Tail Feather Fans | Everything You Need To Know

Posted By Jonathan Holmes February 16th, 2012 Last Updated on: February 28th, 2022

In the late 1800s, Ponca, Omaha, and Osage, as well as straight dancers from other Southern Plains tribes, could be seen in old photos, (see examples below) carrying a feather fan made from the complete tail of a golden eagle, with the tanned body-skin and feathers, and the head, hanging below the tail. The dancer would simply wrap the “head and tail fan,” as it is commonly called, with wool or hide at the base of the fan tail as a hand grip. These feather fans were not only for the practical purpose of cooling oneself in hot weather, but also for spiritual purposes as the golden eagle was highly revered as a holy or sacred bird.

Black Hawk Iowa – 1869

Standing On The Prairie Iowa – 1900

Ke-Wa-Ko (Good Fox) – Pawnee – 1902

Standing Bear – Otoe – 1900

As time evolved the head and tail fan was replaced by a fan made with just the tail of the golden eagle, known by the scientific community as (Aquila chrysaetus). These Native American tail fans would have an elongated handle usually made from a wooded dowel which was attached to the tail by a variety of methods. (see examples below)

Three Fingers – Southern Cheyenne – 1898

Whirlwind and family – Southern Cheyenne – 1895

Quanah Parker Comanche – 1890

Big Looking Glass Comanche – 1894

Albert Atocni Comanche – 1926

The handle and the beginning base of the tail were usually beaded in the gourd-stitch net technique in size 11/0, 13/0 or 16/0 glass seed beads. The end of the handle of the fan usually will have a bunch of twisted deerskin fringe which is typical of the style in many Southern Plains tribes.

Today, since the golden eagle is a protected species, many straight dancers will use hand-painted imitation eagle tail feathers available at many craft supply stores and trading posts.

Though an occasional straight dancer can be seen today carrying a wing feather fan, the tail feather fan has become the norm. Among the Ponca,

…straight dancers usually carry an eagle tail fan in the left hand.
(Howard, 1965, p. 64)

This tradition of carrying the tail fan in the left hand originates in the traditional Ponca belief that what is carried in the left hand represents life and peace, such as a prayer pipe or an eagle tail fan. What was carried in the right hand represented death and war, such as a weapon or coupstick. In addition, when warriors of friendly plains tribes met, they would typically raise the open right hand in a greeting, showing that they carried no weapon and had peaceful intentions. (Abe Conklin, Ponca/Osage, 1987)

Fenner, Earl C.
1984. A Note on Flat Fan Construction. Moccasin Tracks Magazine, December Issue, LaPalma, CA.

Howard, Dr. James H.
1965. The Ponca Tribe. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 195, Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.

McGee, W. J.
1898. Ponka Feather Symbolism. American Anthropologist, Vol. 11, No. 5.

Past, Richard E.
1969. A Fan Construction Technique. Pow-Wow Trails, Vol. 5, No. 3, Somerset, NJ.

Reddick, Rex.
2003. American Indian Flat Dance Fan Construction. Whispering Wind: American Indian Past & Present Magazine, Vol. 33, No. 4, Folsom, LA.

Risdon, Tom, Jerry Smith and Kaysee Tsuji.
1984. Three Flat Fans. Moccasin Tracks Magazine, December Issue, LaPalma, CA.

Ross, John.
1974. Flat Fan Construction. Whispering Wind: American Indian Past & Present Magazine, March Issue, Folsom, LA.

Stewart, Tyronne H.
1970. Modern Flat Fans. American Indian Crafts & Culture Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 4, Tulsa, OK.

Home » Native American Articles » Native American Culture » Tail Feather Fans | Everything You Need To Know

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rob mcClellan

swell pics, loads of um @ “western hist. collection @ OU, Norman Ok.
ive been blessed,asked to make or fix fans,tail,wing,peyote… if I can I do, if not I find sumone that can…keep it alive,keep it alive.
but loads of gov.red tape on the red man…..don’t dig it @ ALL….
that’s all I have to say ’bout that 4 now


Thanks for sharing. It’s nice to see that many if the flat fans are still keeping true to their historical beginnings even with different techniques.


Interesting! Thanks for the info.

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