By LORAINE ANDERSONlanderson@record-eagle.com
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.
A CONFERENCE CALL
Two to three weeks later in March, a tribal natural resources officer asked to meet with Neuman, Grondin and Nash to hear how they retrieved the eagle. Afterward, he told them he wanted to confiscate the eagle carcass, then stored in a freezer. He said it probably would be transported to a federal repository in Wisconsin or Oregon.
Grondin, "being the old man and the combat vet," said he told the officer that as a tribal member he should know that combat veterans have a responsibility to retrieve fallen eagles, a spiritual tradition that existed long before white settlement and a federal government existed.
The officer left without the eagle carcass and few days later arranged a conference call between Neuman, Grondin and Nash, a federal attorney general, tribal and state natural resources representatives, Grondin said. The federal attorney closed the case when he learned the men had conferred with Downwind.
Grondin, a taxidermist, preserved the eagle's sacred parts — head, feathers and feet. The remaining parts were bundled together and put high in a tree in an undisclosed place.
The head originally was "gifted" to Nash who at the time had formed the White Feather Wellness Project in an effort to establish a residential treatment facility for troubled youth ages 12-17 at a former Camp Pellston prison camp building. Under his plan, the facility would incorporate Native American culture, tradition, teachings, ceremonies, even language into an overall rehabilitation program.
When the proposal failed to get state approval, Nash wanted to find a home for the eagle. He thought it should go to a woman because they are "true warriors" in healing work.
He thought of Woods, who he met years before when she worked with the Little Traverse Bands of Odawa Indians health service.
Woods said she was honored by his offer but needed to think, pray and talk with friends and mentors first. She called Nash back a couple of weeks later and received the eagle head in a Dec. 3, 2011 ceremony at Indian River.
"I know that this comes with a huge responsibility and that it all came through Spirit," she said. "We believe that things happen for a reason and will manifest as they are supposed to. It's been quite a journey. It's been a beautiful journey and a prayerful and profoundly spiritual process."