This is a story about dead buffalos and eagle feathers, and I wish I could say it’s about my family but it’s technically not. This story belongs to my boyfriend’s parents, Sarah and John, but I was there to watch some of it unfold and they have graciously agreed to let me chronicle their adventure.
Sarah and John came to visit us this spring, and they broke the monotony of the long drive from Denver to Nashville by visiting some friends along the way. That’s how they acquired the eagle feather story. Their friend Molly is fond of beadwork and a few months ago she decided to try her hand at making an authentic Native American headdress. The only snag was that if she was going to do it right she needed eagle feathers, and since eagles are a protected species their feathers are not readily acquired. The only way to obtain them, short of poaching or having connections in the black market, is to be a Native American.
Apparently if you are a registered member of a Native American tribe, you get special privileges in this regard and if you fill out some paperwork, the government will put you on a list to receive feathers should they become available.
By a stroke of good fortune, Molly’s husband was of Choctaw descent and qualified for the eagle list. So Molly talked him into signing up, and several weeks later they got a call from FedEx telling them that their eagle feathers would be delivered that day. They came in a cooler, and when Molly opened it up she found not just a few tail feathers, but the entire rear end of an eagle, flesh and all.
Speaking as one who has personally plucked a chicken, I can tell you that bird feathers are not easily parted from their bodies. It’s not like plucking a human hair; it’s more like trying to tear off a limb. Molly was determined, though, and not only did she extract and clean all the tail feathers, she ordered her husband to put her on the list for an entire dead bird so she could get more.
So far this doesn’t really have anything to do with my boyfriend’s parents, in case you were wondering, but if you bear with me you’ll see how it’s related. Plus I bet you didn’t know that Native Americans have exclusive rights to dead eagles, so you’ve learned something new and that’s always worthwhile.
John and Sarah left Molly’s and finished their drive to Nashville, where they regaled us with this tale of their wacky friend acquiring eagles. Sarah admired Molly’s dedication, she told us, although she didn’t think she would be up for that herself.
But you never know what life has in store for you. The next day John told us that when they drove back to Denver, they were going to make a slight detour to inspect a buffalo ranch. Another of their friends was thinking of investing in buffalo and he had asked them to check it out.
“I wonder if they sell the fiber,” Sarah mused. “I’ve always wanted to weave with buffalo, but it’s so expensive.”
Sarah is a lawyer by trade but a craftswoman at heart. She weaves and spins and knits and makes beautiful things out of yarn, and although she had worked with fiber from sheep and rabbits and alpacas, she had never used buffalo. She explained to us that it is the holy grail of fibers among yarn connoisseurs, strong and very soft, but there is a buffalo cartel that stockpiles the stuff and keeps the prices sky-high. Sarah (who, to give you some sense of her keenness, used to knit sweaters out of the fur shed by the family Samoyed) had long yearned to add this new material to her repertoire. And no sooner had she expressed this desire than John latched onto it with enthusiasm, partly because he is a supportive husband but mostly because he is a born-and-bred haggler who loves an opportunity to cut out the middleman.
So they called the ranch to ask if the fiber was for sale, and the guy on the phone told them that he only sold meat but they should get in touch with the slaughterhouse where he sent his animals to be processed. The guy at the slaughterhouse, in turn, told them that he had no use for the hides so if they wanted to come by he could let them have one for a minimal price.
Not a neat little sack of buffalo hair. An entire raw, bloody hide.
And Sarah and John, who are originally from Oklahoma and presumably come from hardy pioneer stock, said, “That sounds great!”
They explained all of this to us over dinner that night.
“Aren’t you stopping to visit more friends on the way back to Denver?” we asked.
“So…you’ll have a bloody buffalo hide in your trunk for, like, three days?”
“Don’t you have a new car?”
(Here’s a picture I found online of a buffalo in Yellowstone standing next to a car, the point being that buffalo are huge. I mean, yes, we’re talking about just the hide, but that’s still a lot of skin.)
Sarah and John were determined, however; they were going to bring home the buffalo or die trying. John waved aside my suggestion that perhaps they could seek out a buffalo farm that was a little closer to home.
“We’ve hit on something here,” he told me confidently. “This is a rare opportunity we just can’t afford to pass up.”
“Yes,” Sarah agreed. “I take back everything I said about Molly’s eagle feathers.”
(Which is why the eagles are relevant. See?)
“The most ridiculous part of all this,” Sarah continued, “is that we have such a small car.”
“Really?” I asked, mentally re-evaluating the relative unconventionality of my own relations. “I’m not sure that’s the most ridiculous part.”
The plan was to shave off the fur and then tan the skin. So they called up their eldest daughter, who also lives in Denver. Annie is an artist and a yoga teacher and a mushroom-hunting enthusiast, and all in all exactly the kind of person you would want on your side when facing the prospect of improvised taxidermy. She was predictably enthusiastic.
“Can you get some brains, too?” she wanted to know. “Traditional Native American tanning uses buffalo brains to treat the skin.”
“I don’t know,” said John. “I think if we asked they’d probably just give us the whole head.”
This led to a discussion on the feasibility of transporting a severed buffalo head across the country in a two-door Toyota Scion. I tried to make helpful suggestions, such mounting it in the passenger’s seat to confuse other drivers or turning it into a probably-illegal hood ornament, but eventually we came to the reluctant conclusion that travelling with a ginormous dead animal head was insurmountably impractical. Annie would just have to make do with supermarket cows’ brains.
After Sarah and John drove off toward their date with destiny, their son kept me posted on their progress.
“They got the hide,” he told me. “It’s frozen in a big box and weighs fifty pounds.”
Then, the next day: “It’s thawing out. They keep stopping at grocery stores to buy ice.”
And the day after that: “They are really looking forward to getting this thing out of their car.”
But they made it home, and from there it was a simple matter of contacting a professional alpaca shearer (a friend of Annie’s, naturally) to come over and shave it for them. So Sarah has her fiber, and the skin is in the freezer awaiting Annie’s tender ministrations, and all’s well that ends well.
Their trunk will probably retain a lingering aroma of the prairie, though.