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Lakota See Eagle Feather Ceremony As Road To Support Youth - Combat Suicide

Photo by Jim Kent

In spite of losing their lands to settlers and the federal government, being displaced to reservations, having their ceremonies banned for nearly a century, and enduring the frequent persecutions of life in Christian and government boarding schools, the Lakota people have managed to retain much of their culture.


SDPB’s Jim Kent recently visited the Pine Ridge Reservation to observe an eagle feather ceremony and spoke with 2 Lakota men about the tradition’s significance and its importance in today’s world.

I’m at Billy Mills Hall, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where 2 dozen members of the Goings family have gathered for a Lakota tradition that dates back to the origins of their culture.

The Eagle Feather Ceremony is held to recognize an individual within the tribe who has achieved a goal or demonstrated a particular ability that sets him apart from the rest.

Although historically the awarding of an eagle feather frequently occurred as a result of showing great bravery in battle, times have changed and so has the criteria for earning this symbol of accomplishment.

Charley New Holy explains.

“Our eagle feathers were very special,” says New Holy. “When you were given an eagle feather it was because people believed in you and your achievements. Nowadays, people give eagle feathers for graduation. These are showing that young person that they achieved something. They can achieve anything in life.”

As part of the Goings extended family, Charley New Holy attends such ceremonies because he knows the traditional songs. He also knows the traditional prayers. New Holy says today Lorrell Goings is being given an eagle feather for participating in the recent Future Generations Ride – from Bridger, South Dakotas to the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre on Pine Ridge.

Credit Photo by Jim Kent
Image of Lorrell Goings carrying eagle staff during Future Generations Ride adorns cake honoring his achievement.

“We gave him a feather because he became a staff carrier,” New Holy comments. “It’s just like transitioning in to manhood. The non-Native people would see it as transitioning into manhood.”

Being in the position of staff carrier is an important role for anyone on a horseback trail ride. Bearing the eagle feathers of other members of the family, the staff is carried for the duration of the long trek. For the Future Generations Ride that’s more than 160 miles.

The staff carrier decides when to start, when to stop and what the pace is. Because the ride is focused on the future generations of the Lakota people, it’s a spiritual journey. Carrying a staff adorned with eagle feathers, says New Holy, reinforces that message.

“The eagle feather has a spirit,” New Holy notes. “There’s a spirit that lives within that. We try to stay in that tradition even today, but…”

But people are only human. So…over the course of a 2-week journey like the Future Generations Ride…as the days grow long…nights and rest stops seem too short…and the winter weather begins to take its toll…problems can erupt. It was at a time like this that 20-year old Lorrell Goings was tested…and when he almost gave up, says Charley New Holy.

“Being a staff carrier is hard,” New Holy observes. “Because you’re gonna’ have people saying stuff to you. You’re gonna put up with people that are jealous. But the reason why you’re going is because of a prayer. If you believe in that prayer, you’re not gonna pay attention to what these people say.” 

Credit Photo by Jim Kent
Marvin Goings places eagle feather on his grandson, Lorrell during ceremony at Billy Mills Hall on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Lorrell Goings says a close family friend helped him find the determination and fortitude to finish leading the Future Generations Ride.

“Jeremiah…he helped me out.”

“What did he say to get you going?” I ask.

“That there’s gonna’ be a lot of doubters. That there’s gonna’ be a lot of non-believers that push you to stop what you’re doing.’

But in the end, says Lorrell, he had to follow the advice that he now passes on to others.

“Stay strong. Stay humble.”

As an eagle feather is tied to Lorrell Goings head by his grandfather…New Holy reminds the young man that he showed leadership as the staff carrier. He adds that now Lorrell must extend those leadership qualities to his family, his community and to his tribe. But New Holy notes that this new leader won’t be alone.

“Like what we did today with Lorrell…is letting him know that we honor him,” says New Holy. “We honor him…and we’re gonna support him. And whatever support that he needs…we’re gonna be there. If he needs somebody to talk to…if he’s having rough times…there’s somebody that’s gonna be there.”

New Holy says this recognition and support should be available for all Lakota youth. But far too often too many fall through the cracks…leading to drug and alcohol abuse as well as suicide. One way to avoid that, New Holy believes, is by carrying on traditions like the eagle feather ceremony.