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Feathers? Why Feathers?

 

Recently I’ve gotten some questions from readers about why my character Piper McLean from Heroes of Olympus is sometimes described as wearing a feather/feathers in her hair. The concern is understandable. Is this a negative Native stereotype since Piper is half-Cherokee — the daughter of Tristan McLean, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love?

 

We can certainly talk about that! I can’t always address each question I get individually about any given point in any given book, but in this case, I do feel it would be of value for readers in general to hear.  I am happy to share my research and thinking behind the way I depicted Piper, but of course as I’ve said many times, once a book is published, my intentions don’t really matter. The final product has to stand or fall of its own accord. You have to be the judge of whether or not I did well enough and was mindful enough of Piper’s heritage.

 

Thankfully, the vast majority of feedback I’ve gotten about Piper from young Native/Indigenous readers over the years has been extremely positive. I included her, after all, because young Native kids I met during school visits asked me if they could be part of Percy Jackson’s world. I always want kids to feel like they are seen and can be heroes in my world, but that doesn’t mean I’m an expert at every kind of representation. No one is. Nor would I feel comfortable if I was making a story focusing exclusively on a Native character or Native sacred stories. I’m not the right person for that. But I did want to do my best to be inclusive, and having grown up in Texas, I knew the most about the Cherokee, so that’s why I chose the Cherokee for Piper’s background. It’s been really wonderful hearing from Native kids over the years that Piper was the first Native character they ever saw in a ‘mainstream’ book. Many have told me how much she meant to them.

 

Having said that, would I do anything differently if I were writing Heroes of Olympus in 2020? Of course! I would probably do many things differently, because these books are 5-10 years old. Societal norms change. My mindset and understanding of issues change all the time. Books are always a product of their time. They reflect the state of the author’s skill and worldview when they were created. We write them hoping they will be timeless, but knowing full well they will become dated, sometimes very quickly.

 

For one thing, if I were writing these characters today, I would want to use sensitivity readers. I admit that isn’t a term I had even heard of back in 2009. This alone, of course, would not inoculate me from making mistakes. No group is a monolith, and opinions/reactions will always vary widely, but having someone check the work is definitely helpful. What I did instead is what I almost always do before writing characters. I read a lot. More on that in a moment.

 

So generally speaking, if I would do things differently now, why don’t I rewrite the books? There are a number of considerations here. It’s true that occasionally, if I stupidly include an offensive term and it’s pointed out to me soon after publication, I am able to work with my publisher to change that term in future editions. I’m happy to do this, but even this is of limited effectiveness.

 

Why? Changing things in electronic editions is easy. Alas, a tiny fraction of middle school book sales like mine are electronic, so that really doesn’t affect many copies. As for physical books, the vast majority of sales will be from the first printing. There is no guarantee there will be any future editions.  For the Heroes of Olympusbooks, for instance, I would estimate that 90% of the copies of those books that will ever exist, already do. Case in point: Six months ago, we complained to an international publisher whose translation of a certain book turned Will and Nico from boyfriends to friends. Erasure! Not okay! The publisher apologized and promised to fix it in future editions. Recently, another reader spotted this same error and complained again. “Why isn’t this fixed yet?” Well, because there haven’t been any new editions. The old books are still out there in stores, or in libraries, or in people’s personal collections.

 

All this puts the responsibility on me to get it right the first time. If I don’t, I can apologize and try to do better in the future, but most of the time, the book is what it is. Constantly changing the text to update its language or depictions isn’t practical, and I’d also argue it usually isn’t a good idea. The older the book, the more problematic it tends to be. We know this. But books are a snapshot of the time when they were created. Huckleberry Finn. Wow, super problematic language. But trying to update it to make it unproblematic would be problematic in its own right, because it would erase a record of the issues the book reflects. (A topic I wrestled with when the ‘New South’ edition of Huck Finn came out nine years ago.) We have to take these books as they are, discuss them for what they are, and decide whether or not they still have value, maybe just as markers for how society has changed (or hasn’t). That’s an extreme example. Unlike Samuel Clements, I am still alive, but the point still holds. Given our ever-evolving social landscape, 5-10 years is a very long time for a book to stay current.

 

Okay, so Piper. First thing I would say: The feather-wearing was intentional. It was not an oversight or an unconscious use of tropes. You can decide for yourself how you feel about that after reading the “why” below.

 

For Piper’s background, I started with James Mooney’s book History, Myths and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee. Now, Mooney was a white guy, so that’s a drawback. He was an anthropologist born in 1861 who worked for the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology. He spent a lot of time with the Eastern Cherokee, learning their language, preserving their original manuscripts and recording their stories. At a time when it was rare for Whites, he had reverence and respect for Native cultures, though of course his perspective was that of a privileged outsider. His book came out in 1900. He was not Native, but he recorded a lot of material directly from the Cherokee of the 19th century, and his work is still referenced by Cherokee writers today. It’s not a perfect source, but it is still the most comprehensive collection of Cherokee stories available from that time, to my knowledge, and believe me, I have looked. Most of the sacred stories that Tristan and Piper talk about in Heroes of Olympus come from Mooney’s collection.

 

One thing that struck me in Mooney’s book was the importance of feathers in Cherokee traditions. The eagle, especially, awâ’hïlï, was/is considered their “great sacred bird” (1992: 3928), a parallel to Roman beliefs that I found interesting. Found feathers of various birds can signify many things, either good or bad. Mooney reported that in the 1800s, eagle feathers “for decorative of ceremonial purposes” (3928) were regarded by the Cherokee as often “equal in value to a horse” (3928). Very strict rules accompanied the killing of an eagle and the collecting of its feathers for the Eagle dance, which was/is an important ritual (3939). Most of the time, feathers had to be found. Mooney says, “only the greatest warriors and those versed in the sacred ordinances would dare to wear the feathers and carry them in the dance” (3954). This, too, I found quite interesting. Feathers were so important to the Eastern Cherokee of the 1800s that their villages often had two separate “feather houses” (3954) where the sacred items were stored.

 

One of the stories Mooney recorded, “The Mounds and the Constant Fire,” lists a feather from the right wing of an eagle as one of the most important ingredients in a Cherokee ritual for establishing and protecting a new settlement (6161). He also recorded a wryly funny story that struck me as a warning about taking people too seriously just because they are wearing a lot of feathers. In this legend, a local man discovers peacocks from the Whites who live nearby. He makes a headdress of the peacock feathers, which he claims are “star feathers” (6229). He passes himself off as a great prophet until the community discovers he is a fraud.

 

After Mooney’s book, I turned to the work of Robert J. Conley, a writer and member of the Cherokee Nation (the Western Cherokees). His Cherokee Nation is the official history of his people, sanctioned by the Western Cherokee leadership. (Incidentally, the book draws heavily on Mooney as a source, which goes to show how reliant we are on earlier imperfect written records. Mooney is mentioned 92 times!) I also read Conley’s memoire Cherokee Medicine Man about his friend John Little Bear, a Cherokee healer, and Cherokee Thoughts: Honest and Uncensored. These were all incredibly helpful in understanding modern Cherokee life in Oklahoma, where Piper would have been born.

 

On the subject of feathers, Conley has a lot to say. He definitely hates the trope of “chiefing,” which is the reinforcement of the stereotype that “all Indians looked and acted like Sioux Indians: Indians on horseback wearing feathered headdresses chasing buffalos” (2008: 45). He says that “anyone looking for feathers, chanting and dance with Native American ritual would almost certainly go away from a genuine Cherokee ritual disappointed. It’s not for show. It just gets the job done” (Medicine Man 2005: 69).

 

On the other hand, he confirms the importance of feathers in many aspects of Cherokee tradition. He reports an early story about a Cherokee man named Dutch who “shaved his hair close to the skin, leaving only a small tuft on the top of his head in which to fasten his headdress made of the short feathers of the hawk” (History 2005: 2274). In more recent times, he talks about how preparing feathers for the staffs of the feather dance is an all-day affair (Medicine Man 2005: 122).  In traditional Cherokee medicine, feathers have great significance for good or ill. In particular, “eagle feathers are used for protection” (137). A white crane worn in a hat will attract women (137). Conley’s friend Little Bear uses an eagle feather as a prime ingredient for a healing ritual for a mutual friend named Jim (146). Feathers are sometimes depicted as swinging or twisting to indicate the presence of bad medicine.

 

The more I wrote about Piper, the more I needed to research, so at the recommendation of some modern Cherokee writers, I read The Turtle Island Liars Club, a collection of stories and conversations from Eastern Cherokee storytellers, and Living Stories of the Cherokee, collected from the Eastern Cherokee by Barbara Duncan, who is white, but who published under the auspices and with the approval of the Eastern Cherokee tribal leadership.

 

These stories reinforced what I had read previously about the significance of feathers in Cherokee tradition. In Turtle Island, several storytellers converse about the significance of finding feathers, especially hawk feathers, which they see as signs that carry great personal meaning (2003: 99). At the same time, Living Stories bemoans “chiefing” the same way Conley does, criticizing the white tendency of thinking “of all Indians being feather-wearing, pony-tiding, tipi-living people” (1997: 105). Duncan also shares a funny story of a Cherokee storyteller who is invited to attend an event. When she shows up in her normal street clothes, the audience is disappointed because they wanted “a real Indian with the feathers” (141). The storyteller says there must have been a misunderstanding. She is a Cherokee, not a chicken.

 

All of these sources taught me that there is a danger in “chiefing.” Ceremonial headdresses, while they are documented in certain Cherokee stories, are a trope to be avoided since they evoke the “all Indians are like Sioux Indians” stereotype. But at the same time, feathers have an authentic and important place in Cherokee tradition.

 

In The Lost Hero, Piper does not wear a feather in her hair. The only mention of “feathered hair” (2010: 368) is Tristan McLean’s old photos from the 1980s, and this does not refer to actual feathers. It is just an unfortunate hairstyle we had back then. (I have pictures of myself to prove it.) Piper did not grow up immersed in her Cherokee heritage. She has spent most of her life in Southern California. Her dad, too, has very mixed emotions about his Native background and his relationship to his father, who was more traditional. This, from my readings, is not at all unusual in multigenerational Cherokee families. When Piper finds out she is a demigod, she starts on a long journey of trying to understand what this means. In what ways is she a demigod? In what ways is she Cherokee? Who is she?

 

The first time she is shown wearing a feather is in The Mark of Athena. She wears a single eagle feather braided in her hair (2012: 3). To me, this was an indication that Piper had begun exploring and claiming her heritage in her own way. She now feels comfortable wearing a powerful symbol of a warrior, and also a symbol of protection from the Cherokee tradition. Later, she is described as wearing two white feathers (207). I imagined these as being still eagle feathers. Conley notes that when present for protection or medicine purposes, feathers are often used in pairs (Medicine 2005: 137). On a couple of occasions, I note that the feather is swinging like a pendulum in Piper’s hair, or that she is fiddling with it (2012: 24). To me, this hearkened back to the importance of the feather as an indicator of protection from nearby medicine. Finally, in The House of Hades, Piper kills a wild harpy all by herself, which she considers a big milestone in her growth as a hero. The only thing that remains of the harpy is a blue feather. Piper wears this in her hair to remind her of her own strength and courage. “It was a reminder that she wasn’t the same girl she’d been last winter, when they’d first arrived at Camp Half-Blood” (2013: 598). As mentioned above, found feathers in Cherokee tradition often hold high symbolic value, so this made perfect sense to me.

 

And that’s it! That’s why Piper wears those feathers. The final point I’d make: Piper has a headstrong personality and a stubborn streak, so she definitely is not a person who would think, Gee, I’m Native, so I can’t wear a feather because that might send the wrong message. If anything, she would say, To Hades with it. I don’t care what you think. I’m Cherokee and I’m going to express that however I want.

 

Whether that stands up to scrutiny, you will have to judge! For some it will. For some it won’t. I always do my best to try to satisfy and respect all readers, but I also know that I will never be able to reach 100% on how my work is received. That’s just human nature. Different readers (even those of similar backgrounds) will react differently to different texts, and as in all things, that diversity makes the world a much more interesting place!

 

At any rate, I hope that provides some insight into why I wrote Piper’s character as I did, and thanks to my readers for always doing their best to keep me honest!

 

 

Works Cited

 

 

 

Conley, Robert J. The Cherokee Nation: A History. University of New Mexico Press. Electronic Edition, 2005.

 

Conley, Robert J. Cherokee Medicine Man. University of Oklahoma Press. Kindle Edition, 2005.

 

Conley, Robert J. Cherokee Thoughts. University of Oklahoma Press. Electronic Edition, 2008.

 

Duncan, Barbara. Living Stories of the Cherokee. The University of North Carolina Press. Electronic Edition, 1997.

 

Mooney, James. History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. Bright Mountain Books (reprint). Electronic Edition, 1992.

 

Riordan, Rick. The Lost Hero. Disney Hyperion Publishing. Electronic Edition, 2010.

 

Riordan, Rick. The Mark of Athena. Disney Hyperion Publishing. Electronic Edition, 2012.

 

Riordan, Rick.  The House of Hades. Disney Hyperion Publishing. Electronic Edition, 2013.

 

Riordan, Rick. The Blood of Olympus. Disney Hyperion Publishing. Electronic Edition, 2014.

 

Teuton, Christopher B. Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars’ Club. The University of North Carolina Press. Electronic Edition, 2003.

Rick Riordan