It was usually as dark as the inside of a crypt when we stumbled out of our bunk beds to the tune of the clanging bell that was shaken vigorously by the Jesuit prefect.
The dormitory was very chilly on those winter mornings in the 1940s. A coal-burning furnace heated the dorm far, far away from the main building and the steam heaters only felt warm if you touched them.
We’d wash up in cold basins of water at the trough that served as a sink. And then we hustled down to the “Little Boys Gym” and lined up for roll call. When we were all accounted for, we fell into company ranks and marched off to church. We did this seven days a week, but the routine changed on Sundays.On Sunday mornings we got to sleep in late. Well, that is we slept in until the sun came up. As soon as the sun swept across our dormitory through the large, French windows, we gave up on that extra sleep and the chattering, pillow fights and just plain hell raising began.
In a few minutes the prefect would emerge from his room and try to bring some order to the dorm.
This was the day we got to put away our Holy Rosary Indian Mission issued clothes, usually bib overalls and chambray shirts, and put on our Sunday-go-to-church clothes.
If we had a suit with a tie, we wore it. Otherwise we put on the street clothes that were kept locked away in the “Cloakroom” by the Franciscan nuns that only came out on Sundays.
It was pretty nice to march to church on Sunday mornings and to actually see the sun, the blue sky and clouds. As I said, six days a week all we saw were the stars.
One day as we marched to church “Louie Boy” Winters pointed up into the sky at the three eagles circling high in the sky. Mr. Fagan, the Jesuit prefect, shouted at “Louie Boy” to quit pointing, but even he became fascinated by the beautiful flight of the eagles.
In Lakota the eagle is “wanbli” and it can be considered sacred.
When I was about four years old my father took me with him on a ride way out in the hills around Pejuta Haka (Medicine Root), a community called Kyle by the white men. We stopped to visit a Lakota family living in a log shack. Outside of the cabin there were two canvas tents pitched near some trees. The tents had chimneys protruding from their tops. As my dad visited with the elders of the family and chattered away in the Lakota language, I wondered behind the cabin and on the top of the hill behind it, I saw an eagle tethered to a metal stake. As I approached it, the eagle flapped its wings and sprang at me. I jumped back and stared at its sharp talons and beak. My dad and the Lakota elders chuckled at my discomfort.
Later in life I would learn that the feathers of the eagle are used in nearly all of the sacred rituals of the Lakota. The eagle is so revered that its name can be found in the names of many Lakota people.
In my life I have known Lakota people with names such as Holy Eagle, Little Eagle, Big Eagle, Spotted Eagle, Spotted Tail (the tail of the eagle), Two Eagle, Bald Eagle, Afraid of Eagle, Eagle Hunter, Flying Eagle, Eagle Hawk, Hawk Eagle, Walking Eagle, Eagle Tail, Eagle Bull, Eagle Elk, and White Eagle, just to name a few.
The eagle feather is used to honor those who have accomplished something great in life. If one is awarded many eagle feathers, the recipient can then weave them into a ceremonial bonnet, often called war bonnets by the white man.
Great warriors like Crazy Horse of the Oglala Lakota, although honored with many eagle feathers in his short life, preferred to wear only one or two eagle feathers tied in his hair. It is a great honor to be awarded an eagle feather. I have been fortunate enough to have several eagle feathers awarded to me in my lifetime. Usually a respected tribal member or holy man or woman sings an honoring song and then the eagle feather is tied into the hair with leather strings.
A feast is usually held to complete the honoring ceremony.
And yet, strangely enough, I didn’t know any of these things as I marched in company ranks to church seven days a week and twice on Sunday. These were the things the Jesuit priests and Franciscan nuns did not want us to know. It would not be in keeping with their efforts to cleanse us of all things that were considered Indian.
I think that is why so many Lakota are bothered to see fanatic footballs fans on the nationally televised games sporting chicken and turkey feathers in their hair simply to impress their fellow fanatics with their misguided sense of honoring Indians. It is not an honor to see feathers tied into another’s hair while the wearer has no idea that he or she is violating one of the sacred rites of the Lakota.
It took a brave and patient warrior to hide in a blind built under the ground at such places as the Eagle Nest hill near the village of Wanbli and to stay there all day and sometimes all night waiting for an eagle to return to the hill. He waited patiently until the eagle landed and then he would spring from his blind and grab the eagle’s leg. Oftentimes he would be scratched deeply by the talons or bitten by the sharp beak until he got control of the eagle.
It is now a crime for non-Indians to use eagle feathers. That is one of the good things the government did for the Indian people. We can still harvest eagle feathers for our sacred ceremonies.
Many of us (Indians) have come a long way in learning about our culture since we stepped into the night from our dormitories to march off to church.
(Tim Giago is Editor Emeritus of Native Sun News Today. He can be reached at email@example.com. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association)