Monarch Of The Skies: The Significance Of Golden Eagles To Plains Indians

Jun 15, 2018


A new permanent exhibition at the Draper Natural History Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West focuses on golden eagle research but it also looks at how golden eagles have been and still are significant to the Plains Indian people.

"Awed, he stood looking up at the extraordinary drawings; then he strolled along slowly, searching the island for the flower. In his deep slumber that night he had a vision of a radiant figure standing beside him, singing a medicine song. His outstretched hands had held a breathing, luminous golden eagle. Plucking a feather from the wings, he had put it on the head of Pachee Goyo, the Bald One, and ascended to the cliff and disappeared."

This excerpt from "Pachee Goyo: History and Legends from the Shoshone," is an Eastern Shoshone oral story passed along by elders of the tribe signifying the golden eagle as a gift from the creator. This story is specific to the Eastern Shoshone but Dr. Emerson Bull Chief of the Crow tribe said the significance of the golden eagle and in general, animals, applies to most native tribes.

“We have this relationship with animals where we see them as equal. They tell us things and they give us their powers for help and we help them. So there's this symbiotic relationship between humans and animals,” said Dr. Bull Chief.  

The connection between animals and native cultures started before anyone can really remember. Rebecca West, the curator of the Plains Indian Museum, said native cultures were efficient at surviving in a harsh and unforgiving ecosystem.

“So you have to remember that raptors like the golden eagle were something that was not just a pretty bird to admire and to study. This was something that they lived alongside and lived with and respected as part of their environment,” said West.  

The eagle and other parts of nature were all powerful and native cultures respected their spiritual powers, like those of a golden eagle.  

“That relates to its ability of flight, it’s one of the highest flying birds, its amazing eyesight and its ability to hunt,” said West.

Dr. Bull Chief said if every Native American respects and gives reverence to the animal, it provides protection. But to a certain few, golden eagle feathers can be medicine.

“If you go on a vision quest or have medicine that pertains to it, then you’re more respectful to that animal. There’s that knowledge and revering it and then there’s that level where you got to give even more respect if that’s part of your medicine,” said Dr. Bull Chief.

Medicine not within the boundaries of our modern definition. To Native Americans, medicine is the presence and power embodied in a person, place, or object. And to some, the golden eagle feather can be medicine.

The importance of golden eagles has also been noted by researchers along some rock art cliffs with eagle nests nearby.

“It is a vertical cliff faced sandstone for the most part. So it is covered in that really pretty dark, what they call desert varnish. But it creates this beautiful canvas for petroglyphs to be carved in to…to be really, really visible,” said Bonnie Lawrence Smith, the curatorial assistant at the Draper Natural History Museum.

In 2013, Smith was out scouting golden eagle nests with Draper museum volunteers and saw petroglyphs of golden eagles.

“Is that coincidental? And is it coincidental that we have these raptor petroglyph rock art images right underneath these nesting golden eagles?" Smith paused to think, "I don’t know."

The site is called Legend Rock. It is a sacred place for many tribes, as groups of natives would travel there to perform spiritual or medicinal ceremonies. And at the site, there is a petroglyph of a golden eagle. To Smith, this could potentially mean that tribes intentionally went looking for places where golden eagle nests existed in order to have a closer connection with the creator.

“There’s mythology that talks about the creator and when you see the images on the wall, you know the creator is nearby. And so that ties into it. There's a spirituality…not something taken lightly,” said Smith.

Smith is still going out to site locations of rock art to see if there are golden eagle nests nearby. The hope is, there is a large enough number of sites that could lead to potentially proving her hypothesis. But the bottom line is the golden eagle matters.

“Whenever you see one [golden eagle] it makes you…I guess…it's almost an overwhelmingly emotion that you feel,” said Jenn RunsCloseToLodge, a Lakota tribal member who has lived on the Wind River Reservation for the majority of her life.

RunsCloseToLodge said she gets choked up because of the strong connection she feels with golden eagles. The exhibit is currently open.