Heritage Site / Ethnography Site / Dakota Nakota Lakota / Beliefs & Customs

Article: Wañbli Wooíiye - "Eagle Catcher"

Non-Indian people refer to the eagle as "the king of birds" because of his size and strength. The Dakota/Nakota/Lakota people also have a great respect for him. However, our respect for the eagle, goes far beyond that. The eagle is a messenger for the Great Spirit, and patron of Councils, hunters, war parties and battles. It is said, that when the eagle dies, his spirit remains with his feathers. Through wearing eagle feathers, our people have gained strength and demonstrated appreciation and respect, not only for the eagle, but for all of creation. The type of feather, how it is cut, colour and position it is worn in, adds additional meaning, which is a language in itself.

For many centuries before the Indian people had guns, they hunted with bows and arrows but the eagle was one that had to be caught, as no hunter could get close enough to take it with an arrow. It was also a dangerous and difficult task, and an eagle would only be caught for ceremonial purposes. It is said, should anyone attempt to catch an eagle for any other reasons, sickness will come to them and their families.

Because of the spiritual qualities of the eagle, a great deal of spiritual protocol is exercised in the catching of an eagle. The construction of a tipi, sweat lodge, and catching pit are the three main contributing factors. Three men are required to set up the site and several days are used in preparation. They will set up the tipi with the door facing in the appropriate direction, and the floor will be covered with sage, leaving a space for a ceremonial offering mound, a fire pit, and a pipe stand. The men will remain and sleep here, keeping the fire going at all times. All this will be done with the proper protocol, using traditions that have been passed on for centuries by spirituals.

A sweat lodge is constructed and the men purify themselves. Heated rocks are placed in the lodge and water is splashed upon them. The lodge is similar to the non-Indian sauna, only to the Indian people, it is a sacred place. The purpose of the lodge, is so the men may purify themselves in body, mind, heart and soul.

The 'wañbli wooíiye' (eagle catcher) then goes to a secluded place near the eagle's nest to pray and fast, while his companions prepare a catching pit large enough, to hold the `wañbli wooíiye' (eagle catcher) in a sitting position.

The dirt is taken away from the pit area and the men are careful not to trample the grass or make footprints. When completed, the top is then concealed with shrubs and grass. All this is done, so the eagle will not see a change in it's surrounding. The bait is then set using a small animal or meat and a great deal of care is taken so it will not be smelt by other large animals. If a coyote, mountain lion, wolf or bobcat came after the meat, it would be an added danger to the wañbli wooíiye.

Once the 'wañbli wooíiye' is in the pit, the men will return to the tipi and wait. The 'wañbli wooíiye' becomes very quiet and prepares to face whatever comes. It is a tremendous trial and a tiring place for him to be in. He may have to remain there for hours or even days without food or water, awaiting the arrival of an eagle.

After some time has passed, an eagle will spot the meat, and begin circling the area, until it feels it is safe. Cautiously it lands and inspects the bait before it attempts to fly off with it. Since the bait is securely tied down, the eagle will not be able to fly away with it. Still, the eagle will keep on trying. Soon the eagle's feet will come close enough to the `wañbli wooíiye's hand and he will make his move. Quickly, he will reach up and grab the eagle's leg. It is said, whether out of curiosity or fear, as long as there is no sudden movement, the eagle will not struggle. The 'wañbli wooíiye' then slowly slides his hand up above the feather line. Grasping a firm hold, he then quickly and cautiously draws the eagle down into the pit. The `wanbli wooíiye' then uses his free hand to break the eagle's neck.

The 'wanbli wooíiye' then takes the eagle back to the tipi, and places it on the offering mound. The men begin to give thanks to the spirit of wañbli the eagle when the 'wañbli wooíiye' takes up the pipe and begins his prayers. After the pipe is smoked, the 'wanbli wooíiye' will then paint the eagle in the appropriate manner, and place a piece of meat in the eagle's mouth. This is done, to acknowledge the eagle's life, that the Waíañ Tañka or Great Spirit has provided, and to give thanks for all the other blessings, that have also been provided to the people! The wings, tail and claws are cut free and all the additional feathers that are required are plucked free. The eagle is then taken back to where it was caught. It is placed on a tanned white hide, which is laid out on a bed of sage, with it's head pointing in the appropriate direction. An offering of tobacco will also be placed with it.

The men then return to the sweat lodge, to conclude the ceremony and on completion of the sweat, the ceremony is over. The fire in the tipi is extinguished and all the gear is packed and made ready for the return trip home. The frame of the sweat lodge will be left intact, and the eagle’s remains left to for Waíañ Tañka or the Great Spirit. In this way, the Dakota/Nakota/Lakota show respect for to the spirit of wañbli the eagle.

In our present day society, we see eagles that are mounted and stuffed. The eagle, buffalo and all other life forms have given life to us. As children of Uñ©I Maía or Grandmother Earth, we would not survive without them. Because of this, they are worthier then we are, as they provide life for us, we do not provide life for them. How can humanity stuff and mount its' givers of life?

Among Indian people, there are those who no longer have the knowledge of the old ways, and do not show the eagle the respect it deserves. As a result of the disrespect shown by non-Indians and some Indian people, the eagle's survival is threatened and the "King of Birds" is now an endangered species in North America. The great eagle must be rightfully respected for it's purpose in the Dakota/Nakota/Lakota ceremonies. If extinction ever befell the eagle, it would be a great loss to the Dakota/Nakota/Lakota people and all of humanity.