Indian Scout Talks: A Guide for Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls, a non-fiction book by Charles Alexander Eastman
Chapter 18. The Language Of Feathers And Ceremonial Dress
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_ CHAPTER XVIII. THE LANGUAGE OF FEATHERS AND CEREMONIAL DRESS
In the first place, the wearing of feathers is not peculiar to the Indians, except in the value attached to them as symbols of character and true worth. Any one may wear any sort of feather as ornament merely, or in imitation of the old-time warrior, but with him it was a serious affair. He adopted only the feathers of certain birds, and these must be worn in accordance with well-understood law and custom.
The following birds are held in especially high honor: namely, the eagle, raven, and falcon, commonly called hawk. But it must be borne in mind that as far as the Indian is concerned, there is only one hawk that holds an honorable position: that is the American falcon. He is daring to recklessness in his methods of warfare and hunting, and though not large, is swift and graceful. The raven is held next to the eagle in dignity and wisdom; and the owl comes next on the roll of honored birds. Some of the water-fowl, such as the loon, cormorant, and pelican, play a minor part in our myths and folklore, but in the warriors’ codes and emblems only the dashing and courageous birds of prey are permitted to appear—the American eagle standing first.
The feathers of this bird are highly prized, since they stand for brave deeds and form a warrior’s record. They are variously worn among different tribes. Perhaps the best and completest system was developed by the Sioux nation; a system which was gradually adopted by their neighbors on the plains, and which I shall follow closely.
No Sioux may wear an eagle’s tail-feather unless he has counted a coup, or stroke, upon an enemy, dead or alive. If in a battle, the deed is witnessed by his fellow-warriors; but if he was alone when he made the count, he must have unmistakable proof, or the feather is not awarded. There are four coup counts on each enemy, and these are secured in succession. Even upon a living enemy, if he is overpowered and held captive, these four counts could properly be shared by the warriors. But it is obvious that in most cases they are very difficult to secure. A man may strike an enemy in a hand-to-hand battle, or, as you would say, in a “mix-up,” and he gets away without being killed or even seriously hurt. In this case, only one coup is counted. Again, many foes are killed upon whose bodies no coup at all is counted, because it is impossible to obtain, and upon others, one or two may be taken with much difficulty and superb daring in the face of the enemy’s fire. Herein lies the relative value of individual feathers, and the degree of valor shown or difficulty encountered determines the subsidiary trimmings, tassels, and ornaments.
Primarily, every eagle feather worn by a warrior represents a coup given in battle. This is important to remember. No other feather stands for the same thing, though different degrees of courage and endurance may be expressed by other feathers.
For instance, a group of raven or of Canadian goose feathers trimmed on the sides, indicates that the wearer has been wounded in battle more than once. A single goose feather dyed red and trimmed, means that the wearer was severely wounded in battle. Sometimes a man wears an eagle feather dyed or trimmed, meaning that he was wounded at the time he counted the coup. An eagle feather notched and the cut dyed red, means that the wearer counted the coup and took the scalp also, but was wounded while so doing.
He may have the feather cut off at the tip, showing that he killed his foe and counted the coup on that same enemy. If he fought a desperate battle, with the odds against him, in which he came off victor, he may tip his eagle’s feather with buffalo hair; and if he counted coup in a charge on horseback in the face of imminent danger, he may tip it with hair from a horse’s tail.
Among some tribes, the wearing of a split feather denotes that the wearer has been wounded, and when the feather is clipped off at the tip, that he has taken a scalp. When a warrior wears one eagle feather upright and the rest drooping, it indicates that he was surrounded in company with a party of warriors of whom he was the sole survivor.
As I have said, the Indian might wear as many eagle feathers as he had counted coups. When he had won a number of these in difficult circumstances, and had been held at bay and surrounded by the enemy, but succeeded in getting away, he was entitled to a regular war-bonnet. Only an exceptional record of many battles in which he had shown great coolness, skill, and daring, entitled him to the long, trailing war-bonnet of many plumes.
There are other ornaments and portions of a warrior’s dress that bear a special significance. If he has been in the vanguard of battle more than once and led counter-charges, he may wear the whole skin of a raven on his back in the dances. If he has pursued his enemy into the hostile camp and killed him there, he may wear an otter skin slit up the middle so that his head comes through, and the head of the animal hangs upon his chest. A garter made of skunk’s skin with the head and tail on, shows that he has successfully taken a scalp under the enemy’s fire. He wears a grizzly bear’s claws when he has been surrounded, but charged singly, bear-like, and repulsed the enemy. The paws of a grizzly bear, claws and all, denote that he has knocked off or pulled off the foe in a mounted encounter.
The deer-tail head-gear dyed in shades of red, with a thin square of bone, resembling ivory, in the center, to which one or more eagle feathers are attached, is equivalent to the eagle feather war-bonnet. The quill end of each feather is placed in the hollow of a goose’s wing-bone embossed with the beautiful iridescent neck-skin of a drake, and the whole forms an imposing ornament.
The wearing of the skins of certain animals and birds represents the totem, or, as it were, the coat-of-arms of the Indian. These symbols take a wide range, almost every familiar bird and animal, even fish and reptiles, being used as a sort of charm or talisman, some for healing, and others for protection from harm. But these things are not mere dead feathers or skins to the Indians; they symbolize an appeal to the brotherly spirit of the animal representing their individual lodge or clan, and are honored in recognition of the wonderful intuitive power of the dumb creatures. The Indian believes that instinct comes more directly from the “Great Mystery” than reason even; why else does an animal or child show wisdom without thought?
The addition of an ermine skin to the war-bonnet is an honor that few warriors earned in the old days. It is a degree of the highest type. The man who is recognized as a past master of courage, having achieved all the decorations of a patriot and a true warrior, dauntless in war, yet gentle at home, a friend and a brother—he alone may wear ermine upon his war-bonnet, or trim his ceremonial shirt with the beautiful white fur.
The addition of buffalo-hair trimming to a warrior’s bonnet or shirt or leggings is an indication that he has taken many scalps. If he is a chief, he may even have a buffalo tail dangle from one of his teepee poles. No one may do so without the authority of the tribe. Neither can the councilors confer these degrees without actual proof of service. No favoritism is possible under our system, and the highest degrees are conferred only upon men who have been tried again and again by every conceivable ordeal. Heroism is common, because the universal spirit of gallantry and chivalry requires it.
At a public dance, an Indian may recount some particular brave deed. This he acts out for the benefit of the younger element. He could not add anything to it, because the event is already well known. When the old customs were intact, it was the old warriors who claimed this privilege, and they, too, were allowed to paint their bodies in imitation of their severe wounds.
I remember very well in a great tribal dance that there were many of these old men who enacted their deeds with great spirit, and one had painted the upper half of his face black, with zig-zag lines representing lightning, the whole symbolic of a terrific battle. The lower part of his face, even with the mouth and including it was painted red, with streaks running down upon the chin. Every Indian would know that he had been wounded in the mouth. Another had painted in the middle of his broad chest a red hole, and from it there ran some red streaks, with a fine Crow arrow depicted in realistic fashion.
These customs have their barbarous side, but a really touching feature is that a warrior always shares his honors with his war-horse. Such a horse may wear an eagle plume in his forelock as proudly as his master, his tail or mane may be trimmed and dyed according to his rider’s war record, or he may be made to mourn for him by having it cut quite short.
Sometimes an acknowledged warrior decorates his long pipe-stem or the handle of his war-club. But no person can wear the honorable insignia of another; in fact, he can wear none that have not been awarded to him in due course by the council of his tribe.
The Boy Scouts may, if they choose, adapt this system to the honors counted in their organization, grading the various exploits in accordance with the real manhood needed to accomplish them. _