|Knife River > Culture > Eagle Trapping
|Goodbird and the Old Eagle
"This account was given me by Goodbird on
a visit we made by wagon to the pits described, in the
summer of 1910. It was written after our return to camp.
- G. L. W."
||"The pit used by Packs-wolf's father about
1885, was about two and a half feet deep. Goodbird said
an eagle pit should be about five feet square (the measurements
of the present pit) and three and a half or four feet
deep, permitting the hunter to sit with his head free
of the cover.
"The pit was dug in the earth, the dirt walls
being sufficiently strong to prevent a cave-in. After
it was abandoned, the rains and winter's snows were
apt to cause the pit walls to cave in, so that if the
pit were used a second year, the walls had to be rebuilt
with stones and small logs or poles. In the pit here
described, the small logs and stones were still embedded
in the walls. Some of the sticks that made the frame
of the cover remained.
"A small stone lying on the ground near by,
Goodbird thought might be the 'eagle stone.' It was
the size of one's fist and was placed in a sacred hole
a foot under the surface of the ground (apparently in
the pit's wall), on a bunch of sage. The Hidatsa name
of the stone is mi-daka, from mi', stone, and daka,
the young of an animal, as a colt of calf.
|"The hunter sat in an eagle pit on a bunch
of grass, with his head to the north, his feet to the
south. A stuffed, white jack rabbit or stuffed coyote
was placed outside for bait, with the lung of a buffalo
secured near by. Fresh blood was poured over the lung
each day. The bait lay on the west side of the pit.
||"The pit was always dug on a promontory into
the Missouri River, or between two points where eagles
were likely to fly, looking for food. Pits might be
dug on either side of the Missouri, but always on bluffs
that faced the west, since eagles always came down on
a west wind.
|"The pit cover was made of small poles that
crossed one another like lattice work and was covered
with small brush and grass. The hunter raised the cover
with his head.
||"The hunter tied the feet and wings of the
eagle and carried it to the camp in the timber. "If
only one or two eagles were caught, they might be released
after the tail feathers had been plucked. If a larger
number were caught, some of them would be killed for
the wings to make fans and plume arrows.
eagle tails yielded enough feathers to make one good
war-bonnet, or maicu-mapuka" (eagle-hat) (Wilson 1929).
|Goodbird's sketch of the framework of the Hunting
|A Third Eagle
The following is from a narrative by Wolf-chief,
a Hidatsa, born about 1849, interpreted by Edward Goodbird,
his nephew, and recorded in 1915.
"Finally, a good wind blew and we took our bait
to the pits. Looking up out of my pit I saw a white
spot in the air. 'That is an eagle,'I said to myself.
I watched a long time and was growing inattentive, when
I heard a slight rustling noise. I carefully raised
my head and peeking out over the pit's edge, I saw the
head of an eagle that was walking toward the pit. It
was a white-headed eagle. It came up on the east side
of the pit, quite to its edge, and appeared to be looking
upon it. I was eager to catch the bird but was afraid,
for I had heard that white-headed eagles never get excited,
and that it was very difficult to catch one as it faced
"The eagle stood on the edge of the pit a long
time. 'I had better try to catch it,'I thought, 'or
the bird will fly away.'But I was still fearful lest
the bird fight me. I had heard many tales from old men;
how dangerous white-headed eagles were and how they
struggled and fought, so that it was almost impossible
to catch one facing the hunter. No matter how quick
the hunter is with his hands, I was told, the eagle
will be quicker!
|"Kneeling in the pit on one knee, I raised
my hands carefully and thrust them suddenly forward
to seize the eagle's legs. The eagle appeared to be
looking right down at me as I did this and was so close
that I thought it could hear the beatings of my heart.
I caught the bird by both legs simultaneously; but in
my excitement I raised my head, thus lifting the pit
cover a little and the eagle struck at me with its beak.
I turned my head slightly and avoided the blow. I climbed
out of the pit and twisting over the eagle's legs turned
it over on its breast; I put my left knee on the bird's
back and tried to tie its legs and wings.
"The eagle struggled fiercely, nearly throwing
me off and threatening at times to fly away with me
on its back! I was in real fear of being hurt, for white-headed
eagles are strong. When at last I had the eagle bound,
it began to quiver and pant, and seemed to get excited.
"I caught all three eagles, thus, crouched
on one knee. One had to be constantly alert. An eagle
never stopped long on the bait, only a moment, and one
must be ready to seize it.
||"My father once seized a four-spot eagle that
put its claws through his arm; however the wound was
not deep, because the eagle did not have a firm hold.
Another man also was wounded by an eagle; the bird's
claws went quite through his arm.
eagle's legs tied, I plucked out the tail feathers in
the usual way and wove them into a naksúti. I bore the
eagle to our camp. It was not quite noon yet. I now
had three eagles on the log.
"In olden days
the hunters of my tribe did not care to catch white-headed
eagles because they were dangerous birds that fought
and because their feathers were not used to make war-bonnets
and their value therefore was not high" (Wilson: 1929).
|A Look Back through Time
"This eagle-trapping lodge is located along
the Little Missouri River in the Badlands of North Dakota.
These lodges were used to conduct the rites associated
with the complex eagle-trapping ceremony; eagle-trapping
pits were dug on top of prominent buttes for the actual
act of catching eagles. This lodge is probably over
a hundred years old; a picture was taken of this lodge
in 1916. It is located over 150 miles from the ancestral
village sites of the Mandan and Hidatsa. Our people
were well-known for their ability to trap eagles, and
craftwork with feathers" (Calvin Grinnell).
stands next to the remains of an eagle trapping lodge.
Note: The contents of this page are selected
from stories gathered by Gilbert Wilson while living
with the Hidatsa people in the early part of the 20th
century. The sketches were drawn by Goodbird.
courtesy of North Dakota Game and Fish: Missouri River.