About 100 yards away from a circular enclosure erected in the center of Liberty Park, Pioneer Day vendors sold the old favorite Navajo tacos as well as the more recent fashion craze of feathered hair extensions.
But the more than 300 spectators had to enter the 150-yard-wide enclosure to get the true meaning of what it means to be a Navajo and to learn why feathers hold such a special significance in American Indian culture beyond the latest trend.
Two golden eagles, perched on the leathered forearms of two falconers, took part in one of the most important events at the 18th annual Native American Celebration in the Park, held each year on Pioneer Day to remember that Mormons aren't the only ones who have called Utah home.
"[The eagles] tell us that they know where the Great Spirit lives," said David Yazzie, a Navajo who served as the day's spiritual leader. "[The eagles] take our prayers up there and bring blessings down to us."
Aside from last year, falconer and head of the Skymasters Wildlife Foundation Ben Woodruff has brought the eagles to the ceremony that marks the beginning of the day's powwow, where American Indians throughout the region in traditional dress make what is called their "Grand Entry" into the arena. During the ceremony, John Bear Fabella held a staff festooned with eagle feathers while he wore a headdress decorated with eagle feathers.
"The eagle is our sacred bird," Fabella said. "It carries our soul when we die â¦ The eagle is the carrier of our soul to God."
According to Fabella, the Creator made all the birds of the sky, and the eagle is the leader because it flies higher and sees better than other birds. After the noon ceremony, Woodruff and fellow falconer Matt Finch took the eagles into an air-conditioned house near the arena because, like the rest of us on a warm Pioneer Day, the birds of prey can get overheated easily. A 6-year-old female. Holi (taken from the Cherokee language), and a 2-year-old male, Quinach (from the Ute language), rested with hoods over their eyes, with their dark brown feathers featuring a lighter, golden-brown plumage on their heads and necks. Powerful talons gripped tree branches brought for them.
Woodruff, who has trained raptors for a quarter-century and keeps them at his West Jordan home, said he and his eagles take part in education assemblies, but the most meaningful is their presence at the Native American Celebration in the Park. His eagles react to the drumming that accompanies the day's events. "The drumbeat is the heartbeat of this land," said Woodruff, who at the age of 18 was "adopted" by the local Cherokee tribe.
Finch got emotional when talking about eagles. "The golden eagle represents everything good to [American Indians]," he said. "They fly so high they are almost a direct link to their Creator."
The feathers are so important, Fabella said, that they must never touch the ground much like the U.S. flag. He pointed out the headdresses of his grandsons, and said they one day will wear his headdress, much like how he now wears his father's.