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Bird Medicine

The Sacred Power of Bird Shamanism

Published by Bear & Company
Distributed by Simon & Schuster

About The Book

Explores the living spiritual tradition surrounding birds in Native American culture

• Pairs scholarly research with more than 200 firsthand accounts of bird signs from traditional Native Americans and their descendants

• Examines the legends, wisdom, and powers of the birds known as the gatekeepers of the four directions—Eagle, Hawk, Crow, and Owl

• Provides many examples of bird sign interpretations and human-bird communication that can be applied in your own encounters with birds

Birds are our strongest allies in the natural world. Revered in Native American spirituality and shamanic traditions around the world, birds are known as teachers, guardians, role models, counselors, healers, clowns, peacemakers, and meteorologists. They carry messages and warnings from loved ones and the spirit world, report deaths and injuries, and channel divine intelligence to answer our questions. Some of their “signs” are so subtle that one could discount them as subjective, but others are dramatic enough to strain even a skeptic’s definition of coincidence.

Pairing scholarly research with more than 200 firsthand accounts of bird encounters from traditional Native Americans and their descendants, Evan Pritchard explores the living spiritual tradition surrounding birds in Native American culture. He examines in depth the birds known as the gatekeepers of the four directions--Eagle in the North, Hawk in the East, Crow in the South, and Owl in the West--including their roles in legends and the use of their feathers in shamanic rituals. He reveals how the eagle can be a direct messenger of the Creator, why crows gather in “Crow Councils,” and how shamans have the ability to travel inside of birds, even after death. Expanding his study to the wisdom and gifts of birds beyond the four gatekeepers, such as hummingbirds, seagulls, and the mythical thunderbird, he provides numerous examples of everyday bird sign interpretations that can be applied in your own encounters with birds as well as ways we can help protect birds and encourage them to communicate with us.



Healing (and Humorous) Birds

There are a number of vital traditions still practiced today among Native American healers that might be mistaken for “faith healing.” Many Natives have told me they studied the Japanese healing art called Reiki because “it’s what we’ve all been doin’ for years now anyway, eh?” Some Native healing methods involve energy transference without touching, like Reiki, while some involve a “laying on of hands,” like in Pentecostal churches, or even “adjustments.” Others involve healing through inner transference or inner journeys. These are passed on in secret, but birds seem to know all about them.

Nuthatch’s Healing Touch
There are many stories told about how birds have helped heal humans, and in a variety of ways. Appearing in our dreams is a common method birds use to get our attention and heal us. But some birds use more hands-on methods. The nuthatch is associated with faith in spirit and putting that into action.

Angwit, a Mi’kmaq descendant who for many years has had a special relationship with birds, spoke of a time when she had a pain below her left shoulder blade and was in need of attention. She was standing outside her door on a beautiful May morning and noticed a red-breasted nuthatch looking at her from a low branch. It said, “Beep beep!” She answered, “Good morning,” in Mi’kmaq. Then she said, “You look exceptionally bright and handsome today!” In fact the bird seemed to have a bright light around it. Suddenly, the bird bolted forward and thumped her in the spot on her shoulder, making the pain disappear. The pain never came back. When she told Grandfather Turtle, he said, “That was one of your ancestors helping you!”

A Grouse with a Heart
An Anishinabi elder whose teachings I love to listen to is Eddy Stevenson. He has various climes he calls home, including an Anishinabi reserve in Canada. But one of the more remarkable bird encounters happened outside his home in Putnam County, not fifty miles from New York City, while he was doing chores.

Eddy was sitting on the driveway wall outside his house, and, as his wife was leaving the driveway in the family car, a grouse came up to Eddy and stood in front of him. The grouse was staring Eddy in the eyes. Eddy greeted the grouse. The bird jumped up onto the stone wall and walked over to Eddy. He jumped up and stood on Eddy’s left shoulder. He stretched his neck out and stared into Eddy’s left eye. Eddy just stared back. They were eyeball to eyeball. The bird was getting his attention, that was clear enough. Then the bird jumped down, walked to Eddy’s other side, jumped onto his other shoulder, then stared into Eddy’s right eye, again at close distance. Eddy was still not getting the message, so the bird jumped on top of Eddy’s long, silver head of hair and started kneading it like dough. He gave Eddy a scalp massage for a few painful minutes before Eddy placed both his hands over his head, picked up the bird, and placed it down on the ground again. He looked at the bird and said, “I have work to do, so if you’ll excuse me, I have to go.”

Eddy’s wife had asked him to place some boxes high up on a shelf outside. Eddy already had the ladder ready and was eager to go to work. He walked over to the ladder, grasped the posts, and began to climb the ladder when the same grouse bit him on the leg. Eddy got back down on the ground and stooped down a bit before the bird and explained that there was a lot of work to do and he didn’t have time for all this play. Eddy walked around doing various things, but the grouse followed him everywhere he went, as if trying to get in his way and slow him down. He went back to the ladder and started to climb, but the grouse ran over and bit his other leg, really hard. Eddy thought it might be bleeding, so he sat down again on the stone wall to take a look. He couldn’t seem to get this bird to understand anything about being a human. The bird stomped over and started poking Eddy in the chest, poking him hard near his heart. Eddy shooed him away.

Eddy’s wife came home and got out of the car, puzzled. Normally Eddy would have had all the chores done long before. “Why aren’t the chores done?” she asked. “I had a visitor!” he exclaimed. Eddy explained to his wife everything that had happened and she answered, “You need to ask your Uncle Arthur. He knows all about animals and birds.”

Eddy went to visit his Indian uncle up north, and the uncle heard the story and said, “You’re sick!”

Could it have been that simple? Eddy went to the doctor, and the doctor stared in his left eye, then stared in his right eye, and then thumped his chest, and then told him he had a heart condition and that it could be serious. The doctor said Eddy would have to “slow down, take off work for a while, and for GOD’s sake, don’t climb any ladders!”

That was the second opinion. Eddy went back to the grouse and explained all about the heart condition and the doctor visit and thanked the bird for his help. The grouse flew up in the air and disappeared and was never seen again. In fact, it was the only grouse anyone had ever seen in that part of town. In the Native world, birds are some of the best healers. They don’t charge much, and they make house calls.

About The Author

Evan T. Pritchard, a descendant of the Mi’kmaq people, has taught Native American studies at Pace University, Vassar College, and Marist College and is the director of the Center for Algonquin Culture. Steeped in bird lore by his Mi’kmaq great aunt Helen Perley, he is the author of several books, including Native New Yorkers and No Word for Time. A regular on radio shows such as NPR’s Fresh Air and on the History Channel, he lives in the Hudson Valley of New York.

Product Details

Raves and Reviews

Bird Medicine is wise, informative, folksy, and eminently readable. The narratives are clear and detailed, and Mr. Pritchard, noted scholar and author on Native American cultures, has the credibility to present them, being both a traditional ‘insider’ and an accredited Western scholar. Even more important, this volume fills a major gap in our knowledge of the natural myths of the Americas. I can see this book becoming required reading for secondary schools all over the country.”

– E. H. Rick Jarow, Ph.D., professor of religious studies at Vassar College, former Mellon Fellow in t

“Eagles, ravens, hawks, owls, crows, and other birds have always played a crucial role in Native American shamanism. In this remarkable book Evan Pritchard demonstrates why these spiritual traditions consider birds to be sacred, giving numerous historical accounts, personal stories, and traditional legends that illustrate the special place that birds have in the hearts and minds of tribal men and women. Pritchard is a master storyteller; each of his vignettes is a source of wonder and fascination. Bird Medicine is a book that his readers will find impossible to forget.”

– Stanley Krippner, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Saybrook University and coauthor of Personal Myt

“Filled with stories — some fables involving only birds and some anecdotal narratives of birds’ interaction with humans — the book is also an impassioned plea for humans to become more responsible about protecting bird habitats and breeding grounds. Pritchard likens the serious disappearance of bird species to the ‘canary in the mine’. He believes that our bird friends bring us serious messages about protecting our environment before it is too late. The information and traditions in the book come from myriad sources. It is a lively accounting of creatures we often take for granted despite the joy they bring us. As with faeries, you have to believe in birds before they can change your life. Pritchard makes a very strong case for giving them a chance to do just that.”

– Anna Jedrziewski,, July 2013

Bird Medicine: The Sacred Power of Bird Shamanism is a pick for new age and Native American holdings alike, and blends scholarly research with over 200 firsthand accounts of bird encounters from traditional Native Americans and their descendants...The result is a powerful set of bird sign interpretations that any can apply to their own beliefs.”

– Midwest Book Review, August 2013

“This is a good balance between the subtle world of people who choose to work with the Great Mystery, and the curiosity of people who just want to know more about how things work and the ways of the world around them.”

– Margaret Bartley, Seattle Metaphysical Library, September 2013

“In Bird Medicine, Evan Pritchard’s scholarship extends beyond the academia of Western science and into the realm of indigenous wisdom, where the ancient powers and spiritual relationships with our winged relations have not been forgotten, beckoning attention to our responsibilities to them and to the Earth.”

– Gabriel Horn (White Deer of Autumn), professor, award-winning author, contributing writer to The Ame

Bird Medicine is a beautifully blended culmination of the sacred and the scientific. With content ranging from the ornithological to the philosophical, from the historical to the heartwarming and humorous, Bird Medicine delivers a satisfying array that entertains as much as it enlightens.”

– Amy Krout-Horn, author of My Father’s Blood and coauthor of Transcendence

“Birds have many practical and transformative things to say to us if we will only listen. Evan Pritchard has fashioned a masterwork of insight and inspiration distilling the wisdom of these winged spiritual teachers as interpreted by Native Americans in stories and rituals.”

– Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, coauthors of Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life

“Evan Pritchard has an instinct for bringing the spirit of the Original Peoples into his scholarship, its fresh breath of wisdom still intact. This book combines bird lore with Native American shamanism in a truly unique way. I celebrate the latest release of a very original thinker.”

– Stephen Larsen, Ph.D., author of The Shaman’s Doorway and coauthor of Joseph Campbell: A Fire

“In Bird Medicine, Evan Pritchard has surpassed his previous books. Not only is his book enjoyable and informative, it is also quite scholarly. Though he is, in his own words, not an ornithologist, he teaches us a great deal about the habits and patterns of many familiar birds.”

– Elspeth Odbert, certified shamanic practitioner and author of Out of the Forest and Gylantra’s

“Evan Pritchard has put together a wonderful book showing how we mammals have learned and still learn from birds. History, history, history! And future possibilities.”

– Pete Seeger, American folksinger

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