Early on a November evening, after the rain stopped, the clouds cleared and the sun peaked out only to set. Linda Woods stood up with her eagle staff as people sang a song that honored Native women veterans at the dedication for the National Native American Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Woods, who is an elder, was moved to stand up and hold her eagle staff tall with purpose, then she got emotional.
“I just started sobbing because it's been a long time coming, a long time,” she said. “We're not acknowledged. Our people are not acknowledged. We know what we suffered.”
Woods, 70, has become known for the eagle staff that she carries. For her, the staff represents both acknowledgement and honor for female veterans, which was previously ignored.
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Woods, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, didn’t choose to carry a woman’s eagle staff. It was a calling that came to her through dreams and prayers. The eagle staff, name Miigizi, was created to protect and honor all the women veterans, whose service is often overlooked, Woods said. Woods has carried Miigizi all over the country and the world.
“I got some flack from some guys, but some men still don't accept me for carrying an eagle staff, but I know in my heart that she is healing for our women veterans,” Woods said.
Woods served in the United States Air Force from 1962 to 1966. For many years, she didn’t tell anyone she was a veteran because during the Vietnam War service men and women came home only to be criticized.
“Our veterans during that era were snubbed, spit at, called names, baby killers, all kinds of stuff,” Woods remembered.
Then one day during a powwow, she saw men carrying eagle staffs ahead of everyone. This was the first time she saw this and asked her friend about it. This is when she learned that men who were veterans carried eagle staffs that represented, “our flags,” she said.
A thought crept into her head and she questioned why only men could carry an eagle staff.
Now, some 10 years later, she is the sole woman carrying a women's eagle staff.
“She's spiritual. When she's together like this, she's spirit. I didn't ask for her. I believe she called me so that I can go on this path,” Woods said.
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Woods refers to Miigizi as a female, using female pronouns.
Miigizi stands a little over five feet tall. At the top of the staff sits an eagle head with fierce, protective eyes that look forward and are mesmerizing. Her face glows in the light of the memorial flame at the National Native American Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. A red cape flows from the eagle head down the length of the white diamond willow staff. The cape was created to mimic wings and is covered almost entirely in eagle feathers. One of the non-eagle feathers gifted to Miigizi came from a condor.
The creation of Miigizi came at a cost that Woods honors.
She was flying during a blizzard in 2011 and hit a powerline. Her friend who lived nearby remembered watching Miigizi fall from the sky into the water below. Once people heard that an eagle had fallen, they started to look around the area for the body. Miigizi was perfectly preserved in the ice and found some three weeks later on Dec. 3, 2011.
Once she was identified as a female eagle, Woods knew she was meant to be an eagle staff. After songs, prayers and offerings, Miigizi became her current form.
“She sacrificed her life, I believe, for us and we've been on this journey ever since,” she said.
Woods and Miigizi attend workshops and healing spaces for Native women veterans. In these spaces, some women will offer tobacco to her and others will sit and talk to Miigizi for quite awhile. The eagle staff brings them comfort and healing, Woods said.
Despite the naysayers, Woods is going to continue carrying Miigizi to do the work she was meant to do.
“She wants the people to come to her. She says ‘I'll help you in some way.’ And she does,” Woods said. “I don't interfere with her work. “I just take her places or she takes me places.”
ICT’s Jourdan Bennett-Begaye contributed to this report.
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