There are many symbolic animals and birds that are part of Native culture. On the James Bay coast, there is the goose. This bird is highly respected as it has allowed my people to survive for centuries. Since early time my people have been able to count on the arrival of the goose. I understand that we Cree would never have survived without the goose. The first flights of geese in the spring have always been a welcoming sight after a long, lean winter.
There are other symbolic animals and birds that are recognized by Native cultures. In fact, just about every animal is honoured and some are more familiar than others. The wolf is a mysterious animal that is held in high respect for its almost human-like qualities. It is a great hunter and it is able to work with others of its kind to gather food or care for its young. The bear is also a hunter and it is more known for its brute strength and commands respect in the wild.
One bird that is easily recognized and is known almost the world over in just about every culture is the eagle or Mikisew, as it is known in the Cree language. The eagle is a popular bird in Native culture and traditions. This creature is highly respected and it has great symbolism in Native spirituality.
In the wild, the Bald Eagle is recognized for its prominent white head and tail feathers, a bright yellow beak, talons and brown feathers. It is truly a giant bird with a wingspan of up to seven and a half feet. Its eye structure is about the same size as a human’s but it is much more complex. An eagle is able to see further and it can spot its prey from great distances. In many Native cultures, the eagle is a highly revered bird because of these qualities. In addition, the Bald Eagle’s cousin, the Golden Eagle, which has a darker colouring, is also considered a great symbolic bird. In many Native traditions, there are eagle dances, ceremonies and societies devoted to the eagle. The feathers of a Bald Eagle or a Golden Eagle are considered sacred.
In some aboriginal tribes, it is believed that the eagle was chosen by the Creator as master of the skies. They are able to fly higher and closer to the Creator than any other animal. These birds are regarded as messengers to the Creator or Great Spirit. If an eagle was spotted in the sky during prayer or a ceremony, it was considered a sign that the wishes of the individual would be granted.
On the James Bay coast, eagles are even more special to my people. They are a rare sight and come from time to time to visit the coast. They are great hunters and their appearance usually comes with the migrations of the geese in the spring and fall. I have heard many hunters mention the fact that eagles sometimes share in the hunt. I have heard stories of how an eagle will dive bomb a goose with its chest to stun its prey and catch it before it can escape. Some hunters have stories about eagles dive-bombing plastic goose decoys only to smash these man-made shells into pieces.
One practice we Cree follow during the hunt is to use dead geese as decoys. These are placed on mounds of snow. This makes it more convenient for the hunter as there is little space for many things in the blind. I remember one spring hunt on the Nawashi River with my brother-in-law Clarence Shisheesh. We placed our birds out on the snow in front of our blind. In the afternoon a Golden Eagle appeared stealthily without our knowledge near our dead geese and began walking towards our birds for a meal. We fired shots into the air to scare our intruder away and we watched as the eagle quickly flew high and gracefully into the sky to continue its search for food.
Another story I have heard from several hunters, trappers and traditional people in the north has to do with a great eagle’s nest. It is said to be located on a giant rock outcropping in the muskeg deep inland and just on the edge of the flat tundra near Hudson Bay. The nest is home to a family of eagles that have survived there for generations. The stories talk of huge eagles that are capable of snatching away caribou calves from their mothers out on the tundra. It is said that there is evidence of this activity in the form of a pile of bones located at the base of the rock. You can imagine the images these stories created in my mind when as a child I first heard them around a campfire out on the land. Perhaps some day I will go on a quest to find these almost mythological eagles. Then I would really have a story to tell.