The Eagle Staff: a symbol of sacredness and nationhood


How is an eagle staff similar to a national flag such as Old Glory of the United States and the Canadian maple leaf ?

In a continuing series of articles on Anishinaabeg (pronounced Aw'nish-naa-beg) culture and history, I submit periodically to The Packet & Times, I am proud and pleased to share with you some of the teachings I have learned about the eagle staff during the last two decades or so. My lessons came from a variety of sources such as powwows, elders' conferences and special ceremonies. Another valuable source was from conversations with elders, or the "Old Ones" as they are affectionately called sometimes, and from other traditional teachers.

The eagle staff is similar in the way it also represents my peoples' heritage, pride, beliefs, history, knowledge, language, culture, governance, geographic location and nationhood. For the Anishinaabeg peoples, the sacredness of the eagle staff is how it connects us spiritually, emotionally, physically and mentally to our mother, the Earth, as nations.

A brief explanation is in order here on the word "nation." We were nations of people, in every sense of the word, for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the newcomers.

We had our own forms of governance that was based on consensus and hereditary leadership. There was an education and skills development system that was hands-on. Economic self-sufficiency was through a barter system that extended to the far reaches of the continent. Law and justice were geared toward restoring a balance and harmony in an individual rather than punishment. It was the responsibilityof thewholecommunityinraising a child through moral values and role models. Our way of life or spirituality honoured the sacredness of land and the environment. It was up to us to keep the land and water clean for the generations that followed behind. Those were just some examples of how we were truly nations.

The foundation of our governments was sharing and caring for everyone. It was all about fairness and inclusiveness. That is, every man, woman and child had a voice. We were all part of a circle where everyone, regardless of age or position, was the same. There was no status or hierarchy where one stood in the nation. Leaders, in their humbleness, recognized that their position, while respectful and honourable, were not above anybody else. These and more came to a grinding halt within three or four generations with an imposition of an alien form of governance that was a radical departure from our lifestyle and governance. Socially, economically, politically and spiritually speaking, it was downhill from there for my people.

However, we have never lost the distinction of being the first peoples or nations in what many of us call Turtle Island (North America), nor have we ever given up our sovereignty as nations.

When my ancestors agreed to share the land and waters of our country with the newcomers, the colonial government dealt with our chiefs as nation to nation. By nations, I mean the Ojibway Nation, Cree Nation, Mik'maq Nation, Iroquois Nation and dozens of other nations across Canada.

Therefore, an eagle staff to a First Nation or organization is what a flag is to a country. The duality of these symbols is that we honour them both in the same way. To those who subscribe to the cultural philosophy, the staff represents us as Anishinaabeg peoples. Many of my people are just starting to learn and adopt the custom as we become aware of its history and value as a symbol of sacredness and nationhood.

This is another belief and practice that is slowly emerging amongst Aboriginal Peoples after three or four generations of oppressive government policies and banishment. Today, especially during special events such as powwows, staff carriers hold the eagle staff up high as if to say, we are still here and we are getting stronger spirituality as we shed the shackles of colonialism and oppression.

This is why we hold the eagle staff in such high esteem and respect. It reminds us of our past, present and where are going as Anishinaabeg peoples.

Just like the flags of many nations, no two eagle staffs are the same. Each eagle staff reflects the honour bestowed upon it by an individual, organization or First Nation. However, all staffs are made up entirely of nature's gifts, such as the trees, animals and birds. The difference is in the way they were dressed or decorated.

Even though eagle staffs may vary from each other in the way they are decorated, all will have one or two, perhaps several eagle feathers. These are sewed or tied onto the soft leather that covers most of the staff. The actual staff would be cedar, white pine or some other kind of tree. It is usually four to seven feet in length. The staff may have colourful beaded designs on it, such as animals or birds.

At the forefront of powwow grand entries are the eagle staffs. Their beauty and elegance can be seen at these social and cultural gatherings during the early spring and summer months in almost every First Nation, urban centre, college and university across Canada and the United States.

In pride and Baa-maa-pii (until the next time.)

Ernie Sandy teaches First Nation governance for college programs.

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