On Vancouver Island, westcoast wildlife has given our people all of the ingredients we need to explain the different facets of our character traits. For example, the bear may represent physical protection, but the moon represents spiritual protection. Beavers work hard to signify teamwork for a project, such as building a dam, whereas wolves signify quick-thinking teamwork when it comes to tracking prey.
These sorts of representations allow us to connect to the animals and elements completely. We know when we as individuals identify with a certain animal when we can easily find traits in common. Sometimes it takes a close friend or family member to do it for us. For example, a beautiful woman may like to think she identifies herself with a hummingbird, but if her loved-ones believe her sense of humour or rebellious nature are her strongest traits, she is likely to be influenced by the raven.
Aside from totem animals, we also call on the spirit of these animals and elements for guidance. In our past, we might have called on the physically capable animals to bless us before a hunt, building our homes, or taking a journey. It seems that most often, man wanted some sense of the unknown. Since he, himself could not control the future, he looked to the eagle for foresight and intellect.
So, why the eagle? According to our folklore, the “wise old owl” seemed to loom whenever death was near. Our people began to associate the owl with death and change. The wolf seemed to prowl the beaches whenever an imminent threat was looming. After a while, our people began to find a connection with the wolves’ intuitiveness and took heed when they saw them near a village. But the eagle, high in the trees overseeing the land and water became a sign that its only purpose was to gather information and guide with integrity.
Today our people still believe the eagle is the most important animal. Of all the birds, the eagle is the strongest. Its capability to live on land and connect with the water makes it versatile and fearless. Swiftly flying from one area to another gives us the belief that its all-knowing nature means it can make a decision quickly and act accordingly. The eagle never seems to make a mistake. We only hope that we can live up to the standards of the eagle.
Like talking with an elder from the village or the chief himself, our people could privately connect with the eagle to understand our situations and ask for help. This is why today you will still see natives speaking at gatherings holding an eagle feather. This is also why eagle feathers are attached to talking sticks, and on wood carvings. When we see a feather on the beach, it’s as if the eagle has lent a piece of himself so that we may behold a fraction of their greatness.
Not everyone can claim the totem of the eagle without having demonstrated true leadership and intelligence. It takes many people to gift an individual with this honour, which is why we would feel more inclined to dedicate the animal to one of our grandmothers with years of life experience rather than a young, unseasoned, hereditary chief.
We believe the eagle is content with its place in the world we share. Those of us who wear the image of the eagle on our clothing, or own items with the eagle decorated on pieces of our wares can be connected to it at all times. We may be personally governed by the strength of one animal, but the eagle is like an old friend who is always with us to give advice and guide us to the right place.