint Elias, many distinct cultures descended from this land’s earliest inhabitants. As they developed into the Inuit and First Nations civilizations that were present when Europeans first arrived, some of these cultures told creation stories about a land known as Turtle Island. Studying the Turtle Island concept and story leads to some fascinating discoveries about both Indigenous peoples from the past, as well as those in North America today.
The Origins of Turtle Island
Multiple Indigenous civilizations told stories in which the known world was called “Turtle Island.” The Turtle Island Native Network retells one common version from the Onondaga, one of the five original Iroquois nations. In many versions of the story, the ancient world is entirely comprised of oceans. Sky Woman falls through a hole in the heavens that was left behind from an uprooted tree. In their attempt to save her life, the creatures living in Earth’s waters dive deep beneath its surface to retrieve some dirt upon which she can stand. Turtle volunteers to carry the dirt on his back, completing Sky Woman’s rescue.
While the Iroquois versions are the most widely known, several other cultures’ mythos also contain Turtle Island stories:
- The Lenape people of the Northeastern Woodlands region
- Anishinaabe civilizations such as the Ojibwe and Potawatomi, and Algonquin
- Cheyenne cultures in the Great Plains region of the United States
While the concept of a massive turtle carrying the world on its back can also be found in older Sanskrit and Chinese texts, it holds the most prominent place among Indigenous American groups. Furthermore, the Mayans developed a similar myth about Zipacna, a conceited and violent oversized crocodile thought to carry their land on his back and cause volcanic and seismic activity as he moved. In contrast, Turtle Island legends tend to portray the giant turtles as helpful, benevolent beings.
Turtle Island in a Modern Context
Within the last few decades, “Turtle Island” has grown beyond a concept from Indigenous mythology and morphed into one with deeper symbolic meaning. Citing the desire to reclaim older cultural roots and acknowledge the sovereignty of Native civilizations prior to European colonialism, some use the term Turtle Island instead of North America. The America name originally derived from Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, but there were Native civilizations living in these lands long before Vespucci started exploring. The Manataka American Indian Council explains that some Indigenous people also use the term “Niiji” to refer to themselves in place of the word “Indian,” the latter being a moniker mistakenly given to Natives by Europeans believing that they’d landed in India.
The term “Turtle Island” has fallen into more widespread use as it’s being increasingly linked to Indigenous civil rights and environmental activism. One example mentioned in a June 2017 CBC article cites a grassroots group of First Nations activists mentioning “a crisis situation…on Turtle Island.” The activists staged a protest, calling for Canadians to address deeper issues from assimilation, colonization, and colonialism as Canada Day approached. Additionally, Native organizations such as the Indigenous Environmental Network and initiatives like the Turtle Island Solidarity Journey continue to focus on solutions to climate change while drawing attention to their connections to colonialism and environmental racism.
An Old Legend With New Interpretations
Indigenous cultures across North American either developed their own cosmogonic mythos to explain the universe’s origins or borrowed these beliefs from their neighbors. Within many of these civilizations, Turtle Island began as a creation story. With the impacts of European colonialism leading to both modern environmental concerns and civil rights issues, Turtle Island now holds potent symbolic meaning for many Indigenous people today.