TRAVERSE CITY — Linda Woods wondered often why she never saw a woman veteran carrying an eagle staff at powwows and other American Indian ceremonies.
Now Woods — Vietnam-era Air Force veteran, retired nurse and Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians member — may be the first American Indian woman veteran in the state and nation to carry a ceremonial eagle staff.
She introduced Migizi, as she calls the staff, at the Grand Entry at the Peshawbestown Traditional 2012 Jingtamok last month. Migizi is the Odawa word for eagle. Jingtamok means powwow.
The diamond willow staff topped with an eagle head was made by Woods with assistance from several friends over eight months.
"I'm overwhelmed with joy," Woods said after the powwow. "This is not my staff. It's a healing staff for everyone."
Woods was born in Peshawbestown, graduated from Suttons Bay High School in 1961 and served in the United States Air Force from 1962-1966. She is the grand-daughter of the late Susan Miller, a well-known area basket maker, who took her to the Catholic church and also taught Woods native cultural and spiritual traditions, which American Indians couldn't practice openly until 1978.
Eagles and their feathers are considered sacred in native culture and spiritual traditions because they fly the highest and carry prayers to the Creator and messages back to Earth in many forms. They stand for strength, courage, healing and wisdom.
A JOURNEY BEGINS
The journey to the Peshawbestown powwow was a long one for Woods and the eagle.
This story starts in February 2008 when the eagle hit a power line in a severe ice storm and fell into Cheboygan County's Black River. An area resident saw it happen and reported the incident to tribal natural resources officers in Emmet County.
Two to three weeks went by with no response until someone told Perry Neuman, a Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewas member and pipe carrier who lives near the river and is familiar with ceremonies and traditions surrounding an eagle's death. He decided to look for it despite subzero temperatures.
"A fallen eagle is considered a fallen warrior," Woods said. "We don't leave fallen warriors behind. We try to bring them home."
Neuman went to the river area where the eagle was last seen and found a piece of feather. He phoned Tony Grondin, a Vietnam War combat veteran from St. Ignace because tradition calls for combat veterans to be present during the search for an eagle. Grondin called Bill Nash of Indian River, a retired GM employee assistance counselor familiar with native tradition.
The men started by offering tobacco, a sacred plant believed to create a bond between the spiritual and physical world. It was the first of many pipe ceremonies, prayers, smudgings and calling on the four directions for guidance.
The men cleared a large section of ice, but found no eagle. Neuman brought his bloodhound, Lily, to the river. She sniffed the piece of feather Neuman had found, circled the area and began digging at one spot. There, frozen about 6-7 inches deep was a small feather with a little bit of flesh on it, Grondin said.
Lily sniffed that, circled again and began digging just beyond the cleared-off area.
"We dug down through the snow and could see the eagle there in the ice," Grondin said.
With dark approaching, the men used a chain saw to cut a large block of ice with the eagle in it, wrapped the block in chains, dragged it to a sled and used a snowmobile to transport to Neuman's truck.
A lunar eclipse occurred later that night as the eagle began to thaw naturally at Perry and Rose Neuman's home.
"It was like so many things were all coming together," Grondin said. "If Perry wasn't as spiritual and cultural as he is, we wouldn't have known the procedure to follow."
Neuman took the thawed eagle to the vet for an X-ray, which revealed a broken wing.
He and Grondin also talked individually with traditional healer Harlan Downwind of Minnesota, who serves many American Indian communities in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He told them that they had done the right thing, Grondin said.