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In the final months before his surrender in 1877

In the final months before his surrender in 1877, Crazy Horse retreated alone to the Powder River country and pleaded for a vision that would show him how to preserve his people and their homeland.

Compounding the Lakota war chief’s grief during that long winter was the ill health of his wife, Black Shawl. As he fasted and prayed in the hills near the present-day Montana-Wyoming line, a red-tailed hawk, his spirit helper, descended with an eagle.

Crazy Horse took the eagle’s message to holy men and together they created a healing ceremony. Although Crazy Horse was killed within months of his surrender, Black Shawl — thought at the time to have tuberculosis — lived to be an old woman.

The eagle, chief of birds — the one who could fly the highest and carry messages to and from First Maker — was intricately woven into life on the Northern Plains.

Two Leggins, a chief of the River Crow in the last of the buffalo days, was protected by the medicine of an eagle feather painted with six white spots. It gave him the power to direct the wind, he said in his dictated autobiography.
“After the proper ceremony, the wind would blow from the direction pointed by the feather in my hair,” he said. “The six spots meant the owner could cause a sudden hailstorm between myself and a pursuing enemy. Later I used the feather many times and it always worked.”

Who could doubt the spiritual power of such a magnificent bird?

Once, on a hunting trip in the Bighorn Mountains, Cheyenne warrior Wooden Leg watched as an eagle swooped down on a buffalo calf and carried it far up a cliff to its nest.

“Ordinarily a capturing eagle would drop its prey from high in the air, so that it would be killed by the fall to the ground,” Wooden Leg told his biographer Thomas Marquis. “But this did not happen in this case. As long as we stayed there watching, we could see the buffalo calf standing up there on the cliff and wiggling its tail.”

In 1875, at the end of his grueling vision quest on Otter Creek in southeastern Montana, the 17-year-old warrior was presented with an eagle wing bone flute by his father.

“It was to be worn about my neck, suspended at the mid-breast by a buckskin thong during times of danger,” Wooden Leg said. “If I were threatened with imminent harm I had but to put it to my lips and cause it to send out its soothing notes. That would ward off every evil design upon me. It was my mystic protector. It was my medicine.”

Warriors sought the courage and protection of the eagle in battle and wore eagle feathers as a testimony of honors earned. Each tribal group had its own traditions.

“An eagle’s feather worn in the hair was a mark of distinction and told the world that the wearer had counted coups,” Crow Chief Plenty Coups said in his biography by Frank Linderman.

If a Crow warrior was wounded counting coups — a lesser honor than returning from the field of battle without a scratch — the feather would be painted red to show that he bled, Plenty Coups said.
Four eagle feathers were attached to the shield given to Sitting Bull by his father after exploits against the Crow at Powder River. The four feathers boasted of his success in all four directions.
Warriors couldn’t just claim to have counted coups. The deeds had to be witnessed and attested before the right to wear an eagle feather was earned.
Even after intertribal warfare ceased and tribes have been relegated to reservations, the eagle continues to hold its power.
Joseph Medicine Crow, a Crow historian and World War II veteran, wrote in “Counting Coups” that before he went to war, a Shoshone sun dance chief gave him a white eagle feather. When battle loomed, he stuffed it inside his helmet. He credits the feather with protecting him during the bloody invasion of Germany.
Then he passed the feather on to one of his cousins.
It was carried by members of Medicine Crow’s family to Africa, Germany, Italy and later to Korea.

Photo: Crow Chief Plenty Coups in eagle feather headdress
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