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.