Sacred Raptor

Reid Dickie

             As I walked up the easy incline toward the Turtle Effigy in southern Saskatchewan, overhead I heard familiar prairie music – the piercing screech of Red-Tailed Hawk. The bird had followed me from Wild Man Butte, half an hour away, or so it seemed, and would meet me again at the Herschel Petroglyphs, hundreds of miles away. As I prayed amid the stones on that serene hilltop, Red-Tailed Hawk hunted up and down the surrounding ravines.

            I have encountered this beautiful creature at sacred sites all over the prairies. The call of Red-Tailed Hawk punctuates the vast loneliness of wide-open spaces with its desperate, even crazy edge, a shrill urgency meant to frighten small timorous critters from the safety of grass nests to become hawk breakfasts. Hear it.

            To the south of Turtle Effigy, the plains roll away toward Big Muddy Lake, usually a shallow, white-rimmed affair. In a bluff down the hill, an uneven nest of sticks built near the swaying top of a huge cottonwood indicates the home of Red-Tailed Hawk. Nests like these abound from Alaska to Panama. A successful bird, Red-Tailed Hawk is the most abundant hawk in North America and the largest, the female a third bigger than the male. The bird’s size caused ancient inhabitants to call it Red Eagle.                                                                                                      

            Red-Tailed Hawk, of the genus buteo (pronounced ‘beauty-o’), comes in a striking array of colour combinations. The consistent feature is the rufous-coloured tail, redder on top, pinkish underneath.

            I have watched Red-Tailed Hawk’s skillful hunting and heard the melancholy cries at buffalo pounds, turtle effigies, burial mounds, snake pits and petroglyphs all across the southern prairies. If it is hunting in a valley, I may never see the bird but only hear its cries. Their numbers make them ubiquitous out here. Extremely rare in cities, they prefer lonesome expansive grasslands or rich marshes.

            A special encounter with sacred Red-Tailed Hawk occurred in an unlikely place. A few days before my double-bypass heart surgery in June 2002, with my prayer circle and spirit friends in place, I was taking a walk down our elm-shaded streets when I heard the distinctive sharp cry of Red-Tailed Hawk! In the middle of the city! It was clear and recognizable in the midday din.

            The sound of the hawk immediately transported me back to the sacred sites I’ve come to know over the years. I recalled the helpful local spirits at these places and realized, since I have a familiarity with them, they would be an important part of my healing.

            I don’t know what made the sound of Red-Tailed Hawk in the middle of the city – I didn’t see the bird, only heard its cry. Whatever it was, it reminded me of the places and the powers I have encountered, how they manifested in my life on the verge of surgery and how they could play a role in my healing afterwards.

            Thank you for reminding me Red-Tailed Hawk.

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