DENVER – Some tribal officials from the Northern Plains and other Indian leaders object to federal interference in American Indians’ use of eagle feathers and advocate greater Native control, suggesting an Indian-run eagle feather repository as one way to preserve the heritage and culture the eagle represents.
The issues were part of an eagle summit convened by the Fish and Wildlife Service March 18 at the request of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, whose outgoing executive secretary, Ernest House Jr., Ute Mountain Ute, described “very sensitive issues” triggered in part a year ago when the body of an eagle that had been used for ceremonial purposes was found by non-Natives in Boulder, Colo. and when federal agents seized feathers elsewhere.
Attendees said that although they were grateful for the meeting – and would welcome more, possibly lengthier ones that might include federal policy makers from Washington – they had real concerns with the way the current federal program for eagle feathers is conducted.
“The laws are supposed to protect our ceremonial ways, but it doesn’t work that way,” said Wilmer Mesteth, Oglala Lakota tribal preservation officer and Sun Dance leader. “These are issues we need to address as tribes.”
Both Mesteth and Mark Roundstone, Northern Cheyenne natural resources administrator, said a Native-operated repository might help to solve some of the problems.
Currently, the government holds that supplying eagle feathers and parts from the FWS-run National Eagle Repository near Denver to members of federally recognized tribes and issuing mandatory accompanying permits is the least restrictive way to preserve eagle populations and to also meet federal trust obligations to preserve the culture and religion of those tribes.
“I don’t think we as Indian people can allow you to tell us whether (a) veteran can carry a feather whether they have a permit from you or not,” said Joyce Spoonhunter, a Blackfeet Nation tribal council secretary. Roundstone said it is difficult to carry on tradition “if I have to wait five years for you guys to give me some spoiled feathers.”
Gayle SkunkCap Jr., director of the Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department, noted the federal trust responsibility to tribes and urged FWS officials to “stand up for the tribes” and include Native input in policy making. Tribes have codes and laws and the government should “work with us – don’t dictate to us.”
“We have a different understanding of what an eagle is,” said Birgil Kills Straight, an Oglala Lakota spiritual leader and director of tribal parks and recreation. “We have more understanding of what the eagle is than the federal government.”
Some of the discussion at a regional FWS building centered on undercover operations on tribal lands and on specific repository practices that attendees said had caused problems.
“I think it’s insulting to say you’re doing undercover work on our reservations,” said Andrew Morin, director of the Spirit Lake Tribe’s fish and game department in North Dakota. “You need to talk to us.”
Steve Oberholzer, a FWS law enforcement special agent in charge for the eight-state FWS Plains/Prairie region, said tribal officials and tribal law enforcement are notified when it is possible to do so, adding, “I hope you don’t get the impression we’re leaving you out” because that is not the intent.
Commercial take, sales and barter of eagle feathers and parts and possession by those who are not members of federally recognized tribes are prohibited, unless, in the latter instance, bald eagle feathers pre-date the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 and golden eagle feathers before the law was amended in 1962 to include them under what is now termed the Eagle Act.
Bernadette Atencio, the repository supervisor, was asked by Peggy Whitford, an administrative assistant to SkunkCap, about an order for 20 miscellaneous feathers: “I specified what I was going to use these for (tribal council uses) and only one out of 20 was actually usable.” Atencio noted a Q&A inserted with orders explains that the 20 feathers are not of the high quality available under a “10 quality loose feather” option.
In terms of repository volume, eagle bodies usually come to the facility in winter and spring, and so far this fiscal year more than 1,000 have been received, “most very decomposed and mutilated,” Atencio said. In the last fiscal year, 3,270 requests were filled and 2,802 new requests were received. Most requests are for whole birds, and most people request golden eagles, including those whose white, dark-tipped immature tail feathers are highly prized, creating a time lag of four to five years for possession.
Increasing requests and lengthy delays for eagle feathers prompted Spoonhunter to suggest that, since Plains tribes had always used eagle feathers and other tribes had not, feathers should be issued to Plains tribes first.
Steve Guertin, FWS regional director, said he would “commit to you that we want to work with you for all parties’ satisfaction” on eagle issues and that an all-day meeting would be held if necessary to work on “common sense solutions.”
Other FWS employees who addressed the meeting included Kim Greenwood, tribal liaison, who said the tribal councils and 17 tribes represented, including the Blackfeet Nation from Canada, indicated the importance of the eagle-related issues in Indian country.
Jim Dubovsky, FWS regional chief of the division of migratory bird management, described tribal aviaries for non-releasable eagles as another feather source and said new eagle take rules list Native religious use as second only to the priority for public safety.
But, “We’re not free to do what we want,” said Andy Cozad, Kiowa, of the Native American Church, near the close of the meeting, noting he “wish(es) we could just be left alone.”
Harvey Spoonhunter, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, asked attendees to consider an analogy: Even during the U.S. Prohibition era, churches could use sacramental wine “and didn’t have to wait five years to get it like we do to get eagle feathers” and have to have a permit to practice religion.