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Bald eagle epitomizes clash of cultures

As reported in a recent story by The Associated Press, a young Northern Arapaho man from Fort Washekie, Wyo., was charged for shooting a bald eagle. His reason for killing the eagle, he said, was cultural; it had to do with the Sundance.

As reported in a recent story by The Associated Press, a young Northern Arapaho man from Fort Washekie, Wyo., was charged for shooting a bald eagle. His reason for killing the eagle, he said, was cultural; it had to do with the Sundance.

The charges were dismissed by a U.S. district court judge.

Federal prosecutors are not satisfied with the decision and have filed notice they will appeal. Bald eagles are protected by law.

The thought of killing any bird, especially an eagle, is distasteful to me. But the court case brings to the forefront one of those culture clashes between American Indian and non-Indians.

Eagles have a long history. At one time, they were as common as red-winged blackbirds. There were about 500,000 bald eagles before European settlement, I've learned.


As settlers began to move into the area, the numbers of eagles began to decline. Thankfully, people began to notice the magnificent bird's absence. In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed, followed by the 1940 Bald Eagle Act to reduce harassment of the eagle.

Yet, the most devastating enemy of the eagle came on the scene in the late 1940s. DDT, the mosquito insecticide, caused eagle eggshells to become thin, break or not hatch. During that time, to see an eagle soaring high in the sky was a rare occurrence.

As animals and birds began to disappear forever, the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. That act protected the eagle, which was rare by then.

Where is the clash? For many of the 546 tribes in the United States, the eagle is sacred, and its feathers and parts are used in ceremonies. To prohibit the use or harvest of the feathers essentially restricted Indian people's religion and historic ways. There was some compromise with the Freedom of Indian Religion Act, which allowed Indian people to have feathers but not sell them.

They usually get feathers from the National Eagle Repository at Denver.

My brother-in-law, Duane Fox of White Shield, N.D., said the Sahnish (Arikara) rarely killed eagles. Fox, a ceremonial leader, said that in the past, a tribal member would dig a hole in an area where eagle hunted, cover it with branches, stake a live rabbit near the hole and wait.

The squealing of the rabbit would be enough to bring the eagle in. When the eagle dropped out of the sky for the kill, the man would reach up and grab its legs with one hand and with the other, pull out some of the tail feathers -- other feathers usually would fall in the struggle.

Then, the man would release the rabbit and let go of the eagle. Usually the eagle would be short a few feathers but have a good meal. Sometimes, the hunter was left with deep talon or claw marks and damage from the eagle's sharp, hooked beak.


Those are the stories I grew up with -- eagle catching was a man's duty.

John Eagle Shield, a Lakota from Standing Rock (Fort Yates, N.D.) is knowledgeable about Indian culture. The old "eagle catches," as the Lakota called them, still can be found in outcroppings of rocks.

They would take feathers, but they would grow back, John said, and no harm was done to the eagle. There were times, however, when they needed the whole head, whole tail or wings, bones for Sundance whistles, all the feathers and the heart of the eagle, and for those, they used the repository or dead eagles that had been found. Eagle Shield said he doesn't remember any eagle shootings at Standing Rock.

A spiritual leader of the Northern Arapaho said their harvesting of feathers and parts happened much the same as it was for Sahnish and Lakota, and usually didn't include killing the bird.

David Red Horse, Native American coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's regional office in Denver, was quite clear -- shooting eagles is not allowed, on or off reservations. If anyone finds a dead eagle, he or she needs to send it to the repository, where it then is processed and sent out to tribes for ceremonial use.

If people would send in those they found, there would be more to return to the tribes, and there could be a quicker turnaround, he said.

"It takes too long to get the feathers" is one of the tribal complaints of the repository.

Some tribes have negotiated permits with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Red Horse said. For example, the Hopi in Arizona are allowed to capture 40 young eagles, which they hold until they're grown and are used in a ceremony. It's much the same with the Pueblos. The Zuni in New Mexico and some Oklahoma tribes have aviaries where they raise eagles for feathers.


In February, Red Horse said, the issue of removing eagles from the Endangered Species Act will be discussed. They're close to a decision, he added.

When that happens, the issue of taking eagles will be ratcheted up, and the question that will come to a head is: Who has authority over harvesting eagles --the tribes or the federal government?

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