Native History: Sacred Bald Eagle Becomes U.S. National Emblem
This Date in Native History: On June 20, 1782, the Continental Congress approved the bald eagle as the national emblem and the central image on the Great Seal of the United States.
The bird, found exclusively in North America, for centuries was held sacred by American Indians, who recognized its significance and symbolism long before Europeans arrived. The bald eagle now is displayed prominently on U.S. stamps, coins and currency and on the official seals of at least 17 branches and departments of the federal government—not to mention the countless times it appears in art, music, literature, commerce and culture of the United States.
Ironically, the eagle has become a symbol of freedom and sovereignty for the most powerful nation in the world. But before it graced the back of the quarter, the president’s letterhead or the seal for the Central Intelligence Agency, the eagle was simply a sacred symbol of valor, grace and protection.
“In an eagle there is all the wisdom in the world,” Sioux medicine man Lame Deer once said. “If you are planning to kill an eagle, the minute you think of that he knows it, knows what you are planning.”
Eagles appear in many tribes’ creation stories, and they are revered because of their strength, boldness and courage to withstand any obstacles, said Francis Mitchell, a Navajo medicine man.
“The eagle was given the power from above,” he said. “Whatever was before it, it would conquer and not back off.”
American Indians were not alone in their respect for eagles. Widely known as the king of birds, eagles were used as symbols of power by ancient Babylonians and Assyrians, Elizabeth Lawrence wrote in her 1990 article “Symbol of a Nation: The Bald Eagle in American Culture.” The eagle is also used by many modern nations, including Turkey, Austria, Russia, Poland, Germany and Russia. It appears on the robes of British royalty and the flag of Mexico.
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