PABLO — Vietnam War Veteran Tom Camel has painted hundreds of turkey feathers. Some are painted with American flag imagery while others are painted with the Vietnam Veteran colors: red and yellow. Some include writing, while others are fringed with colorful beads.
He said the feathers symbolize healing. “A lot of times people who’ve served in the military don’t talk about their experiences much,” he said. “Sometimes people are wounded, not just physically but mentally and spiritually. It can be an isolating experience. I wanted to honor our veterans with a feather as a way to heal the their connection to the community and also heal the community’s connection to the veterans. That connections is so important.”
Camel hosted a feather-painting workshop at The People’s Center and invited community members to add to his collection, which will be gifted to local veterans. He said the project has cultural significance. “In tribal communities people would receive eagle feathers for their accomplishments. These aren’t eagle feathers but I wanted to share a part of my culture,” he said.
The feather-painting project was launched two years ago during a Veteran's retreat Camel attended in Spokane, Washington. He said he learned about self-expression. “We learned how important it is for veterans to find a healthy outlet for self expression because we are high risk for a lot of things,” he said. “It’s not healthy to keep those feelings or experiences inside. We made a song together and learned about poetry and painting. I liked painting, it was a very calming and healing experience for me and I wanted to bring that home.”
Camel has been sharing his feathers with veterans throughout the Flathead Reservation. He said he will be hosting a veteran’s honoring during the Arlee Powwow and has been involved in the Veteran’s Court in Missoula, which is focused on a holistic approach to addressing veteran’s non-violent offenses. “I like to paint their service information on the feather to customize it. Then I present the feather to the veteran with an honor song and I like their family to share nice things about that person. I want them to feel appreciated,” he said.
Steve Villagrana was one of three people to attend the workshop. He said he came to pay his respect. “A lot of my family are veterans from the older generations to the younger generations. Artwork has always been my peace and when I saw this class was going on I wanted to come and give back,” he said.
Painting the feathers is a process in itself and Camel said he encourages community members get involved. “To sit down and paint the feathers comes from the heart so there’s a lot of love that goes into it,” he said. “I’m welcoming more people to join me in doing this. I think it’s a way for us to be responsible for our veterans because they shouldn’t be separate.”