U.S.
4:36 pm
Mon March 19, 2012

Wyoming Tribe Wins Right To Hunt Two Bald Eagles

Most Americans have little difficulty practicing their religion. But for Native Americans, performing traditional religious ceremonies isn't always so simple. Many rites often involve heavy regulation by federal authorities — especially when it comes to using sacred items like eagle feathers.

In a first for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Northern Arapaho tribe in Wyoming has received a permit to hunt and kill bald eagles for religious purposes. The move comes in the wake of a lawsuit filed last year, alleging that the refusal of such permits violated tribal members' religious freedom.

The agency has issued similar permits for golden eagles in the past, but the Northern Arapaho permit is the first granted for the iconic bald eagle.

Crawford White, an Arapaho ceremonial elder from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, says his tribe uses eagle-tail fans and eagle-bone whistles in several tribal ceremonies and settings, including sun dances, powwows and sweat lodges.

Some of these ceremonies may sound familiar to non-Native Americans; others may seem more exotic. But either way, for many Native Americans to fully participate in religious ceremonies, they need eagle parts. To get those parts, they can go to the black market, use items passed between friends and family, or put in an order to the National Eagle Repository in Denver.

A National Repository, An Unpredictable Supply

Bernadette Atencio, who serves as supervisor for the repository, says the program was implemented in the early 1970s "to provide a legal means for Native Americans to acquire bald and golden eagle feathers for use in religious practices."

The program is for Native Americans only; applications can be filed only by individuals with tribal enrollment papers. And once you put in a request, you have to wait — no matter how quickly the repository works.

That's because the repository can only receive and distribute eagles that have been found dead in the wild. When the birds arrive, Atencio's team severs their wings and tails, plucks their feathers, and then bags, zip-ties and ships them out.

But demand is steadily outpacing supply. Last year, the repository received three requests for every bird it received — and most of those birds were unusable.

Atencio says the unpredictable supply "puts a lot of pressure on the inventory, so there's no way we can fill everybody's order even within a year. Unfortunately the waiting period is lengthy." The turnaround time for requests often lasts up to three years, she says.

On top of that, some tribal members have been unhappy with the quality they received from the repository. On the Wind River Reservation, tribe member Nelson White says he's seen a goose arrive instead of an eagle. In another instance, he says a bird was too decomposed to even be used.

"That's unacceptable," White says. "If a non-Indian had to get his Bible from a repository, and it was sent in a box, and he opened it and it was rotten — how would he like it?"

Balancing Conservation And Religion

This is why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife permit, granted because the repository can't meet the Arapaho's religious needs, is so important to the tribe. The tribe also says being allowed to hunt the birds is a better option, because the actual act of capturing an eagle is part of its religious practice.

Matt Hogan, regional supervisor with the Fish and Wildlife Service, says the entire permitting process comes down to respect.

"We're really talking about Native Americans who have had a longtime, customary traditional relationship with eagles — in some cases thousands of years," Hogan says. "We're constantly trying to balance the conservation of the species with the religious needs of Native Americans."

The Fish and Wildlife Service says the permit allows the Arapaho tribe to take only two eagles. After that, tribal members will have to reapply.

Copyright 2014 Wyoming Public Radio Network. To see more, visit http://www.wyomingpublicmedia.org.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

The federal government has granted Wyoming's Northern Arapaho Tribe a unique permit. The tribe will be allowed to kill two bald eagles, just two, for religious purposes. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued similar permits in the past for golden eagles, but never for bald eagles. The decision comes after the tribes sued on grounds of religious freedom. Wyoming Public Radio's Tristan Ahtone has the story.

TRISTAN AHTONE, BYLINE: For Native Americans, performing traditional religious ceremonies isn't simple. It can often involve heavy regulation by federal authorities, especially when it comes to the use of sacred items like eagle feathers.

CRAWFORD WHITE: We use different ceremonies.

AHTONE: That's Crawford White, an Arapaho ceremonial elder from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. In one hand, he holds an eagle tail fan. In the other, he holds eagle bone whistles.

WHITE: Sun Dance, sweat lodges, ceremonial Native American church, powwows. Here's your eagle bone.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

AHTONE: Some of these ceremonies may sound familiar to you, others more exotic. But either way, for many Native Americans to be able to participate in their religious ceremonies, they need eagle parts. And to get those parts, you can go to the black market, get them when passed between friends and family, or you can put in an order to the National Eagle Repository in Denver where Bernadette Atencio serves as supervisor.

BERNADETTE ATENCIO: The Native American eagle feather program was actually implemented in the early 1970s, and it was actually developed to provide a legal means for Native Americans to acquire bald and golden eagle feathers for use in religious practices.

AHTONE: This program is for natives only. No tribal enrollment papers, no eagle parts. That's the law. And even after you put in a request, no matter how fast the repository works, you have to wait. Atencio's team severs their wings and tails, plucks feathers, then bags, zip-ties and ships them out.

The demand is steadily outpacing supply. Last year, the repository got three requests for every one bird it received, and most of those birds were unusable. Atencio says that's because the repository can only receive eagles that have been found dead in the wild.

ATENCIO: That puts a lot of pressure on the inventory, so there's no way we can fill everybody's order even within a year. Unfortunately, the waiting period is lengthy.

AHTONE: Like up to three years lengthy. On top of that, some tribal members have been unhappy with the quality. On the Wind River Reservation, Nelson White says he's seen a goose arrive instead of an eagle and another instance where the bird was too decomposed to even be used.

NELSON WHITE: That's unacceptable. You know, if a non-Indian had to get his Bible from a repository, and it was sent in a box, and he opened it, and it was rotten, how would he like it?

AHTONE: This is why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife permit is so important. Since the repository can't meet the religious needs of the Arapaho, the tribe is getting the federal permit. For the tribe, this is a better option because the act of capturing an eagle is part of its religious practice. Fish and Wildlife regional supervisor Matt Hogan says this whole process comes down to respect.

MATT HOGAN: We're really talking about Native Americans who have had a long time, customary traditional relationship with eagles - in some cases, thousands of years. And so we're constantly trying to balance the conservation of the species with the religious needs of Native Americans.

AHTONE: The Fish and Wildlife Service says with the permit, only two eagles can be taken by the Arapaho tribe. After that, tribal members will have to reapply or get in line at the National Eagle Repository. For NPR News, I'm Tristan Ahtone in Laramie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.