Tribal elders decry circuit court decision in bald eagle case

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DENVER - A member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe;s Council of Elders said July 8 that killing an eagle for the tribe's annual Sun Dance is a matter of religious freedom that he hopes will reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Northern Arapaho Sun Dance continued in mid-July as planned despite legal wrangling about a tribal member whose case has been in the courts for the last three years.

Winslow Friday, of Ethete, Wyo., on the Wind River Reservation, was charged with shooting a bald eagle for the tribe's Sun Dance in 2005. His appeal was recently denied.

The Northern Arapaho Sun Dance requires an eagle taken from the wild, but federal law prevents killing eagles.

''We try to hold onto our sacred ways - we don't want to lose that,'' Crawford White, 68, said by telephone. ''These are sacred ceremonies. We don't want to use rotten birds.''

Eagle carcasses obtained from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Eagle Repository in Denver are often decomposed, he said, despite the fact that using the repository is basically the only way individual American Indians can obtain eagles under federal law.

White was asked to comment as a member of the Council of Elders, a traditional council, in light of a recent federal appellate court denial of further review of its earlier decision that reinstated charges against Friday of violating federal eagle protection laws.

''We do the best we can - we do what we have to do,'' White said, pointing out that the Sun Dance will continue as it always has and with everything it needs in order to be done in the correct way.

White, a disabled Vietnam veteran, said, ''We're fighting the government. They don't have a right to tell us what we can and can't do. We have freedom of religion. I went to war. I fought for this country, but now they're telling me I can't have my ceremonial ways.

''I think if they would just come out here and live with us, they would understand it. It's important for us to keep it in the tribe to teach our young people,'' White said. ''I really hope they do take it to the Supreme Court.''

Taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court is one option that was cited by John T. Carlson, of Denver, an assistant federal public defender, in May when Friday's initial appeal against reinstatement of charges against him was denied. The other option - taking an appeal to the full 12-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court - is the action quashed by that court. Carlson was not available for comment.

As matters now stand, Friday's fate rests with the lower court in Wyoming, where a conviction on the reinstated charges could result in a sentence of up to a year in jail and a fine. He could not be immediately reached for comment.

Friday was backed by his tribe, and both the American Civil Liberties Union and Wyoming and Colorado Press Associations recently supported his request for the full-panel hearing.

He clashed with the U.S. Department of Justice over whether procedures for eagle preservation - termed a ''compelling interest'' of government - could be safely modified to accommodate religious practices.

Earlier, the appellate court agreed that the pursuit of eagle permits for religious use may be ''more burdensome than the Northern Arapaho would prefer,'' but concluded that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ''the Eagle Act and its regulations are the least restrictive means of pursuing the government's compelling interest in preserving the bald eagle.''

Permits to take eagles from the wild are generally not issued to individuals, Fish and Wildlife officials said. In addition to other problems with eagle carcasses from the National Repository, wait lists for specific types can be up to five years.