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Teachings of the Eagle Feather, part 25: How the Golden Eagle Got Its Dark Plumage

Updated: Sep 2, 2022

Waabaagbagaa-giizis/Waatebagaa-giizis (Leaves Turning Moon), September 24, 2020

The Eagle and the Sun

"Screeching the night away
With his great feathers spread
Catching the darkness up
I hear the golden eagle
Pulling the blanket back
From the East, sleeping still
How swift he flies,
Bearing the Sun to the morning
See how he perches there
In the trail of the Eastern sky."
- A poem inspired by a song from the Haudenosaunee Ritual of Fire and Darkness

Boozhoo indinawemaaganidog, gidinimikoo miinawaa. Biindigen miinawaa nindaasooke wigamigong; enji-zaagi'iding miinawaa gikendaasong. Hello my relatives, I greet you in a good way. Welcome back in my Storytelling Lodge where there is love and learning.

Today I share with you an aadisookaan (sacred story) about two mighty spirit birds from the East, both gifted with truly formidable and unmatched powers, both controlling knowledge and medicines equally vast and powerful. The story is woven around two very powerful paintings by the late Noah Sainnawap (1954-2005) -- both titled “Sacred Eagle Flying through Dreamland” -- and a brand new set of Two-Spirit wedding rings that I created by hand from white and yellow gold. The title of the set, which features two precious stones – one a white diamond, the other a red ruby - is “Gaa-giniwaash.” This is Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) for “Flight of Giniw, the Black-headed Eagle (the Golden Eagle).”

Let's start off with a parable, which sprang from my own imagination but is infused by a wide palette of traditional Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) story elements…

Ahaaw ningad-aasooke noogo giizhigad! Now I will tell a sacred story!

A long time ago, when the world was still young, two mashkiki binesiwag (medicine birds) lived in Waabang, the Land of the East. Although identical in size and coloration (eyes, feet, and beaks bright yellow against brown and white feathers, their heads the color of freshly fallen snow) there was a difference. One was a teacher and lived at the border of a great sea; the other one, which had his abode on high cliffs and mountain peaks, was his student. Both were gifted by GICHI-MANIDOO, the great mystery of the Universe, with an important power over life on earth to be exercised with prudence and wisdom so that harmony would be maintained forever. Despite of the difference in age and experience, both birds controlled medicines that were equally vast and powerful. One bad day, however, after many strings of life of perfect harmony, a struggle arose that upset the balance in the East – and, ultimately, in the Universe at large. The two medicine birds started to fight over dominion of the East!

The animosity between the two birds started when the younger one, after many years of study under the tutelage of the older bird, felt that he was ready to exercise his own mashkiki (medicine) without his teacher’s supervision and counsel; when the latter told his student -- who possessed a rather impetuous and hot-tempered nature -- that his knowledge and skills were not complete since he had not yet reached the level of wisdom and moderation and patience that is needed to conduct the important tasks that the Great Mystery had given them, the younger bird challenged him to a contest, taunting him and challenging him to prove his powers.

Each dawn, their glossy feathers illuminated by the golden rays of Grandfather Giizis, these mighty medicine birds performed a ritual war dance high up in the sky, and each time they tested their formidable strength on each other all the land animals and the other birds watched in awe and fear as, slowly but surely, the sun became blocked.

Since they possessed equal powers, by the end of the day the rivals after each skirmish dropped back to earth from exhaustion and the fighting remained indecisive. Eventually the sky, filled with wild screeches of fury and plucks of blood stained feathers flying about, became dark and disaster fell on the world at large …

One morning, the younger bird said to his teacher, “I bet I can fly higher than you. I will race you to the sun and back!” The elder bird, thinking it was time to teach his former apprentice a lesson in humility, consented. That fateful day, as soon as Grandfather Sun had taken his highest position in the sky, the two quarrelers spread their mighty wings and, taking off from the summit of a high mountain ridge, started to fly in his direction.

The older bird, although his wingspan was equally wide as that of his opponent, reached the sun first, but then, just in time to avoid a collision, veered off, banked sharply, and flew off back to earth. The younger one however, in his eagerness to prove himself the strongest and boldest, flung himself head first into the fire of the sun… screeching wildly, he flew right through it, and then, his burnt wings spread widely, glided back to his rocky abode on the earth. The scorching blaze had made him shrunk to a smaller size and his wing and tail feathers and beak and eyes, once a glossy white and yellow, were now dark brown, the spots on his coat being scorch-marks caused by the searing heat of the Sun’s fire … no more was he the majestic being of striking grace and beauty he once was …

Noah Sainnawap
Sacred Eagle Flying through Dreamland; Out of Body Experience 1, acrylic on paper by the late Noah Sainnawap.

Since that day, the unfortunate medicine bird that had flown into the sun could easily be recognized – and distinguished from his former teacher -- by his black head and dark brown eyes and plumage; the flecks of gold on the back of the head and neck a reminder of his collision with the Sun. As soon as both rivals had returned to their abodes on earth, GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great Spirit of the Universe, sent Wenabozho, the semi spirit and benefactor of the Anishinaabeg, to explain to them that the former rivals had reconciled with each other and were assigned to different, but complementing tasks as co-rulers of the East.

Not before long Wenabozho called a gichi-zagaswe’idiwin (Great Meeting) at the easternmost tip of Naadowewi-gichigami, nowadays called Lake Huron. Mizhinaweg (messengers) were sent to all four corners of Aki (the earth) to call upon all Anishinaabeg tribes to congregrate and sit around a huge campfire; everyone was invited, eveyone attended.

"Boozhoo niwiijikiwenhidog ashi nishiimenhidog gaye! (Hello brothers, and you too sisters!)" Wenabozho spoke as soon as everyone had taken their seats and the bawaagan (peace pipe) had been passed to everyone. “GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great Mystery, has ordained me to bring you an important Teaching. The clash between the two mighty medicine birds of the East holds a crucial message: Disturb the fragile balance that exists in the world and disaster will fall on everyone. You should therefore never forget the lessons that can be drawn from it and never cease to honor the white-headed medicine bird and the black-headed medicine bird for making peace -- and thus restoring the balance in the East, and in the Universe at large. To each medicine bird the Great Mystery gave sufficient power for the fulfilment of his being and form. The power that was conferred on each is a form of GICHI-MANIDOO’s power, and is a reflection of GICHI-MANIDOO’s gifts and its love of all beings and things alive.

The name of the elder medicine bird will be MIGIZI, the White-headed (Bald) Eagle, and that of the younger bird will be GINIW, the Black-headed (Golden) Eagle. Both ogimaag (leaders) will exercise their formidable powers in their own portion of the East, not as rivals, but as brothers instead. From as today, they will understand each other and harbor respect for each other. They will live in concord with the laws of the world. Both medicine birds will be looked upon as aadizookaanag, or grandfathers, living in harmony with each other and with all beings, subject to the same laws of nature.

Ogimaa Migizi will watch over gichigamiin, the great lakes, while Ogimaa Giniw will preserve his role as ruler of the mountains. Both will symbolize the virtues of strength and leadership, yet they will exercise their medicine and impart their wisdom in different ways.

Migizi flies around the sun painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
"Sun Eagle," digitized painting by Zhaawano Giizhik © 2022 Zhaawano Giizhik.

The most graceful bird of the skies, the white-headed eagle, will be the teacher, the prayer carrier and messenger of Light. He will rule over the lakes and rivers and coastlines. As Migizi soars across the skies, one knows he is carrying the prayers to GICHI-MANIDOO. Migizi will have great significance for the Anishinaabeg when it comes to healing ceremonies and ceremonies that are held to honor and respect other Peoples and Nations. Migizi will be symbolic of the central belief and value system of the Anishinaabeg called mino-bimaadiziwin, or “the way of the good life,” which teaches us to treat well all living beings and respect the ways and beliefs of other cultures. Migizi soaring high up in the sky will be a beacon of light and a shining mirror to those who walk on the earth, especially when they are in the process of growing spiritually. Individuals seeking spiritual growth will learn to see themselves as migiziwag as they pray for the people in need of help to get them through the rough spots on bimaadiziwin-miikana, the road of life. Certain healers will identify with migizi; they well become him. They will carry the sickness out of the patient’s body, spread their wings, and carry it up GICHI-MANIDOO for healing. Last but not least, Migizi will be the one who looks after Anishinaabekweg, the women of our Nation, and insure GICHI-MANIDOO each morning that the women honor his path with their asemaa (tobacco) and their nibi waaboo (water song).

Ningoding gaawiin memwech jiwaabamamind migizi; ningoding etago jinoondawaad, bizindo weweni.
Sometimes you don't have to see the eagle; sometimes you just have to hear it, listen to it carefully.
- Anishinaabe proverb


Enh geget nishiimenhidog, my sisters and my brothers, The Eagle will be a power of vision, strength and courage. Eagle sees and hears all and sits in the East. Eagle is connected both to the spirit of GICHI-MANIDOO and to Aki, the Earth. Eagle conducts his life on earth according to the seven sacred teachings of: love, respect, honesty, courage, wisdom, truth and bravery, and so GICHI-MANIDOO named the Eagle as the Sacred Messenger because his spirit symbolizes prayer. Eagles, therefore, nimisedog, nisayedog, are powerful symbols; that is why their feathers will be such powerful tools for healing, and why there will be special ceremonies for eagle feathers. There are many special meanings and special uses for the Eagle; this goes for Ogimaa Migizi, but certainly also for Ogimaa Giniw!


After a short pause, which he used to enable his audience to reflect on his teaching, Wenabozho resumed, “But there is more to it. GICHI-MANIDOO has decided that Giniw will be the reverse side to the almighty Migizi, his medicine powers being complementary, and in no way less than those of Migizi – different, geget sa, but equal. I already mentioned that Migizi is a bird of light and peace who loves the openness and vastness of the fish-filled waters of the lakes while Giniw is drawn to the rocky areas of mountains, hills, and cliffs, to darkness, and to war. Giniw, along with his younger cousin Gekek (Hawk), will be the natural counterpart of the spiritual thunder being that we call Animikii Binesi (Thunderbird), and for this reason he will be one of the medicines and the leading mashkiki binesi (medicine bird) of the Wiindigookaanag, or no-flight contraries, the contrary-warriors who are inhabited by the Thunder Spirits. Giniw is the only relative who lands on lightning-struck trees. When the mighty warrior Giniw enters, Migizi and others yield.”

Wenabozho became silent for a long time. Then, after taking a draw from his pipe, he, solemnly, resumed talking. “Since he is a contrary himself, Giniw, besides representing springtime – and therefore niigiwin (birth) -– is also directly related to ishkwaa-bimaadiziwin (death), GICHI-MANIDOO ordained that after the Anishinaabeg walk on to Gaagige Minawaanigozigiwining, or the Land of Souls, their physical bodies are returned to aki by burial. Then their souls begin a four-day journey back to where they came from at the beginning of human life in the Spirit World. Now, GICHI-MANIDOO appointed Giniw as akandoobinesi (gatekeeper-bird); when a person arrives at Gaagige Minawaanigozigiwining, Giniw will be sitting on a branch of a huge tree by the door that gives access to the Spiritual World. Giniw will ask the soul of the deceased two questions. If you do not know the answers correctly to each question, your spirit will be sent back to the reality of life on aki to find gidanishinaabewinikaazowin (your spirit name) and gidoodem (your clan). The two questions that Giniw will ask are: Aaniin ezhianishinaabenikaazoyin? What is your spirit name? And Awenen gidoodem? what is your clan? Therefore, you must know your spirit name and your clan when your time here on earth is over, so when you arrive at the door where Giniw sits, you may enter Gaagige Minawaanigozigiwining, the Land of Departed Souls and Everlasting Happiness.”

“Because all of this, nishiimenhidog, my sisters and my brothers,” Wenabozho concluded his teaching,” it is particularly the wings of the medicine bird called Migizi that bear wisdom and insight as his feathers carry your good thoughts and prayers toward the light of Giizhig, the day, and toward Giizis, the Sun who is the grandfather of all life energy. Once a feather of the Migizi, or of the Giniw for that matter, is received it is the responsibility of the carrier to carry that feather with respect by walking in the ways of the Seven Teachings to the best of their ability. Enh geget sa nimisedog, nisayedog, the Eagle feather is indeed the most sacred of feathers!”

Ahaw,” he added, “when from of today you look up to an eagle soaring high in the sky, asemaa in hand and saying a prayer to this mighty spirit-medicine-bird and thanking him for showing himself, it is easy to envision his spirit merging with the light of day as his wingtips almost touch the sun; and when you squint your eyes against the bright daylight against a blue sky, niwiijikiwenhidog, you may even imagine for a short moment that his feathers, like those of the bold and daring Giniw in the story, will touch the sun -- and turn into the same flaming color as Grandfather Giizis himself …”

Mii sa ekoozid. And that is the end.


Now, let’s have a closer look at the wedding ring set, which I designed for dear friends of mine who will tie the sacred knot on September 25, 2020.

Title and shape of the rings, provided with precious stones dramatically jutting out of the eagle feathers, suggest light, movement, and fire. The feathers are representations of Giniw, the black-headed (golden) eagle in full flight, its mighty plumes in turn representing manidoo, the sacred spirit that lives in all living things. Giiniw, like his counterpart Migizi, brings understanding of GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great Mystery of Life -- which our ancestors regarded as the sum of all Mystery that exists in all levels of nature and life.

Waaban, the spirit of the East, is represented by the white gold that are used for the rings. The sparkling glow of the marquise-cut diamond set in yellow gold, asymmetrically mounted on the white gold feather of the ring that you see to the left, symbolizes direct communication with manidoog, the spirits; the white luster of the diamond stands for debwe’endamowin (a straight mind) and biinide’ewin (a clean heart). The sparkling red glow (which, depending on the light, shows a purplish red hue) of the marquise-cut ruby stone, gracefully mounted on the feather in the ring to the right, symbolizes the fire of gimishoomisinaan Giizis, our Grandfather the Sun, and is a direct reference to the above-told aadisokaan of how a long time ago Giniw flew into the sun and how he got his speckled, dark brown plumage.

In a deeper sense, the lustrous transparency of the precious stones represents the sudden understanding and all-comprehensive consciousness that befall on the couple wearing the rings once they fully understand the meaning and moral of the above narrative. It is my wish that their spirits fly high on wings of wisdom, right into the sacred realm in the East where all life begins and where the White-headed Eagle and the Black-headed Eagle rule until the end of time ...

Miigwech gibizindaw noongom mii dash gidibaajimotoon wa’aw dibaajimowin. Thank you for listening to me today, for allowing me to relate to you this story. Giga-waabamin wayiiba, I hope to see you again soon.

Mino bimaadizin! Live well! Migwechewendan akina gegoo ahaw! Be thankful for everything!

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