Bald eagles and golden eagles were important birds in Native American culture and rituals. The birds were symbols of respect and honor and their feathers were often used in tribal ceremonies.
Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) range from Alaska and Canada to northern Mexico. The largest bald eagle populations are in the northwest because these birds prefer salmon for their food. The bald eagle was particularly revered by those tribes of the Pacific Northwest who also fished for salmon, such as the Salish and the Chinook.
Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos canadensis) are a subspecies of golden eagle. The Cherokee revered this eagle as an important war symbol. These eagles breed from Alaska to northern Mexico.
There are diverse beliefs about eagles in various tribes. Generally, eagles were considered a messenger. For, example, the tribes of the Pacific Northwest believed eagles were a connection between people and those powers that created the world. The eagles acted as wise counselors and as judges. For other tribes, eagles were the carriers of prayers, visions, and spirits between the worlds of the not yet born, the living, and the dead. Killing a golden eagle, in Cherokee tribes, was the work of a designated eagle hunter and required asking pardon for the sacrifice or else trouble would come upon the person who took the eagle. The Cherokees revered the golden eagle as a symbol that would give them victory in war.
Eagle feathers are symbols of honor and respect in Native American tribes. Natives, such as the Chinook, have used these feathers to award warriors who were brave in battle, to honor those who have come to prominence in the community, and to heal the sick and injured.
Eagles feathers are illegal to own in the United States except if you are a member of a registered Native American tribe. However, the eagle feathers may not be sold. Eagles feathers are considered objects important to tribal religion and therefore have value only in tribal culture. Native Americans may not give eagle feathers to those individuals not registered with a federally recognized tribe. The laws governing possession of eagle feathers are the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treat Act, and the Lacey Act. The punishments for violating these laws are severe fines, and possible imprisonment.