Natural symbolism is very important in Native American culture, and the feather is a very powerful symbol for many tribal nations. Feathers are widely believed among North American Indians to signify the connection between The Creator, the owner of the feather, and the bird from whom the feather came. Deeply revered, the feather symbolizes high honor, power, wisdom, trust, strength, and freedom. As such, feathers are seen as gifts from the sky. They often feature in articles like Native American bracelets, blankets and throws, and art.
Different types of feathers represent different things to Native Americans.
The most highly esteemed type of feather is that of the eagle – the bravest and strongest of all birds. The eagle flies higher and sees better than any other bird and has an unparalleled connection to the Heavens. Eagle feathers are believed to carry strong medicine and guide the mind, body and spirit towards courage, strength, and hope. Traditionally, Native American warriors were awarded an eagle feather for notable bravery (like fighting a bear) or battle victory. Only after a victory was approved by the tribal court could the feather be placed in the headpiece, and only warriors, braves, and chieftains in many tribes were awarded eagle feathers. (Some women in the Plains tribes went to war and there were some female chiefs in these tribes, but most bearers of eagle feathers were men. Women did not wear war bonnets unless in costume for photographic purposes).
Those who received eagle feathers wore them with pride and, to this day, eagle feathers are cared for greatly by recipients.
The highest honor to be bestowed on an American Indian is to be given the feather of a Golden or Bald Eagle. They are so highly prized, the law in the USA even recognizes the significance of eagle feathers in Native culture, tradition, and religion. While eagles are highly protected under US law, Native Americans are allowed specific exemptions to acquire, possess, and pass down eagle feathers. Only members of Federally Recognized Tribes may possess Eagle Feathers. According to current US law, unauthorized people possessing an eagle feather may be fined very large sums. As such, sometimes turkey feathers are dyed and substituted for eagle feathers for commercial purposes.
The eagle feather is considered with the same level of respect as the American flag – must be handled carefully and never allowed to drop to the ground. Feathers may be held over a person’s head as a blessing for happiness, prosperity, peace, and courage. They are also used to adorn the sacred peace pipe as a symbol of the Creator or Great Spirit.
No feather falls expectedly or without some important meaning, and feathers of all birds are valued. Symbolism includes:
- Crow = balance, skill, and cunning
- Falcon = speed, movement, and soul healing
- Dove = kindness, love, and gentleness
- Bluebird = happiness
- Hawk = guardianship and far-sightedness
- Owl = wisdom
- Raven = creation and knowledge
- Turkey = pride, fertility, and abundance
- Woodpecker = self-discovery
- Wren = protection
- Swallow = love and peace
- Kingfisher = luck
Feathers are worn, hung in the home, or otherwise displayed, as is it disrespectful to hide them away. Feathers feature heavily in dream catchers, to adorn infant cradles, to balance arrows, and hung from the home’s entrance to invite good spirits and repel bad spirits.
Many modern Native Americans (and others) elect to have images of feathers tattooed onto their bodies
We have a wide array of Native American jewelry and blankets featuring feather symbolism and the choices are myriad.
For example, this Pendleton blanket is based on a watercolor painting by Jemez artist Joe Toledo, featuring eagle feathers and bison and representing the elements of Earth, Air, and Water.
Or perhaps you prefer jewelry, like this Silver and Turquoise Feather Pendant. This Native American necklace was handcrafted by Navajo artist Ben Begay.