Concerning Owls

By Paul G on July 21, 2011
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Concerning Owls

By Jonathan Holmes

First, let me state that in one’s desire to learn more about the beliefs concerning owls, I recommend talking with your family members and tribal elders about what certain bird or animal parts may represent within your family, clan, or tribe.

When folks go to a pow-wow that has some people from tribes that traditional beliefs about owls, owl feathers, or owl parts, it may be confusing to understand why some individuals would avoid an individual wearing these feathers. Therefore, I can offer the following information I’ve learned over the last 30 years or more, from many different tribal elders. Please keep in mind that this is only a partial sample of some of the wide variety of traditional beliefs concerning owls.

[ad#rectangle]Among many tribes, the owl is to be both feared and embraced. Traditionally, many tribes believed, (and some individuals still hold these beliefs), that certain medicine people (both male and female) could be drawn to that part of spiritual power that would do harm to other people. Some tribes called them “witches” or the equivalent of a witch in their particular language. These “witches” or medicine people that practiced “bad medicine” were believed to have the ability to shape-shift or transform themselves into an animal or bird. Many of these witches, it was believed, would change into the form of an owl so that they could fly silently through the night to cast spells on people while they were asleep and vulnerable to spiritual forces, or at the very least, spy on people and learn their weaknesses.

Because the average tribal member did not have the knowledge to distinguish a real owl from one that was actually a witch that had shape-shifted into the form of an owl, all owls were avoided in general for safety sake. It was believed that only the holy people, or medicine men, had the special knowledge to tell them apart.

Holy men or holy women among many tribes frequently sought out the spiritual help from real owls in their healing practices. The holy people believed that the owl had very soft and gentle ways, similar to the softness of an owl’s feather, and these ways were taught to them in the healing ways. Therefore, whenever owl feathers were worn by an individual, it often meant that they were a medicine person with healing abilities.

Among many tribes, two of the owls with tufts on their heads, the Great Horned Owl and the Screech Owl, are often seen as the most uncanny and most dangerous of owls. In fact, some tribes believe that individual examples of these owls may not even be real birds at all, but instead are actually transformed witches as described above, or as in some other tribes, the unquiet spirits of the dead. 

There are a number of reasons why these two owls, the Great Horned Owl and the Screech Owl, might be seen as particularly powerful. First, they have tufts or horns on their heads, and horns are often signs of spiritually powerful beings for many tribes. Horned water serpents are just one example, which are seen as chief of the underworld powers by many tribes. So the tufts or horns on these owls likely connect them to underworld powers.

Second, like most owls, Great Horned Owls and Screech Owls are active mainly at night, locating their prey in the darkness, flying on noiseless wings, and communicating with other owls through their weird sounding hoots, unlike most other birds, which are active in the day. Because many tribes associate night with death and the underworld, it is no surprise that some tribes often associate nocturnal owls with death and the underworld as well.

Finally, specific characteristics of these two owls make them stand out from other owls. Great Horned Owls are one of the largest owls, and can take much larger prey than other owls, such as opossums and skunks, instead of the usual mice or voles, for instance. The calls of Great Horned Owls can also be especially disturbing to some. Occasionally it utters sounds resembling the half-choking cries of a person nearly strangled, and it is sometimes attracted by a campfire and will fly over it, shrieking as is goes.

Screech Owls, although much smaller than Great Horned Owls, also have ample claims to their weird behavior. First, they come in two color phases, red and gray, and of course red is often seen as a spiritually powerful color among many tribes. They also utter disturbing cries at night, which have been described by some as screeching and by others as wails. Small wonder then, that many of the positive traits of owls are seen to belong to more normal-seeming species, such as the Barred Owl of the woodlands, also known as the Hoot Owl, as well as the Short-Eared Owl or Burrowing Owl of the Plains. 

Both the Otoe and the Ioway had a Hoot Owl Clan for instance, and the Ioway name for that clan, Mankoke, is the same as the Ioway word for the Barred Owl. The Ponca once had an owl sub-clan and the Osage also are said to have had an Owl People or Wapunka Inihkacina although I’m not sure if it was a clan, or a sub-clan.

Among the Cheyenne, contemporary members of the tribe only considered one kind of owl to be a bird, the Short-Eared Owl, which they know as the “snake-eating owl,” an important source of medicine power for doctors or healers. All other owls the Cheyenne class as mista, or “spirits of the night.” Even the Cheyenne Contraries or Hohnuhke in the buffalo days wore the feathers of the “little prairie owl” in their headdresses, but not the feathers of the Great Horned Owl or the Screech Owl. Among the Hidatsa, it is said that a particular warrior had a guardian spirit in the form of a Burrowing Owl or Prairie Dog Owl, which was said to have protected him from being shot.

Warriors often sought to draw upon owl powers. For instance, Cheyenne warriors attached owl feathers to their shields, or wore them on their arms, to impart the owl’s special powers, such as the ability to see in the dark and move silently and unnoticed.

In a similar way, Creek warriors carried owl feathers so that they would have extraordinary night vision in battle. Among the Cherokee, one of four scouts on a war expedition, whose tasks it was to locate the enemy, wore an owl skin and imitated the owl’s cry. The Cherokee also observed Screech Owls closely while they were out looking for the enemy, because these owls were said to be able to foretell victory or defeat in battle.

Members of many of the warrior societies of the plains tribes, such as the various dog soldier societies, also wore owl feathers or used them on their ceremonial objects, such as the Arikara Young Dogs Society, and the Hidatsa Dog Society. Several tribes had sacred owl bundles that they used while out looking for the enemy, including the Ioway and the Fox tribes.

The owl’s predatory prowess was important to hunters also. The Pawnee have several stories of owls who gave some of their power to individuals so that they could become excellent hunters, with the ability to see at night.

Among the Hidatsa, a large Speckled Owl was said to be the chief of the spirits controlling the game, and the bundle used in the Hidatsa Earth Naming Ceremony To call for buffalo it contained the head, two wings, and two claws of a Speckled Owl. The Monomania were also gifted with hunting power from the owls known as the Spotted Fawn Medicine.

[ad#rectangle]In many tribes, owls were seen as most closely allied with medicine men, rather than warriors or hunters. Lakota Medicine Men or Peju’ta Wica’sa respect the owl because it moves at night when people sleep, and the medicine men get their power from dreams at night such as clear dreams like the owl’s sight. So many Lakota medicine men wear owl feathers and promise never to harm the owl, or else it is believed their powers will leave them.

Creek medicine men often carried an owl skin or feather as a symbol of their calling. Ponca medicine men also used owl feathers in their healing ceremonies and Ojibwa medicine men placed a stuffed owl near them while they were making medicine, so that it could “see if they do it right.”

The Pawnee used an owl medicine, and among the Pawnee it is said that “the owl is the leading medicine-man among the birds.”

In addition, owls were said by the Alabama, the Caddo, the Cherokee, and the Lakota, to bring prophetic news, either of the future or of events happening at a great distance, to the few medicine men who could understand them.

The owl’s association with medicine men can also be bad news for ordinary folks. If a medicine man used owl power on your behalf, great, but if the medicine man of another tribe used his powers against you, then he could be an evil witch or bad medicine man trying to steal your soul. Because witches or bad medicine men were believed to be able to transform into owls, or to use owls to send death or disease, you could never quite be sure if an owl you saw was a real owl, a transformed witch, or an owl sent on a mission by a witch. The owls most often believed to be shape shifted witches were, the Great Horned or Screech Owls. So among the Cherokee, the same word, skili, was used to refer to both witches and Great Horned Owls.

The Alabama, Caddo, Catawba, Choctaw and Monomania also associated Great Horned Owls or Screech Owls or both with witches, and the Wisconsin Ojibway also link witches and owls. Small wonder, then, that among many tribes, seeing or hearing an owl is believed to be a bad omen, often signaling serious illness or death to come, especially when a night owl is seen during the day, or an owl is found hanging about the home or village instead of the woods.

It is their connections with death, the afterlife, and rebirth that truly mark owls as a force to be reckoned with for most tribes. First, owls are either considered to be embodied spirits of the dead or associated with such spirits, by a very wide range of tribes, including the Lakota, Omaha, Cheyenne, Fox, Ojibway, Menominee, Cherokee and Creek. Several of these tribes also have stories of an owl being that stands at a fork in the road in the sky, or the milky way, that leads to the land of the dead, letting some souls pass, but condemning others to roam the earth as ghosts forever.

The Fox tribe also speak of a soul-bridge that leads to the land of the dead. They say that there are two paths at the soul-bridge, one is red and one is gray. The red path is followed by men, the gray by women. It has been suggested that this is in reference to the two color phases of the Screech Owl, which are also red and gray.

[ad#rectangle]However, owls were not just connected with death and the afterlife, but also with rebirth through the Calumet Ceremony. Owl feathers encircle the stems of the calumet pipes used for adoption ceremonies among the Omaha, Osage, Kansas, Ioway and Pawnee. It is said that these owl feathers symbolized deer lungs, and together with the stem of the calumet, which represented a windpipe, they were used symbolically to blow life back into the person being adopted in the Calumet Ceremony.

Lastly, I want to remind readers to use caution concerning the use of owl feathers, since all owls, eagles and hawks, including their feathers and body parts, are protected in the U. S. by the Predatory Bird Act of 1964.

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TOPICS: Native American Culture

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20 Responses to “Concerning Owls”

  1. IyanHoks'ila says:

    Among the Sicangu Lakota, there is a society known as the Owl Feather Bonnet Society, and there is a story that tells when there was a time when some Sicangu Lakota where being chased by the Calvary, they prayed to get away, a person in this group had a dream that the Naca was wearing a owl feather bonnet and they were invisible to the soldiers, so they made one and turn back toward the US Army and when they met them they walked right past them and got away. So the owl feather bonnet society began, the people of St. Francis, SD are those who descend from this group, historical note, before the Catholics came, St. Francis was called Owl Bonnet.

  2. scotttreaty says:

    Like all of the Bird Nations, the Owl is sacred, The owl is known to be able to alert an individual of coming news or message that is out of the ordinary or unique in nature. The news of a “death” in a family (that a person allegedly seen or heard an Owl just prior) has been misconstrued as “a bad sign” – where, however, leaving this world is a good thing and not something to be feared or considered negative or bad. This stereotype is most likely christian-based or early pioneer “wives tales” in origin.

  3. larry blazek says:

    thanks for the information about owls; i have owls living in the trees near my house and often hear them; hawks live in the trees nearby; i sometimes find thier feathers

  4. mandybre says:

    I love the great horned owl! Two years ago, I rescued one from a barbed wire fence and managed to get him to a rehabber. He is now healed and flying again free. I keep his picture and a couple of feathers in a frame.

  5. Karen Leon (Mama Crow) says:

    I will share my story of my beautiful relationship with Mama & Papa Owl – this has been a 30 year passage – obviously not the same owls but they teach one another that we are good – safe folks. Hope you enjoy my note below on FB.

    https://www.facebook.com/#!/note.php?note_id=182339735142901

  6. Rene Desjarlais says:

    I had agreat horned owl appear in my evergreen tree last fall and he stayed for 2 days and then left. Now on Christmas morning I discovered a fully intact Great Horned owl in a dumpster while walking my dogs. I could not stand to see him there and retrieved him and putting him in my freezer till a friend of mine could do a ceremony for this beatiful animal. Does anyone know what omem may be attatched to this bird?Dec.27 2011

  7. terry esposito says:

    Over the years I have had many owls come to me, both day and night. 2 nights ago I came upon one sitting on the road, and it flew up and over me. I felt it was an omen, not necessarily a bad one. I found out today, I may have cancer and need surgery!

  8. Jeremy says:

    3-4 weeks ago family member Heard a owl screaming in the back of the family home and then people i work with seen a owl at our junction road last week and then the news this week is that one of my family members has a sickness.

  9. Darcie says:

    I found a great horned owl feather floating over a stream almost out of reach. Suspended in air floating.

  10. Salt Valley Sally says:

    Thank you for this compendium of sacred lore regarding owls and their medicine. Since childhood, an owl spirit has been a guardian and messenger for me. Last fall owls came to my neighborhood for several nights, and when they spoke, I answered, and they replied. Lately my thoughts have been drawn to owls, and yesterday, an owl fetish came into my hands. Best wishes to you and to all our relations.

  11. sac lancel says:

    The sound is also great! I experience them for couple months now without the need of problems and Vendors . them towards anyone however ages. sac lancel http://www.saclancelsoldes2013.net

  12. Katie says:

    I came upon a screech owl. Adult male, gray and small and looked like it had a broken wing. Eventually was able to get him into a box that I put a towel on the bottom, poked holes in and made dark and warm for him until the Wildlife location was open the next morning. The next morning, I looked into the box. He was standing and minding his own business. Then right before I was to leave my home, I looked again and saw him on his side. His eyes looked into mine and he was breathing heavy with his beak opening and closing and his tongue going in and out. I thought could he be dying?? I said in a calming voice, you’re going to be alright, you are safe. I closed the lid of the cardboard box and off I went to the Wildlife museum. I was there for about 5 minutes, they thanked me for doing all I could to rescue the injured owl…but said he had passed. What does this mean? I believe in signs. This could be nothing and I will go on with life as normal, but to see an owl, to take care of one, have one in your home for a night, and to bring to the wildlife docs to rescue is not typical. I can see saving a cat or dog…but an owl is sooooo odd to find during daylight hours. Please tell me if you know what all this could mean. Thank you

    • Mit says:

      That’s pretty amazing encounter !!! I would see it as pretty dang specific really – you had an owl visit you. Period. So- how does that NEED to apply to you currently in your life? How best can you benefit from his visit? Research owl medicine and learn- what resonates at soul level to you? And give thanks :).

  13. Sarah says:

    I’ve seen a owl several times when I was a teenager. I walked home late at night from a friends house a lot on the way home I would see the same owl at the same time at night sitting in the middle of the street. He was watching me his head kept turning. For some reason I was scared, I don’t know why… I saw a owl on the television today an it brought me back to this. No one passed away at the time. My mother was not doing well, but this was before that owl came into my life. She was diagnosed with M.S.. I look back now, I think he was protecting me from something. Once during that time I took my dog for a walk a man tried following me home, I walked back and forth to find out if he really was following me and he was.

  14. Nancy harris says:

    My sister is a creek Indian often hears owls that sounds like a baby crying yesterday she saw an owl in the yard we had a first cousin pass away this week what this mean she was very frighten

  15. Barbie says:

    About two weeks before my father died from cancer, I had a dream about an owl in a tree by my house. I told my dad about it, my sister was also there, so she heard what I said to dad, and I asked him what that meant, he said I would know later. I wasn’t at the hospital when my dad died, but I could feel something was wrong. When I got home my husband came out to the car and told me that dad died, and he also added, that there was also an owl in the same tree right afterwards. I never told my husband about it, before, he always laughed when things happened, but after that he never laughed again, but I told my sister later what happen and we figured that was dad saying good bye. Do you think that was true, its been almost 20 years but I still remember it.

  16. Brandon says:

    As a cherokee Indian I feel it is also important to share our traditional belief about owls. When the world was being created all the animals gathered and watched as the creator made our great land. The cougar and owl were the only animals to stay awake for the entire 7 nights of creation the the creator rewarded them for watching over the earth. He gave them similar gifts / features. Both are nocturnal, both have large eyes to see in the night, both are able to move silently through the forest and both resemble each other (ever notice how a great horned owl looks like a cat with its feather tufts?). The owl is also believed to give shamans a special connection to the other side to help them with healing and to receive messages from the spiritual realm. Over the years people have adapted the owls meaning to many different things. There is one saying if you hear an owls hoot a death is near. Others compare the wall of an owl to a wise old man so they feel it brings wisdom. Others do in fact say witches or shape shift into owls. They are called skili to us and this is the term used for witches and all great horned owls. To me the owl is a special gift. It is not bad in any way. To see an owl is a blessing. I feel it means there is a message from the other side. Almost as a psychic message saying everything is going to be ok. Hope this helps.

    • Crane Clan says:

      I’m Ojiwbe and have been confused over this topic for years. Throughout my life I have lived by what I have been taught that owls are a bad sign, and brings news of death or sickness. As I have grown older and become deeply involved in a traditional life and learning more and more of old teachings, I find that I have a new view towards owls. Over the last few years I keep finding owls, I knew they were finding me for a reason. One found me tonight, a great big horn owl. Even though my father believes they are a bad sign, he told me to hang on to it. He understands that certain people poses the power to use owl feathers. I’m questioning myself tonight if I am now one of those people who can use owls.

  17. Momo says:

    Today I was home with my two older kids, as I walked out of my son’s bedroom and looked down the hallway into the living room, I saw a big gray owl sitting on a stan. I stepped back and took a double look but it wasn’t there. I guess I saw it in the spiritual realm. Can someone tell me what does this mean?..Thanks

  18. Rachael says:

    Recently, a dear friend of mine passed away. He was a Cherokee. I was wondering if there is any taboo or meanings if I was to place an owl feather into his casket at his funeral, which still has not happened. My reason being that the owl has strong significance to me personally, and I feel that it represents me. Would this be offensive to the Cherokee people in any way? I would not wish to be disrespectful of my dear friend’s culture/beliefs – I just want to include a feather with a card I have written for him as I believe it symbolises myself. I would appreciate advice on this matter as I don’t want to do the wrong thing.

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