The day was dark. Fog obliterated the landscape. Rain and snow alternated throughout the day. Despite that, the enthusiasm of the people in attendance couldn’t have been much higher as they watched four eagles being released into the aeries, the beginning of a new program run by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.
“We found some birds that we can accept and put into our aviary,” said tribal elder Alfred Nomee, recounting how the tribe had been working on this for a couple of years and had finally received the federal permits in October. “They now become our responsibility.”
The tribe is the first one out of seven western states to have this authority to care for eagles that can't return to the wild due to injuries, though the Zuni in the Southwestern U.S. have been eagle caretakers for years.
“To be able to take care of these magnificent birds which mean so much to our people, it’s humbling,” Coeur d’Alene Chairman James Allan told those who had gathered for the November 30 launch. “We always say we are the protectors of our land, our people, and our animals. This is our opportunity. My hat is off to all you guys who helped on this. It’s something you can tell your kids and grandkids, because this is what we’re all about.”
The project is already growing. On Thursday December 29 they received two more golden eagles for the aviary, for a total of three golden eagles and three bald eagles.
Eagles hold a special meaning for most Native Americans, lending the eagle program a spiritual aspect.
“We all understand the spiritual importance of these birds,” said Caj Matheson, who works for the tribe’s Natural Resource Department. “To me it’s all about our connection to our Creator. It’s a great opportunity for us to reestablish that strength and connection. This is our opportunity to always be reminded of that.”
The aeries for holding eagles are located across Coeur d’Alene Lake from tribal headquarters on land owned by Janie Veltkamp, a wildlife biologist recognized for her work with eagles and other raptors. Tribal wildlife staff built two aeries on this property to help learn about caring for the birds from Veltkamp. Eventual plans call for moving these aeries closer to tribal headquarters.
“There will be an expansion through the years of what we have here,” Nomee said. “We hope to develop a facility similar to what Janie has and use that for educational purposes. Janie does a lot of work at schools and communities to build up the knowledge about these birds. We’d like to bring that type of educational program to our Coeur d’Alene people and combine that with our cultural program. We would have the museum program, language program and aviary all in one complex.”
These eagles cannot survive on their own, Veltkamp explained. Each had been injured by such things as collision with vehicles, electrocution or being shot. Now, in captivity, they are safe and will likely live a longer life than eagles in the wild, she said. They are a long-lived bird and can reach 20 to 25 years of age in the wild. In captivity they may survive for 50 years.
Another aspect of the eagle program involves the feathers, Nomee said.
“As the birds molt, the feathers will be gathered and housed in the Natural Resources Department,” he said. “We're setting up an applications policy where every tribal member, every individual who requests an eagle feather, will fill out an application. We’ll verify their tribal affiliation and enrollment. They must belong to a federally recognized tribe. Then we can distribute feathers from here.”
It was in essence a small, but significant, victory for sovereignty, said tribal natural resource employee Vincent Peone, summing up the feelings of many in attendance.
“To have this happen today is another landmark in history for us, to be able to take care of our spirit animals,” Peone said. “There are no words that can explain how rewarding the feeling is to be this close and this much involved.”