I have been learning a lot through the process of making moccasins, and I have recently been applying those same skills to new forms of beadwork, including the calamus of an eagle feather as a gift for someone who not only helped me in a difficult time, but taught me about himself and where he comes from in the process. For those unfamiliar with the term “calamus” (as I was until looking for it moments before typing it just there for the first and second time), it is the part of a feather that the skin of the bird grips onto. It houses the blood vessel that feeds the feather’s growth. The feather emerges from the bird’s skin encased in a prickly, barbed substance that breaks up into powder when the bird preens itself (or is preened by another bird or even a person, in the case of those feathers it cannot reach on its own). When the feather fully matures, the blood vessel inside it dies. This is usually within days of emerging from the bird’s skin . The calamus is the part of any bird’s feather that makes it possible to put beadwork or threading onto it, or to arrange several beaded or threaded feathers into a fan.
This particular eagle feather came into my possession last year when I was alone at the beach. It was just like any other beach day in terms of weather, but something was different this time. I felt a compulsion I have never felt before — to go to a particular location adjacent to the beach, and see what I find. I followed that compulsion and found four astoundingly beautiful eagle feathers. I tied them to each corner of a hanky I had brought with me, and within days, I had given three of them to the people they seemed to be calling out to. The one I kept is the one I have just finished beading before I started this piece of writing. It’s a primary flight feather from an adult eagle’s left wing, and was once very close to the breast of the eagle it grew from. I’ve used it in smudging ceremonies alone, and with one other person, and I held this item as sacred. Since it came into my possession, I have learned many things about what eagles mean and why their feathers (as well as those of virtually all birds) are considered sacred.
The first person to share with me how important eagles are told me that they are our grandfathers (and this is true regardless of an eagle’s sex). Some people take this relationship literally while others take it metaphorically. At first, being a skeptic and an atheistic Satanist, I took this relationship metaphorically. But there was something imbued in this eagle feather that wasn’t at all metaphorical. When I ran my fingers down the length of the feather, and let its vanes tickle my fingerprints, I felt its spirit move through me. I felt all the hairs on my body raise at once, and I envisioned what this eagle’s perspective must have been like. I later became aware that in the very literal sense, when we die, our bones become a part of the earth, our breath becomes a part of the air future generations breathe, and our blood reunites with the waters of the oceans and rain. Therefore, in that same literal sense, eagles are the grandfathers of this land and territory. Eagles also preceded human life here, and it is partly from eagles that the first peoples learned to sustain themselves for thousands of years. It is in that literal sense as well that eagles are the grandfathers of this land and territory. When I am holding an eagle’s feather now, I am conscious of how I am connected to every living thing around me.
I then learned that each and every feather represents a member of our extended family. When a feather falls at a pow wow, it can be (and sometimes is) interpreted with equal devastation as if one of our ancestors spontaneously appeared and dropped dead in front of everyone in that same moment, right where the feather has fallen. A ceremony is performed on the feather to honour the spirit of the eagle it once grew from, and to cleanse it and the dancer so that it can be reattached to the regalia—and that’s the short version of what’s going on when tobacco is spread around it and prayers spoken. It is said that when a feather falls, such as when one is handling it and accidentally drops it, that is the very moment someone has passed on. And as we are all connected to each other through the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the Earth we walk upon — all of us being equally dependent upon, or children of, the Earth, regardless of race/ethnicity or even species (i.e., where the phrase “all my relations” comes from) — that “someone” may not necessarily have been a human being. For mother Earth and for all my relations, I pick up feathers when I find them now. I just can’t leave them on the ground to be trampled all over.
These are some of the things I thought about (or meditated on or prayed about, if you prefer) while I was sewing beads onto this particular eagle feather. I’ve been taught that while sewing my moccasins, I need to think good thoughts, because they are being imbued into my soon-to-be-footwear. So I did the same while sewing the beads onto the calamus of this particular eagle feather. I also thought about the person to whom I am going to be giving it. I thought about his smile, his spirit name, and his unique heritage. I thought about the things he has taught me about his culture as an indigenous man walking the traditional path. I thought about the two of us walking together where I first found this eagle feather, and about the feathers I found on that walk, that I have since turned into a fan for myself. I thought about the strength he has shown in taking his life back from a sickness that could have taken him. And I thought about how he helped me when I was recently in a difficult spot. One at a time, I sewed 1,444 beads onto this eagle feather in honour of him and all that he has shared with me. The design is inspired directly by everything I have learned about him. Every bead is a prayer.
Something I didn’t expect and can’t explain happened while I was sewing these beads onto the feather. Around the five hundredth bead, I felt a sudden burst of energy. And as I continued to handle it, I could feel everything I had sewn into it at once. It was the middle of the night and I had been fairly rapidly wearing down, but very suddenly, I was energized and used that extra spirit to sew nearly another five hundred beads on. For a point of reference, a hundred beads was taking me probably around an hour up to that point, give or take fifteen minutes. But in the middle of the night, it took me half the time it had taken me during the day. I was able to finish the entire project the following day, and I found the finished product completely mesmerizing. So much so, that I felt all jittery just watching my friend handle it for the first time as he unwrapped it. There are simply some things that can’t be truly appreciated, explained, or even adequately understood without some sense of spirituality, and this most certainly was one of them.