As told to us by our elders, these fans are quite significant to the Native Americans. They are used in the Native American Church to sing and to pray with. They are also used in Pow Wows to dance with.
This story is told according to the teachings of Navajo elders. There are many others told by other tribes, but this is the way my particular fans are put together.The legends told to us about these fans are as follows:
The fringe part of the fan is said to represent our roots. We usually put 12 fringes on the handle of the gourd rattles and the fan handle. These 12 fringes represent our roots; it represents our 12 months; it represents the 12 tails of the eagle and hawks; it represents the hogan songs, the mountain song, and the early morning dawn songs. This is where our roots lie. The Navajos have strong ties to their roots: the roots being their origination, the clans being passed down through the mother, the elders, and all relations.
The fringes are made of buckskin to represent our necessities of life; as the deer was used for food, clothing and shelter. We as humans, we all have roots, some keep these roots strong and keep in daily contact with where they are coming from. We nourish these relations with our elders. We respect our elders, since they are the reason we are alive today. This is why we usually put 12 fringes on the fans and gourd rattles.
The beadwork and the floral decorations are each made differently to represent the morning dawn, the sunrise, the sunset, the dark and also the different seasons. This is where all walks of life are born, live, die – and this is where we live our daily lives.
MEANING OF AN EAGLE TAIL or HAWK TAIL FAN
An eagle or a hawk has twelve tail feathers. Each of these tail feathers represent certain things according to the Dine (means the people, also known as Navajo) legends.
The right center tail is said to represent the Naghee’nezhghani, or Monster Slayer, the male side, and the sky.
The left side is said to represent the Tobaghishchini, or “One born for the water,” the female side, and the water holding and giving life on earth.
The five feathers on the right side of the fan are your father’s side. That represents the red colors, the harsh side of you, the fire side of a person, the hunter’s side of you, the one that has harsh teaching.
The five feathers on the left side represent the mother’s side. That is represented in blue colors. That is the calm side, the comforting side, the caring side of you. That is the side that gives life on this earth.
Putting both sides together, we are humans. This is how our people talk about these fans.
Being human has five dimensions, each tail feather represents these different dimensions. They are: social, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
Each of the feathers on the right represents your father’s side. Your father’s side has these dimensions, that is what your right side represents.
The left side represent your mother’s side, she has her dimensions, too. When we are raised with all these dimensions, we are raised very well. When we bless ourselves when we are boys/men, we bless our right side first. When we are girls/ladies, we bless our left side first. This is how our elders talk about these eagle and hawk tails.
With the Immature Golden Eagle, the black part of the feathers represent the darkness. The white part represents the early morning dawn. This is why in the Dine culture, these tails are usually put on the Ye’iis as bonnets. It represents the good things in life. This fan is usually associated with the east. To the west, the red tail hawk is represented that way, usually carried by ladies in the Dine Culture.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF FANS
This style is a loose flat fan. The fan is strung together, so it opens up and closes to fit into a gourd box. Sometimes there are no beads to hold these feathers together, and it drops like a drop fan. This would most likely be used by men. It can be used in dances, peyote ceremonies, and/or devotions.
Stiff Flat Fan, (Grouped Fan)
The feathers in this style fan are permanently set in place, so the feathers do not move around. The feather work is one whole piece of feather work around the feathers. This fan has a design on the front and the back of the fan. This fan would be use mostly by ladies. It would be use by jingle dress dancers, or used by ladies in the peyote ceremonies. The feather work is called grouped feather work.
Stiff Flat Fan, (Individual Fan)
The big difference on this fan is that each individual feather is feather worked. The feathers in this fan don’t move, they are permanently set, it is a stiff fan. This type of fan would be used by dancers, or by ladies in the peyote ceremonies. Many traditional dancers (common among both men and ladies) and jingle dancers like this style fan. Usually a bigger fan box is needed for this type of fan. Some people prefer straight cut fringes on these types of fans. Most Native American Church people prefer twisted leather fringes on these types of fans.
Double Sided, Stiff Flat Fan
This fan has 24 tails in it. It is a double sided fan. You can hold the fan from any side, and the design is usually the same on both sides of the fan. This type of fan can be made into a side drop fan, by loosing the feathers. It will only open up to the side. For this particular fan, it is a stiff fan. This type of fan is most commonly used in peyote ceremonies and by straight dancers in pow wows.
Side Drop Fan (Alexandria Feathers Fan)
This fan only opens toward the side, it does not drop like a round drop fan. This style is common among gourd dancers, Native American Church people, and Straight Dancers.
Before a Fan is Assembled
First, weeks or months are taken to gather just the right feathers and to match them in pairs. Every feather is then washed using traditional Navajo herbs. The herbs are used for cleansing of the feathers. These herbs are passed on to us by our elders. Each feather is then streamed, flattened out, and extended with bamboo sticks. This process is very time consuming and it usually take about 2 days.
The feather work comes in many different forms as described above, depending if the fan is going to be used in the Native American Church Ceremony, for Pow-wow Dances, or for some other use among different tribes.
Types of feathers used in fans
Eagle feathers, hawk feathers, and feathers from other endangered or federally protected birds, are only allowed to be carried by Native Americans. You have to be 1/4th or more Native American Indian, and be federally recognized by the United States Government to be considered Native American for the purpose of posessing these sacred feathers. For all other nationalities, parrot feathers, macaw feathers, pheasant feather, Impeyan feathers, and turkey feathers are all legal to carry, or have made into fans.
The amount of tails that go into a fan depends on the person that wants the fan. Most of the fans are odd number, especially on flat fans, so there is a center tail. On occasion, a fan will have an even number of tails.
Wing feathers are mostly used among the dancers. Most people in the Native American Church ceremonies prefer the tail feather fans.
These fans are very much respected by our people, and if you want, please do respect and carry on these teachings with pride!
Patrick Scott is a Navajo (Dine) Artist. He was born in Tuba City, and raised on White Mesa in a traditional family. He belongs to the Bitterwater clan, born for the Manygoats clan. He did not speak any English until the age of 7, when he was first introduced to the boarding school system. He did not become fully fluent in the English language until entering college.
Eventually, Mr. Scott earned a Bachelor Degree in Business Management from Northern Arizona University. He began selling his traditional art in college to support himself, and is now a full time artist. His work can be found in the permanent collections of the Thomas Gilcrease Museum, the Smithsonian Museum, the Department of Interior in Washington DC, and in many other galleries throughout the Southwest.