I was at a camp with Dehcho youth years ago, just upriver from Fort Simpson, helping out with a pilot project around healing. It was the end of August, when the northern lights really start their dance.
One evening, we were gathered around a small campfire, sharing stories about our communities, legends, and teachings. One of the councillors mentioned how in Cree culture, when boys become young men, they are gifted eagle feathers. I thought this was very interesting, and the boys did as well. Before the night ended, I was approached by some asking if we could go find eagle feathers in the morning.
The next day, after sipping on my first cup of coffee, I gave it more serious thought. I figured as Dene people, we must have our own sort of protocol in obtaining feathers; something that made it more meaningful. I thought of my home. I grew up around really amazing elders. One of them is Gabe Hardisty, who's a former chief for my community. He must have teachings, I thought.
We weren’t too far from Fort Simpson, so I walked to the river bank in order to catch some cellular reception and called Gabe to ask for his guidance. His wife, Elsie, picked up and said Gabe was napping, but that she’d wake him.
“Yes, we have a special way of collecting them,” Gabe explained to me. “Are you collecting them from the side of a hill or from a nest high up in a tree?”
I told him that the boys mentioned there was an eagle’s nest just up the river.
“OK, here’s what you do and what you will need,” Gabe said. He told me to get some tobacco and two strips of cloth. Once you’re at the tree under the eagle’s nest, hold some tobacco in your hands, say a prayer and walk around three times in the same direction the sun travels. Put the tobacco down, and wrap the strips of cloth around the tree, to signify to the eagle that you were there.
Now, don’t just pick any kind of feather, either, he told me. There’s a special way that us Dene pick up feathers.
“We always get the feathers that are faced upright, in the same way the feather sits on a bird when it’s flying,” he said. ‘“We do this so our flight in life goes up, not down.”
Gabe told me he hoped all this info helped and I said, “Mahsi.” I felt this great weight lifted off my spirit. I knew there was a teaching, and I was fortunate enough to be able to pass it on.
The boys and I loaded up our boat and took off up the river. We must have travelled for 15 minutes when one of the boys spotted the nest. It was high up on this steep hill along the Mackenzie River. We came up slow and easy to the shore and landed. I tied up the boat to this huge boulder, and the boys raced up the hill with the energy of youth.
By the time I arrived at the top, they were already scanning the ground for feathers. Surprisingly, nobody found anything. Not one feather. I called the boys into a circle and told them we should do what Gabe had instructed us.
So, we’re standing there in front of this massive poplar tree, and way on top sits the eagle’s nest. I pulled out the tobacco and handed each a small piece. “When you’re holding it, make sure to say something in your mind and spirit,” I told them. “Give thanks for the day, say something for your family, and ask the tobacco to take whatever negative thing you’re holding onto and replace it with good things in your life.”
Now, it was time to walk around the tree in the path of the sun and ask for permission to collect the eagle’s feathers. We went three times around and stood in front of it. One by one, we all emptied our hands full of tobacco at the base of the tree. I said a few words and pulled out the two strips of cloth I had cut that morning.
As I was tying the last strip around, a gust of wind came from the south and the tree started to sway. Then, a gigantic shadow flew over our group. The eagle had come home. One of the boys said, “Look at the nest!” Far above us, a baby eaglet was poking its head over the edge.
“Mahsi for being here with us!” I called up.
As we were gazing, I took out my camera and snapped a shot of the baby looking down at us. That’s when the youngest boy that was with our group tugged at my shirt. He said, “Look at the ground!”
There were feathers everywhere. It was a powerful moment. A few of us cried. How could this be, I wondered. I gave myself a few seconds and then said, “It must be because of what we did here that we were gifted with eagle feathers today.”
I immediately instructed the group on how we should be picking up the feathers and what to look out for. After we were done, we all gathered at the boat. “You see, this is what we have been talking about,” I said to these young men. “How the land heals, why it’s important we protect what we have, and the importance of the teachings of our elders.”
We all smiled, loaded up the boat and went back to the camp. After it was all done, I went back to the shore and called Gabe Hardisty again. It was late afternoon by this point, and Gabe answered himself. I started telling him of the day, and I could almost hear him smiling. “Oh, that’s really good,” he said. “I’m glad to have helped.”
I asked him how his day went. He said that after our first conversation, Elsie had called him to the back of the house. A moose was walking through their backyard. So Gabe grabbed his gun and got it. “That’s what I am doing right now, cutting up meat,” he said with a laugh.
He must have gotten lucky after sharing his teachings with me today, I told him. “Creator has gifted you some meat in exchange for the teachings you passed on.”
“Yeah, I guess so, eh?” he replied. “I better get back to cutting. If you ever need anything, just give me a call.
And to this day, I still do.