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A Fallen Eagle Feather: A Native American Veteran's Memorial Ceremony

Updated: May 28

A select few once had the honor of wearing an eagle feather as part of their regalia. Earning an eagle feather required extraordinary courage in battle or accomplishing something that would make someone stand out in the community. One way of gaining an eagle feather in modern times is by continuing the warrior tradition and serving in the military.

Native Americans have the highest volunteer ratio compared to other ethnicities, and many have given their lives to ensure our freedoms and rights as Americans are not trampled upon. Many of those Native American veterans we remember gave this ultimate sacrifice even when they were not considered citizens of the United States of America until 1924.

Carrying an Eagle Feather is a sacred responsibility that is never taken lightly. The eagle is considered sacred because it carries our prayers to The Creator, and the feathers are often used in prayer. Sometimes an eagle feather is passed down in the family that represent a ancestral warrior. Many times an eagle feather is brought into the circle by a native veteran in honor of all veterans, because we all bleed the same color.

When a native dancer attaches an Eagle Feather to their regalia, they ensure it is absolutely secured. Because they are carrying prayers for that individual into the sacred circle. Dancing your prayers on behalf of someone else. Sometimes, an eagle feather will detach from the outfit and fall to the ground.

When this happens, everything stops. The drum, the singing, the dancing.

A warrior has fallen.

I remember vividly the moment this happened. I was on Active Duty in the Army, and on the weekends, when a powwow was going on, a bunch of us native soldiers would load up and drive to Oklahoma or throughout Texas. One time, we went to a Memorial Day Powwow that I would never forget. I sat at our northern drum, Eagle Point. The host drum was singing an incredible Grass Dance song, and the men were out in the sacred circle, swaying their fringes to the rhythm of the drum.

One particular Grass Dancer wore a finely beaded white apron top. His breechcloth was meticulously beaded with flashy beads that would catch the light as he spun. His beaded cuffs looked like something you would see in a museum, and his matching mocassins and headpiece set the entire outfit off. The outfit could easily have been worth thousands of dollars IF a value could be put on it.

Traditionally, among some tribes, an outfit comes together in three ways.

  1. You make part of it

  2. You buy a part of it

  3. You receive part of it as a gift

Native American Grass Dance

I hope you can appreciate the hours spent and effort it takes to make these dance outfits. Then consider that parts of your regalia were made by your grandmother or a close relative you dearly love.

Imagine. The drum beats its grass dance beat, praying for everyone you have brought into that circle within your heart; you breathe and heart in time with the drum as your fringes move as if they are dancing on their own. Then, all of a sudden, time slows down to a screeching halt as you watch in shock... the eagle feather that was so securely attached is now making its way through the air as it drifts slowly toward the ground.

The Whip Man, now known as the Arena Director, began waving his hands as he made his way towards the drum and MC, shouting, "A feather has dropped, a feather has dropped!"

EVERYTHING STOPPED! The song, the drum, the dancing, and even time stood still. The spotlights shone down on a field of dancers, and it seemed like even the lights were focused on the grass dancer, who now stood with his head held low. He stood looking down on the ground at the fallen eagle feather.

The Grass Dancer looked up and saw one of the veterans walk into the circle and start approaching him. The native veteran wore a combination of Marine Corps Vietnam Era BDUs adorned with military patches and his service medals. He spoke to the grass dancer for a few minutes, at which point the dancer began to make his way towards the drum that had been singing the song when the eagle feather fell.

A piercing war cry suddenly filled the air, and all attention went to the native veteran who was placing tobacco down on the feather.onky a veteran can up the feather. A warrior symbolically picking up a fallen warrior. He stepped back from the the eagle feather and began to dance his way in a circle around the feather. Stopping in each of the four directions, the veteran would pause, dancing in place, and then charge the eagle feather while letting out a large war cry.

Native American Veterans

The veteran stopped dancing once all four directions had been danced, and the eagle feather charged four times with a war cry. Reverently, he knelt and spoke a few words of prayer. He slowly picked up the fallen eagle feather and carried it over to the drum as if he were carrying a soldier who had fallen in battle. He walked to where the Grass Dancer was waiting beside it and stood next to him.

He spoke a few words to the Lead Singer of the drum and then handed the Eagle Feather back to the Grass Dancer. (It is important to note that the ceremonial protocol for the veteran who picked up the Eagle Feather can choose who to give it to)

The Grass Dancer gently laid the Eagle Feather on the drum. The lead singer stood up, the drum keeper, and the rest of the singers. As tears began to flow down his face, the Grass Dancer began to remove his beaded cuffs.

He placed them on the drum.

He removed his headpiece and placed it on the drum.

He removed necklaces and every adornment and placed them on the drum.

He removed his beaded moccasins and placed them on the drum

He removed his breechcloth and his apron and placed them on the drum

He stood in a white tank top and shorts, tears streaming down his brown, chiseled face, as he apologized to the singers and the elders for letting the Eagle Feather fall. After shaking hands with the singers, the elders, and the veteran who picked up the feather, the Grass Dancer made his way to his car and then drove away.

I sat at the drum, absorbing everything that I had just witnessed. The honor, integrity, and love for carrying a sacred responsibility were true to the old ways of honoring those who had fallen. I will never know that Grass Dancer's name, but I am forever grateful to The Creator that I could see such a powerful way of honoring the warriors who never made it home.

We remember and honor all veterans who paid the ultimate price for our freedom.

Native American Veterans

FireKeepers International hosts an annual gathering that helps all veterans suffering from PTSD and other issues from serving in our military. We use a First Nations Welcome Home ceremonial approach to facilitate inner healing in a veteran's life by giving them honor, appreciation, and love.

If you want to help support our veterans programs at FireKeepers International, click the donate button. Thank you for your gift and for helping us provide an effective way to combat depression, PTSD, and suicide. Bomatum!


*Disclaimer: Details of the ceremony for picking up an eagle feather have not been fully disclosed.

Chief Joseph RiverWind US Army
4th Infantry Division 1/44th ADA

About the Author:

Chief Joseph "AmaHura" RiverWind served honorably in the U.S. Army Active Duty and National Guard. He is a Desert Storm Era veteran who has helped other veterans for over twenty years. He and his wife, Ambassador Laralyn RiverWind, run FireKeepers International. A non-profit organization that teaches emergency preparedness and resiliency while preserving indigenous heritage skills and knowledge.

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Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Your story heartfelt. I express extreme gratitude to all warriors that has protected the land I am allowed to live in. Praise be to the Creator For respect, honor, faith, hope, and love!

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