Have you ever been in a situation where everyone wanted to speak at once – and no one was really listening to the thoughts or opinions of others? If so, I’ll bet that the result was not so good. Confusion, frustration, anger and disharmony – right?
In many Native American tribes or groups, a talking feather (or stick or stone or object) is a wonderful tool to create the space where everyone listens and people feel heard.
I wanted to share the story behind it – as told by one of my sisters from the local pow-wow dance circuit in Pennsylvania, Bobbie Jo Scheren (Eastern Delaware). Not only is this a wonderful story, but it also shares some great tools for learning to listen and for working cooperatively with others. A great lesson for kids and adults alike!
LEGEND OF THE TALKING FEATHER
(as retold by Bobbie Jo Sheren, from Lakota tradition)
Many winters ago the people received a gift called the talking feather. I will share with you the story of how this came to pass.
When the call came to the young mothers in the village to take their baskets and gather the fruit and berries, the old grandmothers, whose legs had lost the fast walk and sure foot of the doe, were left to care for the young children. The mothers honored the grandmothers by giving them this responsibility on those days.
It is believed that the young children have many dreams and visions to collect before they are grown. They were given a bit of sleep in the warmth of a darkened lodge before Sun has traveled his full path each day. Now let me tell you what happened on one of these days.
Crow and Magpie, two of our noise-making winged ones were having a terrible argument outside the lodge of the sleeping children. “Caaaw-caaaw” screamed Crow. “Kaaack-Kack” yelled Magpie. They were both speaking at once and they could not hear each other’s point of view on the subject of which tree belonged to which bird.
Now first one of the grandmothers asked Creator to quiet the voices outside. This was easier than going out to take care of it herself. But Creator let the grandmother know that it was her job to go out and scare off the birds. You see Wakan Tonka (The Sacred Being – Creator) knew that a great gift was coming to the people and he wanted the grandmother to see it happen.
When she could not get the attention of the screaming Crow or yelling Magpie, she called on Eagle, most Wakan (sacred) winged one. “Oh brother Eagle can you chase off these two noisy ones so our children can still dream”, asked the grandmother.
With a mighty flap of his wings and a leap from the limb he sailed towards the noisy pair. He gave a call of warning to the Crow and Magpie as he came close, but they were so busy fighting they did not even hear him. When Eagle saw this he yelled louder and came closer, and that is when it happened.
“Caaaw-caaaw, Caaaw-caaaw”, Crow screamed as he flapped his wings in the air so hard he nearly fell off his perch. “Kaaack-Kack”, yelled Magpie as his wings too flapped up a storm. Suddenly they both felt the contact of a sacred Eagle wing and saw a feather fall as they froze in mid squawk! (An eagle feather is sacred and is not supposed to touch the ground). Oh my, what had they done? Crow swooped down and caught the feather before it landed on Mother Earth. As he came back to the branch he heard Magpie speaking to Eagle.
“Oh brother Eagle most Wakan (sacred) of our family we did not hear you so near. I am truly sorry for the injury I have caused you.”
Crow was surprised to hear such an honorable thing come from the mouth of this rude neighbor. He held the Eagle feather in one claw and spoke with dignity. “I have many times been a naughty bird, but brother Eagle I think this may be the worst I have done in many moons. I am very sorry for this bad thing I have done.”
Magpie was shocked, could this be that unruly Crow who spoke such wise words? Crow handed the feather to Magpie so he could give it back to Eagle. As Magpie took the feather their eyes met and with no words at all they both knew that this mistake would not have happened if they had not been fighting. Magpie spoke as he took the feather and said, “I am ashamed, brother Eagle, that my loud talk and harsh words were more important to me than solving our problem.”
He looked to Crow for a sign of understanding. Crow took the feather back from Magpie and said, “We have disturbed the two legged children and torn from your wing a sacred feather and now we return it to you with a request for your forgiveness.”
Eagle had watched all this with wise eyes and an open heart. He knew the lesson of listening had been learned by his little brothers and he saw that the grandmother looked on with learning eyes also. So he said to Crow, “Give my feather to the grandmother so that she might dress it with beads and leather and fur to make it even more beautiful. Let her keep it in her lodge and teach others to create this fine looking feather.”
Eagle said, “We will call this sacred item a Talking Feather. You have seen it’s power, grandmother. Tell all the people that when they come together for Council Fires or at any gathering where ears might be shut, to bring out the Talking Feather and let only the holder speak. This will be done in an honorable manner letting everyone have his say. Begin with the highest ranking Elder and pass the feather until all have spoken.”
“When the feather is held with its back to the listeners and the inside curve to the speaker he will hear his own words first as they come back to him. This will help to tame the harsh tongue of the two legged.
As Eagle spoke these words Crow brought the feather to the grandmother. She was very honored to have learned this lesson and she brought the feather to her lodge and every grandmother from that day on has told this story and helped the young ones to make Talking Feathers.
ACCORDING TO SISTER KATHY ANDRUSH
Sister, Kathy Andrush, also from our local pow-wow circuit had some wonderful additions to this article. She shares her comments here:
“The Talking Feather was and is still used today. During a ceremony, a council meeting or a gathering of two or more people for a discussion, it’s use ensures the utmost respect. The feather is passed from one person to the next. Only when the feather comes to your hands are you allowed to speak. This allows each person the right to speak and allows the rest to totally listen to the speaker.
This custom is not limited to just the Talking Feather. A Talking Stick, Talking Stone, Talking Skin, Talking Shell, Talking Cloth, have also been used.
Any number of things could be used to assist us Humans in learning and using the art of good communication skills!
The feather is the carrier of our prayers…ALL WORDS are a PRAYER. Our voice is a vibration into the Heavens.”