When Claude Schaffer, curator of the Museum of the Plains Indian, began to investigate birds in the lives of Blackft, he easily learned the names for the golden eagle (pitau), bald eagle (ksixkikini) and turkey vulture (pikoki) but the informants said there was another bird, a reeeeaaaaaally big bird: omcxsapitau or “big pitau.” Schaffer became convinced this was “Gymnogyps californianus” or the California condor, the greatest of all flying birds of the north. This was unexpected for contemporary ornithologists and important in terms of understanding the ecology of the plains.
It had already been established that condors participated in the eagle feast of salmon migration in the early quarter of the 19th century. One lone ornithologist name J. Fannin saw two “fine birds” just west of Calgary on September 10, 1896. The wingspread of these birds is eleven feet -- no wonder many of the stories of strange doin’s include big birds.
Schaffer’s account of condor reports appeared in the Journal of the Washington Academy of Science, Vol. 41, No. 6, June, 1951. I xeroxed a copy in the Montana Historical Society Library in Helena. Here are some of the stories he included in his article.
George Bull Child and others saw them around the rez in 1908. An older Piegan identified it as omsxsapitau and supplied the word.
Dick Sanderville at age 82 reported that Raven, aka “Hairy Face” or “Big Crow,” was going along from Old Agency to Little Badger and saw a big creature in a coulee. It was immense, dark, and had a feathered ruff under a bald head. This was 1897 and the sighting became the year marker: “When Big Crow saw the Omaxsapitau.
Sanderville also remembered that Red Paint’s daughter Mary Jane, married to Phimister, made summer camp in Glacier National Park to hunt and fish. Four of the birds flew together, two seemed juvenile, and the nest appeared to be on Chief Mountain. This might have been 1879.
Chewing Black Bone (83) told about Brocky aka “Tail Feathers Coming Over a Hill” participating in a horse raiding party headed for the Crow in the 1860’s. The leader was Heavy Runner. They were at “Bear Creek” to the west of the present Crow reservation when the bird flew directly before them. It was so strange to Heavy Runner that he took it as a bad sign and turned back, which most did. Six continued with the raid but five of them were killed. When Heavy Runner was killed in 1870, some remembered that bird.
Dog Takes a Gun (age 85) was born on the Blood reserve but lived mostly in Montana. He said his parents saw omaxsapitau near Calgary shortly before he was born. He said that feathers had dropped from the bird and someone had killed one bird and had kept its wing.
There are reports from those who trapped eagles by baiting a pit in which they crouched, with some driving the condor off as too much to handle (the grandson of Harry Under Mouse said this happened to Harry), but Yellow Kidney reported that over the centuries occasional specimens were captured, sometimes by invading nests.
The bird went so far up in the sky that it seemed to reach the Sun and therefore was considered esp. powerful, so it was captured or killed carefully and with reverent awe. The seven wing primaries, fanned out into a circle, might be attached to a bison calf hide, dedicated by Bundle Keepers, and then sacrificed to the Sun. Sometimes the bird was skinned and put in a tree as a sacrifice. Choice food was put in its mouth.
A member of the Fat Roasters Band, Bird Flying High (Piksipodnsin), or Big Eagle, took the omaxisapitau as his protector and wore two tailfeathers attached to medals and then to his long braids. Yellow Kidney, who as a child saw Big Eagle make his magic, said that Big Eagle could cause sun dogs to appear. His song was “When I come up to the top of the hill, I shall see all about me.” Then he would motion with his condor feathers and the sundogs would appear.
A second and independent “Big Eagle” was told about by Harry Under Mouse who got the story from Small Eyes in Gleichen. This Big Eagle belonged to the All Short People Band. He carried a condor tail feather which had the power to make people invisible. Once he and his party were trapped on top of Devil’s Head Mountain but used to feather to escape invisibly. When the enemy closed in on the summit, a huge dark bird sprang away and flew off. This Big Eagle died in 1925, very old. His son Steven Fox (Short Crow or Thunder Chief) was called Big Eagle in his youth.
Harry Under Mouse claimed that in the Forties in Hobbema there was a Cree who danced wearing a costume made of the body, wings and tail of an omaxisapitau he had killed nearby. His dance was, naturally, an imitation of condor flight.
Shaeffer says there is a “roc legend” distributed through all Algonquian speakers. (A “roc” is a term used by Arabian or Persians in their stories about huge birds of prey, so this is an example of using something in Eurasian literary contexts to describe something Native American.) Omaxisapitau shows up in “power quest” tales. One tells about a hunter packing a deer on his back who is lifted into the air by the bird and deposited in a nest with chicks. He feeds his deer to the chicks and they help him down.
Jim Whitecalf Sr. was the only one of Schaeffer’s informants who referred to the condor as being a kind of vulture. (The Blackfeet country is a little far north for vultures, though there are a few places in southern Montana where they come.) The others thought of the bird as a giant eagle that often visited bison kill sites. Bald eagles will eat carrion, so they weren’t that misguided.
The giant condor is one of our most charismatic and endangered birds. It’s wonderful to find traces of its history woven into the lives and dreams of people of the prairies where the bison roamed. It’s satifying to think of real “thunderbirds” springing from their nests on top of Chief Mountain. It’s great to have a new word, omcxopitau, for an ancient bird. Maybe the name will help us call it back.