Eagle Feathers: Religious items as contraband in Indian Country

Dec 19, 2011

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INTRO: Most U.S. religions have no problem carrying out their spiritual exercises. But, for Native Americans in Wyoming and elsewhere, practicing traditional religious ceremonies isn't so simple: They can be heavily regulated by federal authorities, especially when it comes to the use of sacred items like eagle feathers. Wyoming Public Radio’s Tristan Ahtone reports.

NELSON WHITE: Nii'ehííhi. 

TRISTAN AHTONE: Says Nelson White.

N. WHITE: Nii'ehííhi. That's how you say eagle.

AHTONE: Nelson White is an Arapaho Tribal member and representative for the council of elders. Sitting in a basement on the Wind River Reservation, with another ceremonial elder, Crawford White, he pulls out some eagle bone whistles and rubs them in his hand, and then an eagle tail fan to show one of the many ceremonial uses for feathers. Then, Crawford White chimes in.

CRAWFORD WHITE: We use these in different ceremonies - Sundance, sweat lodges, ceremonial Native American Church, powwows. Here's your eagle bones. [whistles]

AHTONE: Despite that eagles are no longer listed as endangered species, it's illegal for people to possess any part of the bird unless they're Native American. And if you're Native American and need those parts, there are three ways to get them: two are legal, the third is not. One option is to get parts when they are passed down or between people.

N. WHITE: My grandfather from Oklahoma, gave me all his ceremonial stuff. I don’t know how long he had them, if he got them from his grandfather, I don’t know.

AHTONE: The second way is through the National Eagle Repository in Denver. This is Bernadette Atencio.

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

AHTONE: And the third is through the black market. This is Katy Jackman:

Katy Jackman: I really think that it is probably pretty widespread but as far as the level of activity, I mean, are the thousands birds involved? No. I mean I think that it’s probably on a local level and we’re talking about not a whole lot of activity.

AHTONE: So let’s start with the Repository: Bernadette Atencio watches one of her workers at the National Eagle Repository unwrap a dead, bald eagle, dump it on a stainless steel table, and spread the feathers on its stiffening tail.

ATENCIO: That’s a huge tail on that bird, and he's basically determining if those feathers have any damage to them, or if they're underdeveloped…

AHTONE: Attencio is the supervisor of the National Eagle Repository, which exists to provide a legal means for Native Americans to acquire eagle feathers for religious or cultural use.  The eagle on the table in front of her will be used as a wing set and the tail will be plucked for individual feathers. Her worker picks up a bolt cutter, severs the wings and tail, then tags it so it can be sent out immediately.

ATENCIO: Right now we have about over 6,000 pending requests.  The repository averages about 22 to 23-hundred eagles a year.

AHTONE: And this is where problems arise: There are not enough eagles to meet demand. Requests that come in are first-come first-serve and can range from orders for whole birds to loose feathers. However, applications are steadily rising, and Atencio says that leaves a huge backlog of requests.

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: So lengthy in fact, some people have waited up to three years to get their order filled.  People like Nelson White say they’re unhappy with parts the Eagle Repository has sent to tribal members, including one instance when he says a goose arrived instead of an eagle, and another where the bird was too decomposed to even be used.

N. 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: So with limited supply, and long wait times, that brings us to the last option for finding eagle parts. Here’s Katy Jackman, an attorney with the National Congress of American Indians.

JACKMAN: That has inevitably created this sort of black market that isn't necessarily about the monetary aspect of it, but more so just about making sure that native people have access to their sacred objects.

AHTONE: Jackman says if the black market is the one of the only options for a person to have access to sacred objects, it puts Native people between a rock and a hard place. Especially, when federal authorities are working hard to put a dent in that market.

JACKMAN: Over about the last two years, we have had a series of meetings with federal officials from the Department of Justice and Department of Interior mainly in response to the spring 2009 undercover operation that was perpetrated by the Fish and Wildlife service.

AHTONE: Jackman says that sting, called Operation Rolling Thunder, sparked fears in tribal communities. But according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, the raids netted only seven arrests in South Dakota and Montana, for “trafficking in migratory birds charges”.  Now, the Department of Justice is working on a new policy that gives deference to American Indians who possess non-commercial quantities of eagle parts and feathers for personal, religious or cultural use.

JACKMAN: This is sort of the first real movement that we’ve seen from the Department Of Justice officials to address some of our concerns. Now whether or not their policy proposal will do that is yet to be seen.

AHTONE: The Department of Justice will continue to take public comment on the proposed policy, but here in Wyoming, The Northern Arapaho tribe is  working to get eagle parts through a different method: the live take of an eagle for religious purposes. Here’s Matt Hogan, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

MATT HOGAN: So we have an application from the Northern Arapaho, since the Arapaho and the Shoshone share the Wind River Reservation we are consulting with both tribes about this permit…

AHTONE: Hogan says the application is the first he’s received from Wyoming tribes, and can’t remember ever issuing that type of permit in the west. However, he says up to another year of negotiations could be in the pipeline before the tribe can practice their ceremony. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Tristan Ahtone.