Probably the iconic image of the Native American is a noble chief – perhaps on horseback – looking out over the Great Plains, magnificent eagle feather war bonnet tossing in the wind.
Not only plains tribes like the Sioux, Cheyenne, Crow, and Arapaho admired the eagle and used its feathers as important symbols and decorations….tribes all over the continent considered eagles to be powerful, fierce, brave, even messengers to the Spirit world. Some of those plains people would watch a golden eagle spiraling up, up, riding a great thermal, becoming a mere dot in the bright blue sky. It was a common belief that the eagle carried prayers of the worthy on its wide-swept wings, up to the spirits.
But if Native Americans joined people and nations around the world in using the eagle as a powerful symbol, it was also widespread for them to have an almost opposite view of owls. Plains people, Eastern Woodland tribes, and others often considered owls to be aligned with ominous spirits.
Mothers would even discipline small children and keep them under control by scaring them with the sound of an owl’s hooting in the dark of night….warning that if they did not behave, the owl might come for them! They had better stay in the safety of the lodge, and not venture out!
Both eagles and owls, of course, fulfill important roles in their natural environments. The golden and bald eagles are dominant avian predators. All varieties of owls play their parts in balancing rodent populations within their habitats. Some are highly specialized. Snowy owls may make snowshoe hares and lemmings the great majority of their diet.
These birds of prey are not just desirable because we admire their power and fierceness. Neither are they undesirable because the are active in the darkness of night, or because they will kill and eat cute little big horn lambs or fawns.
Even more than Native American peoples in their traditional cultures, modern people in our American society are prone to assign values and attitudes – and of greater concern, take action or not – based on how we feel about eagles, owls, birds of prey, and other animals. And in a society which has become increasingly urbanized, and therefore, less directly involved in the natural world….our feelings may be false.
An Associate Pastor who worked with me in one of my churches in Wisconsin made a drive Up North and was excited and full of admiration for a pair of bald eagles spotted by the early spring roadside….until the powerful birds swept down and started fighting between themselves over roadkill. “How disgusting!” was the reaction; as though a meal of opportunity was beneath the “noble eagle” because it was carrion.
Likewise, I have known “citified” people who would refuse to step out of a woodland cabin at night because they had heard an owl in a nearby tree and were frankly afraid!
Bald eagles, especially, not only are effective predators, they also scavenge a good deal for their food. The owl by the cabin is simply looking for mice, and may well be helping to keep them out of that cabin and becoming destructive.
The living things of Creation all have their roles, their “fit” in the natural order of things. In that sense, certainly, they are all “good”….and fulfill their purpose.
It is to be expected that we humans will find some creatures more attractive to us, that we will feel differently about some compared to others. But one of the greatest plagues in human societies is that we view, value, and act upon things too much out of feelings, often with little basis in fact. So many of our horrible “ism’s” result from uninformed, unthinking, attitudes and fears – racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, xenophobia.
Psalm 139, vv. 23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
May our hearts be searched and our thoughts tested, and if there are views, values, judgments, and wicked actions with no basis of fact, no justification, behind them, may we reject them and follow in the way everlasting, the Way of Truth, Life, and the Goodness of God.