Eagle Dance

Eagle Dance

Type of Holiday: Religious (various Native American)
Date of Observation: Early spring
Where Celebrated: Jemez and Tesuque Reservations, New Mexico
Symbols and Customs: Eagle, Eagle Feathers


For many Native Americans, the EAGLE is a sacred and symbolic bird because it is able to fly so high and thus move freely between heaven and earth. The eagle has always been regarded by Indians as having supernatural powers, particularly the power to control thunder and rain. Many Indian tribes-among them the Iroquois, Comanche, Iowa, and Midwestern Calumet-traditionally performed Eagle Dances on occasions that called for divine intervention, since eagles were regarded as capable of carrying messages to the gods. Today, the Eagle Dance is a popular feature of many Native American powwows and is particularly associated with the Jemez and Tesuque pueblos in New Mexico, where it is performed every spring.

The Eagle Dance varies from tribe to tribe, but it always portrays the life cycle of the eagle from birth to death, showing how it learns to walk and eventually to hunt and feed itself and its family. There is usually a chorus of male dancers, often wearing feathered war bonnets, who provide a singing and drumming accompaniment, and two central dancers who are dressed to resemble a male and a female eagle, with yellow paint on their lower legs, white on their upper legs, and dark blue bodies. Short white feathers are attached to their chests, which are also painted yellow, and they often wear wig-like caps with white feathers and a projecting yellow beak. Bands of EAGLE FEATHERS run the length of their arms, and they imitate the movements of the eagle with turning, flapping, and swaying motions.

It is believed that the Eagle Dance was originally part of a larger ceremony performed to bring rain at a time of year when crops were being planted and water was essential. But full details are not known, as is true with much of the information related to Native American history.

The Eagle Dance is part of several Native American traditions. The history of Native American cultures dates back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became the Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B . C . E ., continued until approximately 4,000 B . C . E . This speculation, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south.

The historical development of religious belief systems among Native Americans is not well known. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century C . E . The data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and the Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves.



The eagle is revered by North American Indians because it can fly closer to the Great Spirit than any human can, thus making it a symbol of wisdom, power, and strength. Among some tribes, the eagle symbolizes the sun, its flight being compared to the sun's daily passage across the sky.

Eagle Feathers

Eagle feathers, especially from golden or bald eagles, are sacred to Native Americans and regarded as the means by which their prayers are carried to heaven. The wearing of eagle feathers is considered a great honor; boys are often given eagle feathers when they reach maturity. The proper handling of the feathers is crucial, especially during the Eagle Dance. They are never allowed to touch the ground, and if a dancer drops one, he is instructed not to pick it up but rather to allow a tribal elder, who has been chosen in advance, to do so. After it has been picked up, the dancer is supposed to thank the elder and show his appreciation with a gift. Eagle feathers are also used to make ceremonial objects and ornaments, and they play a role in many Native American healing rituals.

Obtaining eagle feathers has never been easy. The Hopi Indians used to carry out special expeditions for the purpose of finding young eagles and removing them from their nests. They were fed and cared for until their feathers were needed, at which time they would be killed and placed in a special burial ground. When the Cheyenne Indians killed eagles for their feathers, they had to carry out a lengthy, complicated "apology" ritual beforehand to soothe the bird's spirit and then trick the eagle into coming close enough for them to grab it with their bare hands.

Today, Native Americans get the eagle feathers they need for special ceremonies like the Eagle Dance by applying to the government for a special permit. When dead eagles are found, government agencies such as the National Fish and Wildlife Service see to it that their feathers are given to Native Americans who need them.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Philosophical Library, 1962. Fergusson, Erna. Dancing Gods: Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1931. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Eagle Dance

Early spring
Many North American Indians associate the eagle with supernatural powers, particularly the power to control thunder and rain. In the Jemez and Tesuque pueblos in New Mexico, the eagle dance takes place in the early spring. Two dancers, representing male and female, wear feathered caps with yellow beaks and hold wings made out of eagle feathers. They circle each other with hopping and swaying motions.
The Comanches hold an eagle dance where a single dancer imitates the eagle, who according to legend is the young son of a chieftain who was turned into an eagle when he died. Dancers in the Iowa tribe's eagle dance carry an eagle feather fan in their left hands, while the Iroquois eagle dance features feathered rattles and wands.
Among some tribes, eagle feathers are believed to exert special powers. The Sioux wear them in their war bonnets for victory, while the Pawnee, Yuchi, Delaware, and Iroquois Indians use them in ceremonial fans or brushes or as ornaments.
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 333
EncyNatAmerRel-2001, p. 74
EncyRel-1987, vol. 4, p. 466
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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