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Eagle controversy yields education as well as some indignation

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BOULDER, Colo. – Native people were on the North American continent for thousands of years before European invasion, so mainstream media and others should seek out knowledgeable Natives when questions arise about indigenous practices, an Oglala Lakota traditional leader said.

A bald eagle’s body, found by a hiker in May near Boulder, wrapped in red cloth, was missing head, talons and tail feathers, and was believed to have fallen from a tree. After the discovery, a series of misunderstandings and misinformation ensued, fueled in part by media speculation.

The hiker reported his finding to the county sheriff’s office, which was baffled at the red wrapping. Wildlife officials suspected poaching, an autopsy was scheduled, rewards for information about the beheading were issued and, according to at least one press account, the discovery may have pointed to a “satanic sacrifice.”

“It behooves you to go out and find the right answers,” Birgil Kills Straight, of Kyle, S.D, co-founder of the Indigenous Law Institute, told those who attended a press conference July 13 at the Native American Rights Fund.

The conference, called in response to the controversy that arose after the eagle’s body was found, was organized by NARF, an Oglala Sioux Tribe delegation, and the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs.

Its purpose was twofold: to scold the media for failing to seek out Native sources, but also to use the misunderstanding as an opportunity to educate people about Lakota and other Native traditions in which eagles and other raptors have long been treated with respect.

After the issue arose, some members of the area’s Native community became upset over what was perceived as a media slight, however unintentional, both to the community and to established spiritual practice. One young man, Steve LaPointe, Rosebud Lakota, contacted NARF and others about the principles involved.

It eventually was revealed that Darrell Pino, Diné, Colorado Springs, had obtained the eagle lawfully from the National Eagle Repository near Denver, a Fish and Wildlife Service-maintained collection point for dead eagles that distributes them for traditional purposes.

Pino had held a Sweatlodge ceremony conducted by Lee Plenty Wolf, Oglala Lakota, giving thanks for the eagle and acknowledging its importance. Then, as a veteran, he was authorized to take the parts he needed for traditional purposes, after which a second Sweatlodge ceremony was held. Pino said that, as Lakota tradition dictates, he ultimately wrapped the eagle’s body in red (honoring) cloth, prayed over and smudged the eagle, and placed it in a tree.

Plenty Wolf, of Pine Ridge but a long-time Denver area resident and spiritual leader, said there is a close connection between the eagle and a spiritual way of life, and it is important to realize “we don’t just go around killing eagles – there is a proper way.”

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Pino said, “In no way was this eagle treated disrespectfully” and the press conference was “to try to break down some of the stereotypes that have been built over the years.”

Other conference participants were Myron Pourier, member of the executive committee, tribal council, Oglala Sioux Tribe; Ernest House Jr., Ute Mountain Ute, executive secretary, CCIA; Steven Moore, NARF senior staff attorney, who helped mediate the controversy with wildlife officials; and Don Ragona, Mattinicock, NARF development director and house attorney, who questioned why the press had only sought information from non-Natives.

It is important to “understand it’s not the community’s fault for being ignorant about another community,” Pourier said, asserting that the meeting’s purpose was education “so you can be more culturally sensitive.”

House reminded attendees that many tribal nations have called present-day Colorado home and the area “has been used since time immemorial by those tribes.” CCIA pressed for Native religious-use exemption from toughened state laws concerning eagle violations.

Part of the controversy apparently stemmed from recent FWS concerns about poaching.

In recent months, FBI and FWS enforcement agents conducted raids at the homes of feather workers in several states, following a West Coast sting operation that centered on the alleged killing of eagles and sale of their feathers and parts on the black market, where prices can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

NARF has been increasingly concerned that legitimate practices involving eagles have been under scrutiny and those using eagle feathers and parts for dance regalia, staffs and Native American Church and other spiritual traditions have been unfairly targeted.

Under federal law, with limited exceptions, only Native people can possess eagle feathers through gifts or inheritance, or from the repository, which issues permits specifically for individual birds or parts. Overall, eagles are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and other laws, and killing them or trafficking in their parts is strictly forbidden under heavy penalties.

Native traditional uses are included under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and other legislation including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but the protections offered are often considered to be limited.

In this case, “All they had to do was talk to one of the elders in our community,” Pino said of the confusion displayed in media accounts and elsewhere.