Wounded Knee Frizzell Indians
Jim Mone/AP
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kent Frizzell, right, listens to AIM leaders prior to signing of a peace settlement on April 5, 1973. One of them appears to be handing off a Talking Stick.

Talking Stick and Feather: Indigenous Tools Hold Sacred Power of Free Speech

Joan Tavares Avant

As Peace Makers in tribal court, it is ultimately important to follow the spirit of our ancestor’s footsteps by using the Talking Stick or Talking Feather for better understanding the conversation of words shared by the circle of members and clients.

Like so, Dr. Loretta Standley, Cherokee, mentions “that the art of Native communication style values cooperation over competition which reflects areas of their lifestyles. When engaging in conversation they listen intently generally looking down and do not focus on eye contact until the person speaking has finished.”

Listening and understanding instills respect for those in attendance. As a result, at meetings or ceremonies, no one is left out of the process unless they have no comment. This methodology becomes a shared commitment. It is mentioned in my research that oftentimes decisions are made on what we think we heard because more than one person may be speaking which can lead to a damaged decision. Passing a Talking Stick with everyone stating their name and reason why they have come, sets the circle for a well-intentioned meeting, even if it is for decision-making, brainstorming or conflict resolution.

These two time-honored tools were well thought out and created by indigenous leaders such as our Sachems, Medicine Men, Chiefs and Native women, of course.

“…I’ve listened to my spiritual leaders and learned when we were talking we had to give each other respect to listen and not comment on what the other person said unless asked…I believe this tool is a good influence because too many of us don’t get to speak about our feelings in a safe place. The talking stick is sacred to me”

—Anne Foxx, Mashpee Wampanoag-Peacemaker

These are instruments of aboriginal democracy, which has been effective for generations in tribal circle meetings and tribal council.

Dr. Carol Locust, member of the Eastern Band Cherokee, Native American Research and Training Center, in Tucson, said: “The Talking Stick has been used for centuries by many tribes as a means of just and impartial hearing. The Talking Stick was commonly used in council circles to decide who had the right to speak. When matters of great concern would come before the council, the leading elder would hold the Talking Stick, and begin the discussion. When he would finish what he had to say, he would hold out the Talking Stick and whoever would speak after him would take it. In this manner, the stick would be passed from one individual to another until all who wanted to speak had done so. The stick then was passed back to the elder for safe keeping.” (Locust, 1998) “The speaker should not forget that he carries within himself a sacred spark of the Great Spirit, and therefor he is also sacred. The eagle feather tied to the Talking Stick gives him the courage and wisdom to speak truthfully and wisely.”

Phyllis Cronbaugh, Cherokee/Navajo, author of “The Talking Stick: Guarantee You are Understood and Not Just Heard” (March 2010) further makes clear the use of the talking stick:

To clarify and establish relationship agreements,

To settle a dispute,

To bring mutual benefit and welfare,

To bring order to unfinished business,

To brainstorm for creative insight or to find solutions to a challenge,

To achieve a consensus within a group, or

To help structure a group into a cohesive team

Everyone is guaranteed to be understood and not just heard.

Sacred Talking Stick and Talking Feather have a variety of descriptions and decorations. They always depend on the carrier and tribe. For example, an Abenaki Talking Stick is a piece of sacred ash, (from the ash tree) with tips bent to form circles representing the Sacred Hoop. Besides other selected materials can be paint, carvings, or maybe buckskin. Your decorations are what items mean to you.

Color Meanings When Making a Talking Stick and Talking Feather:

Blue: Intuition, Prayer, and Wisdom

Black: Clarity, Focus, Success, and Victory

Red: Life, Faith, and Happiness

White: Sharing, Purity, Spirit, and Light

Yellow: Knowledge and Courage

Orange: Kinship, Intellect, and Determination

Green: Nature, Harmony, and Healing

Purple: Power, Mystery, and Magic

“When Grandfather Speaks” by Artist Alfredo Rodriguez. (American Gallery/Talking-Feather.com)

Tree and Wood Meanings

Birch: Truth, new beginnings and cleansing of the past

Cedar: Cleansing, protection, prosperity, and healing

Willow: Wisdom, an open mind, strength of age and experience

Oak: Strength of character, and courage

Cherry: Strong expression, rebirth, new awakenings and compassion

Pine: Creativity, peace, and harmony

Maple: The tree of offering, generosity, balance. and practically

The Talking Feather has its place in this story and is symbolic with the talking stick and has other Native honoring as well. Often times Mic-Macs carry a Talking Feather to remind them to speak gently. Still today, this is what’s happening in a disrespectful request like in the “Principal Tells Graduating Native to Hide Your Eagle Feather Under Your Gown.” This young Native wanted to wear her gifted feather on her graduating hat tassel. She feels the directive was to hide her Native identity.

There are legends about how Talking Feather came to be. For example, read: “Legend of the Talking Feather: Kanati and Asgaya Gigagei Bestow the Gift of the Talking Feather.”

Chief Vernon Lopez “Silent Drum” with Talking Stick on June 28, 2015 (Photo courtesy Yvonne Avant)

Closer to home, Chief Silent Drum-Vernon Lopez, Mashpee Wampanoag shares the meaning of his talking stick below:

“The Talking Stick and Eagle Feather have been honored and carried by many Wampanoag leaders for a long time to control council meetings and sometimes for special gatherings of circle. You can design your own Talking Stick or feather by what it culturally means to you. My Talking Stick represents the Wolf who protects like our mothers do for their children and family. Beads at the top exemplify race of man and the four directions. Eagle illustrates Grandfather Sky and Grandmother Moon. Green Tree reflects Mother Earth. Shells characterize our bays, oceans and rivers. Corn represents one of our Three Sisters (Corn, Beans and Squash) while my small Eagle Feather embodies spiritual value. The red mini tied bags are prayer bags to the Great Spirit.

At the bottom of my stick are purple and white beads that personify the color of our quahog shell, and to me mean love, peace and family. When we traded Wampum with the colonists the color purple was of more value. This special family Talking Stick is made from the willow tree and wrapped partly with leather. Most of our folks made their Talking Sticks out of some of our local wood such as willow, cedar or maple which makes it easier for carving.”

An example of a Talking Stick. (Photo courtesy Yvonne Avant)

The Sacred Feather was usually from the eagle, which represents truth, freedom, wisdom and keen insight, however some tribes believed in using the feather from the owl, which represents wisdom, protection, and strong insight into truth. This writer feels we should consider our turkey feathers, which bring peaceful attitudes, mainly in disputes. Turkeys and their little ones are living and walking all over Mashpee “Land of the Wampanoag” and have been forever.

John Peters, Slow Turtle-Supreme Medicine Man (1930-1979), left us with these words “The Talking Circle is… a listening circle. The talking circle allows one person to talk at a time for as long as they need to talk. So much can be gained by listening. Is it a coincidence that the Creator gave us one mouth and two ears? The power of the circle allows the heat to be shared with each other. What we share with each other heals each other.”

Joan Tavares Avant is the Deer Clan Mother of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. She is an elder, historian, and writer who works to promote accurate representation of her Mashpee Wampanoag culture and heritage.


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