Trafficking in parts from 50 dead eagles does not constitute an aboriginal right, a British Columbia provincial court judge has ruled, and a tribal member will be sentenced.
Judge James Jardine made the ruling against Tlowitsis tribe member James Carl Joseph in Surrey provincial court on February 3.
Joseph was appealing a 2009 decision in which he was found guilty on six charges of unlawful possession of dead wildlife and one charge of illegally trafficking in dead wildlife or parts.
Under the B.C. Wildlife Act, poaching and trafficking in eagle parts can result in $50,000 and $100,000 fines, respectively, for first-time offenders. The act allows for First Nations to be issued permits to use parts of eagles that have died naturally for traditional ceremonies.
The case originated in 2005 when Joseph and 15 other men were charged after police found 50 eagle carcasses stored at a residence on the Tsleil-Waututh reserve in Vancouver. Joseph had been using the residence to butcher the eagles, and later trade their parts with First Nations band members in the United States.
Two of the men served prison sentences, and the others were fined. But Joseph appealed, saying that as a member of both the Tlowitsis the Native American Church it was his right to use eagle feathers and parts for ceremonies and religious purposes.
In 2006, B.C. Conservation Service regional manager Lance Sundquist told Canwest news service that eagle parts are sold on the black market for anywhere from $100 to $1,500 per part. A dancing stick with an eagle head used in powwows can sell for more than $1,000, while raw golden eagle wings can sell for up to $500.
At the court in Surrey, Joseph said he couldn't afford to bring in any experts to testify on his behalf, nor any First Nations peoples, saying that he's been ostracized as a result of the case.
In his judgment Jardine said that after listening to Joseph he was unable to conclude that the Tslowitsis used eagle parts the way Joseph described. He also concluded that Joseph wasn't practicing the traditions of his people.
Further, Jardine said, Joseph may be a member of the Native American Church, but the organization is not affiliated with the Tlowitsis, and the church's activities don't constitute an aboriginal right.
Joseph will return to court to be sentenced in May. He would not comment after leaving court. But in 2009 he told The Tyee that he was from a broken home and had gone to residential school. He tried to legally obtain eagle parts but never got any. He developed a reputation as a guy to get eagle parts from, and he did so for people who wanted to use them for medicinal and ritual purposes, Joseph said.
Eagles die every day from industrial poisoned water, electrocution, and toxic food.
“There's no outcry because nobody hears it, nobody sees it,” Joseph said.
Federally, the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act call for a $150,000 fine and up to five years in prison.