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Native American Eagle Mythology

Eagles figure prominently in the mythology of nearly every Native American tribe. In most Native cultures, eagles are considered medicine birds with impressive magical powers, and play a major role in the religious ceremonies of many tribes.

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Among the Pueblo tribes, eagles are considered one of the six directional guardians, associated with the upward direction, spirituality, and balance. The Zunis carve stone eagle fetishes for protection, ascribing to them both healing and hunting powers, and the Eagle Dance is one of the most important traditional dances held by the Hopi and other Pueblo tribes. In the mythology of some tribes, Eagle plays a leadership role (either as king of the birds, or as a chief who humans interact with.) In other legends, Eagle serves as a messenger between humans and the Creator. The golden eagle, also known as the "war eagle," is particularly associated with warriors and courage in battle, and it is golden eagle feathers that were earned by Plains Indian men as war honors and worn in their feather headdresses. (In some tribes, this practice continues to this day, and eagle feathers are still given to soldiers returning from war or people who have achieved a great accomplishment.) In some Northwest Coast tribes, the floor used to be dusted with eagle down at potlatches and other ceremonies as a symbol of peace and hospitality. In many South American tribes, eagles are associated with the afterlife. Among the Ashaninka of Peru, for example, eagles play the role of carrying deceased people's souls to the afterworld.

Because eagles are considered such a powerful medicine animal, the hunting or killing of eagles was restricted by many taboos. Eating eagle meat was forbidden in many tribes; in some legends, a person who eats eagle meat is transformed into a monster. In some Plains Indian tribes, feathers were required to be plucked from a live eagle so as to avoid killing them (to accomplish this, eagles were trapped in a net and released.) In Southeastern tribes, only men with special eagle medicine, known as Eagle-Killers were permitted to kill eagles. In the Cherokee tribe, even Eagle-Killers were only permitted to kill eagles during wintertime.

Eagles are also one of the most widespread clan animals used by Native American cultures. Tribes with Eagle Clans include the Chippewa (whose Bald Eagle Clan and its totem are called Migizi, while the Golden Eagle Clan is called Giniw), the Hopi (whose Eagle Clan is called Kwaangyam or Qua-wungwa), the Zuni (whose Eagle Clan name is K'yak'yali-kwe) and other Pueblo tribes of New Mexico, Plains tribes like the Caddo and Osage, and Northwest Coast tribes like the Haida, Kwakiutl, Tsimshian, and Tlingit. Eagle was an important clan crest on the Northwest Coast, and eagle designs can often be found carved on totem poles, ceremonial staffs, and other traditional Northwestern art. And many eastern tribes, such as the Cherokee, have an Eagle Dance among their tribal dance traditions.

Native American Eagle Gods and Spirits

Eagle Woman (Tlingit)
Kwahu Kachina (Hopi)
*Wind Eagle (Wabanaki)

Native American Legends About Eagles

Cherokee Eagle Story:
    Cherokee Indian legend about an eagle spirit that punished a village for killing an eagle.
*The Warrior and the Eagle:
    Lenape legend about a giant eagle that punished a warrior for his pride.
*The Foundling Who Was Befriended By Wolves:
    Legend about a Cree boy who gave into temptation and was killed by a mighty war eagle.
*The Bird Tribes:
    Cherokee legend about the creation and symbolism of the eagle and other birds.

Recommended Books of Eagle Stories from Native American Myth and Legend
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Eagle Boy:
    Northwest Coast Native American legend about humans and eagles learning to cooperate.
The Story of Jumping Mouse:
    Award-winning picture book based on a Native American story of a mouse whose generosity is rewarded by becoming an eagle.
Adopted by the Eagles * Spotted Eagle and Black Crow:
    Two illustrated children's books based on Sioux Indian legends about a betrayed hunter rescued by eagles.
Birds of Algonquin Legend:
    Interesting collection of legends about Native American eagles and other birds in Algonquian tribes.
Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Nature Symbols, Stories, and Ceremonies:
    Book by a Karuk elder about the meanings of Indian animal spirits, including a chapter on eagles.
Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition:
    A good book on the role of eagles and other birds in world mythology, including Native North America.
Native American Animal Stories:
    Great collection of tales about American Indian eagles and other animals, told by Abenaki storyteller Joseph Bruchac.

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