Helping nature recover itself ? helping the birds fly ? is a sign of success and a signal of good culture for any people, at any time in history. In putting up a project that heals and rehabilitates wounded eagles, and in turn, collects and dispenses necessary quantities of feathers and other materials from the birds for ceremonial use by Indians, the Zuni tribe deserves a heartfelt congratulation.
The Zuni Eagle Aviary is home to nine bald eagles and 12 golden eagles. All the birds are injured birds. They are mostly healed yet damaged and unable to return to the wild. The aviary receives injured birds from animal-rescue groups and individuals. They usually have serious wing or foot damage but they perch and can fly short distances in the aviary. They are cared for by the tribe and treated with dignity. Each bird drops or molts a couple of feathers a day. These are gathered ceremonially and passed on to tribal members and sometimes other tribes. School children often visit the Aviary, which is used for lectures and teaching workshops.
The use of eagle and other bird feathers in ceremony is highly serious. It merits and involves utmost respect for the animal and for the spirit and representation of the feather itself, which is used to pray. There are many ceremonies at this time of the year, including many sundances on the Great Plains and other ceremonies elsewhere in the hemisphere. The use of feathers is completely integrated into the sundance, the Pipe Ways. A fallen feather stops the dance. Special music, special people only can pick it up. In most places, this requires veterans. In other places, this is done by eagle clan matrons, headmen and holy people.
West, North, East and South, depictions of eagles and other birds are common in Native pottery, weavings and basketry. Among Hopi villages, eaglets are kept and believed to carry messages and information to the spirit world. In Meso-America, eagles are commonly depicted with warriors and in the mode of vigilance over the people. In Mexico as well, it is the union of the eagle and the snake, the Plumed Serpent, that originates Native spiritual traditions. The sacred eagle flies over the Tree of Peace among the Haudenosaunee or Six Nations Iroquois. It is also there in vigilance over the safety and the protection of the nations. In ceremony, someone may be "feathered off," cleansed and blessed by the fluttering of feathers from the head to the feet, down one side and the other, taking the bad to throw away to the four directions and the good back up to fly on the wing of an eagle toward the Creator. When an eagle appears over a prayer or ceremony, the sign is always greeted with awe and thankfulness. The eagle flies highest and can disappear into the clear blue sky. They say this is the moment a prayer is heard.
Kudos again to the Zuni Pueblo and its aviary. Congratulations on its awards for its excellent design from the Mexico American Institute of Architecture and other awards from the National Endowment for the Arts. We think the aviary project is a great signal to the world. We congratulate the project managers and the Zuni Pueblo on their recent receipt of a "Tribal governance award" from Harvard University. These are all well-deserved recognitions, worthy of the Zuni approach.
More recently, other wildlife rehabilitators who have noticed the Zuni approach are proposing a similar program for consideration by Oklahoma tribes. Apparently, the number of disabled eagles is so large that many injured animals are destroyed. Zoos often do not have proper facilities. Sometimes organizations can keep debilitated eagles through educational permits but it is not enough. Programs by tribes whose members use eagle feathers make sense. At the moment, by law, all eagle carcasses and feathers must be sent to a national repository at Rocky Flats, Colorado. Federally recognized Indians can apply to get feathers, but the wait can take several years.
According to wildlife rehabilitators Kathy and Gary Siftar, there is government funding available that could be applied toward creating more eagle programs. Tribes interested may contact the Siftars at Gsiftar@gorilla.net.