Attached in the socket-like cylinder of the roach spreader, a single golden eagle tail feather is often times referred to as the roach feather.
For many dancers today, commercially available hand-painted imitation eagle feathers are used as the roach feather.
The tail feather is attached in such a way as to move freely and swivel somewhat independently of the dancer’s movements. Of the twelve tail feathers commonly seen on a golden eagle, the two feathers at the outer-most edges of the tail, also referred to as blade feathers, were the most prized as roach feathers. (Abe Conklin, Ponca/Osage,1985)
Immature golden eagle feathers are seen most often for roach feathers with their characteristic charcoal colored tip on an otherwise white feather, among dancers who are enrolled tribal members. Golden eagles will have this immature coloring to their tail feathers for at least the first five years of their life.
A fully mature golden eagle tail feather will be almost completely charcoal in color with molted bands of a lighter shade.
The relationship of the golden eagle to the traditional spiritual beliefs are far too complex to be presented in this text. However, there was a definite and profound spiritual connection, and still is for many central and southern plains tribes.
It is said that the single roach feather represented the Ponca warrior’s first war honor (known today by the French term of counting coup), and was decorated accordingly.
In early times among the Omaha-Ponca there was a system of graded war honors called uoN or acts accomplished with specific decorations or ornaments worn by a warrior who had been publicly acknowledged as having performed certain acts to gain the war honors. The six grades of war honors recorded by Alice Fletcher and Francis LaFlesche in their work titled, The Omaha Tribe were,
1. The highest honor was to strike an unwounded enemy with the hand or bow. This feat required bravery and skill to escape unharmed. Only two warriors could take this honor from the same person (enemy)….For the first grade the warrior was entitled to wear in his scalplock, so arranged as to stand erect on the head, the white-tipped (tipped with black) feather from the tail of the golden eagle.
2. This honor required the warrior to strike a wounded enemy. Only two could take this honor from the same man….As a sign of having won the second grade, the warrior could wear the white-tipped (tipped with black) feather from the tail of the golden eagle fastened to his scalplock so as to project horizontally at the side of the head.
3. To strike with the hand or the bow the body of a dead enemy. Only two could take this honor from the corpse….The third-grade honor entitled the man to wear the eagle feather so as to hang from the scalplock.
4. To kill an enemy….The fourth-grade honor was shown by wearing an arrow through the scalplock or by carrying a bow in the hand at certain ceremonial dances. Later, when guns were introduced among the Omaha, the man who killed the enemy with a gun wore a necklace of shavings; this represented the wadding formerly used in loading guns.
5. To take the scalp. This honor ranked with no. 3, since the dead man could not resist, although the friends of the slain might rally around the body and strive to prevent the act by carrying the man off. Two could scalp the same enemy….The fifth grade ranked with the third, and the eagle feather was worn hanging from the scalplock.
6. To sever the head from the body of an enemy….The sixth grade was not marked by any regalia but the man who had performed the deed that constituted this grade was entitled to act as master of ceremonies at the feast held at the meetings of the Hethu’shka society of warriors. Besides the wearing of the eagle feather, men who had won honors of the first, second and third grades were entitled to wear on ceremonial occasions the deer-tail headdress. This was a sort of roach made of the deer’s tail and the tuft of coarse hair from the neck of the turkey (a.k.a. turkey beard). The deer’s tail was dyed red; the turkey hair was used in it’s natural color of black.
(Fletcher & LaFlesche, 1911, pp. 437-439)
Even today, some dancers will wear feathers according to the old war honor system such as,
…a wounded man wore a feather dyed red.
(Mails, 1972, p. 301)
While the plain, undecorated, single immature golden eagle tail feather worn upright in the hair roach is still the most widely seen today, there are some individuals who will choose to adorn the feather following old traditions. For instance, some rattlesnake rattles have been observed on the tips of the roach feather among some Comanche straight dancers. In addition, the Chicago Field Museum has on display a turkey beard hair roach headdress labeled as Sauk & Fox. The hair roach has a golden eagle roach feather decorated with an eagle breath plume on the tip and a rattlesnake rattle attached to the middle of the feather. Concening this feather adornment, “WhoMe” stated on Powwows.com (11-10-2004, [10:51] AM) that,
“I asked a person, whose opinion I respect a whole lot, to look at the picture of the rattlesnake tail and give me his opinion. What he said makes a lot of sense. He said that on the top of the feather is the eagle plume called a “whisper or breath” plume. It represents the upper world and sky people. The rattlesnake tail (located halfway down the feather) represents the underworld. Also on the eagle feather that I spoke of is a series of painted spots. He said this represents the people inbetween the underworld and upperworld. He also told me that the Sac & Fox of Oklahoma and Mesquakie of Iowa both used the rattlesnake to adorn their eagle feathers, in days gone by.”
Small eagle plumes and/or horsehair tufts on the tip of the roach feather have been observed among the Ponca, Omaha, Pawnee, and Sauk & Fox. Giving a clue to this type of feather decoration, in reference to eagle feathers worn in the feathered headdress or war bonnet, Fletcher & LaFlesche in their work The Omaha Tribe state that,
Each one of these feathers stood for a man; the tip of hair fastened to the feathers and painted red represented the man’s scalp lock. Before a feather could be fastened on the bonnet a man must count his honors which entitled him to wear the feather…Formerly only the man who had taken a scalp could put the tip of red hair on the eagle feathers, so that every feather thus ornamented stood for two honors – the feather itself for one of the first three war honors, the tip for the taking of a scalp.
(Fletcher & LaFlesche, 1911, p. 447)
In addition, porcupine quilled strips decorating the length of the center quill have been seen among the Osage, Missouri, Iowa and Otoe straight dancers.
It is important to note that these different type of feather adornments mentioned may still have special significance for the individual wearer or may have special significance within different warrior or veteran societies.
Some examples from the past:
(Take note of some of the feather adornments.)
Big Mouth Hawk – Arapaho – 1872
Osage man – 1875
Po-ga-ha-ma-we – Sauk & Fox – 1888
Cannot Do It – Sauk & Fox – 1890
Comanche man – 1891
Henry Red Eagle and son – Osage – 1893
Osage man – no date
Bushy Tail – Otoe – 1894
Iron Man Coming – Otoe – 1895
Frank Corndropper and Paul Buffalo – Osage – 1895
Fish Rub Against Something – Sauk & Fox – 1896
Po-ga-ha-ma-we – Sauk & Fox – 1896
Willie Gray Eyes – Sauk & Fox – 1896
(Note: Rattlesnake rattle suspended from quill in middle of feather.)
William Faw Faw – Otoe – no date
Comanche man – 1898
Howard Frost – Omaha – 1898
John Wood – Osage – 1910
Fletcher, Alice C. and Francis LaFlesche.
1911. The Omaha Tribe. Bureau of American Ethnology, 27th Annual Report 1905-06, Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.
Mails, Thomas E.
1972. The Mystic Warriors of the Plains. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.