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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Eagle Symbolism in Wisconsin


In honor of July 4th, we offer another glimpse into the bald eagle, this time in its role as a cultural symbol in Wisconsin history.

Long before white people came to Wisconsin, Native Americans used eagles' tail feathers to express power and bravery. Warriors in most tribes from the Great Plains to the Northeast were only permitted to wear eagle feathers after they had killed an enemy. This 1890 portrait of the famous Sioux chief Sitting Bull, by Superior, Wis., photograph David Barry, shows how they were typically worn by warriors of the Plains tribes.

The long feathered headdress made famous by white advertisers and Hollywood film producers in the 20th century was not worn by Wisconsin Indians, who generally adorned themselves with a small number of feathers on the top of the head (as in this portrait of the great Menominee war chief Souligny). The Sauk leader Black Hawk wore "his hair plucked out, with the exception of the scalp-lock in which on ceremonial occasions was fastened a bunch of eagle feathers."

Indians also used eagle feathers to decorate the sacred pipe, or calumet, that was reserved for the most important ceremonies. "There is tyed to it the tayle of an eagle," wrote one of the first Europeans to see it, "all painted over with severall coulours and open like a fan, or like that makes a kind of a wheele when he shuts." Here is a calumet held by 90-year-old Naw-Kaw, a Ho-Chunk chief painted in 1832 during a visit to Washington. Other Indian artifacts decorated with eagle feathers, from tribes of the Great Plains, are shown in this 1832 print by Karl Bodmer.

The Founding Fathers of the U.S. also chose the eagle as a symbol of bravery and strength when they designed the nation's great seal in 1782. Benjamin Franklin had reservations about it, though, since he thoguht the eagle was "a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk [osprey]; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him." As a national symbol, Franklin prefered the turkey.

But the eagle had symbolic power. During the War of 1812, in the only battle fought on Wisconsin soil, an American flag was hoisted above the fort at Prairie du Chien. According to Augustin Grignon, it flew for three days as British forces and their Indian allies attacked the Americans, and "when the American flag was hauled down. Col. McKay was the first to observe the singular fact that, though it was completely riddled elsewhere with balls, the representation of the american eagle was untouched."

Probably the best-known use of the eagle as a symbol in Wisconsin was Old Abe, the tame eagle carried throughout the Civil War by the Eighth Wisconsin Infantry. Having survived 17 battles, he returned home to live in special quarters in the state capitol until his death in 1881; his stuffed remains were consumed in the capitol fire of 1904. His story is told here, and pictures of him can be viewed here.


:: Posted in Animals on July 3, 2007

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