For many Americans, the eagle feather headdress is a generic symbol of Native America indivisible from the narrative of the wild west and cowboys and Indians. For the Lakota, the wapaha is a symbol of cultural values, responsibility, and leadership. In order to wear a single eagle feather, a Lakota person must earn the right to do so.
As Lakota elder Duane Hollow Horn Bear explains in the video below, “Imbued in this man’s life must be characteristics of the values of our people, such as fortitude, perseverance, generosity, bravery. And when he wears this, he must always think of the people as a whole.”
It has been 144 years since June 25 and 26, 1876, when the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho defeated Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn. We remember the bravery of the victors, who responded to a surprise attack and utterly annihilated Custer and his troops in a last push to secure their homelands.
What we often forget are the difficult decisions leaders like Sitting Bull (Hunkpapa Lakota), Hollow Horn Bear (Sicangu Lakota), American Horse (Oglala Lakota), Gall (Hunkpapa Lakota), Crazy Horse (Oglala Lakota), and others had to make to ensure the safety of their people following the battle.
There weren’t only warriors camped at the Little Bighorn River; there were women and children, too. And almost immediately, these leaders had to decide what to do next to protect their people. Some, like Sitting Bull and Gall, fled to Canada, where they knew their people would be protected from further attacks by the U.S. Army. Others, like American Horse and Crazy Horse, stayed and continued to fight. Ultimately, all surrendered, were imprisoned, or were killed. Within less than a year following the battle, the United States had confined to reservations all of its Plains Indian adversaries.
For the Lakota, the core values of wówačhaŋtognaka (generosity), wówačhiŋtȟaŋka (perseverance), wóohitike (bravery), and wóksape (wisdom) are exemplified in leadership. At the time of the Battle of Little Bighorn, leaders were selected from headmen called wicasas, or shirtwearers, who represented each of the seven divisions of the Lakota. Four were selected among the wicasas to serve as leaders for the people as a governing council. Much has changed since that time, but these values have endured through individual tribal members and leaders alike.