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The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society have partnered with the Arizona Game and Fish Department to give animals a second reason for their existence.

Whether it’s the full hide of a fallen bear, the empty shell of a deceased tortoise or the antlers of deer or elk left on the forest floor — many items from animals are being put to new use in spiritual and ceremonial functions.

“The ultimate veneration of any animal is through its use in ceremonies and prayers connected with the renewal and continuation of life,” says Clayton Honyumptewa, director of the Hopi Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources. “Carcasses the tribe receives from the Game and Fish Department enable the Hopi people to honor these animals by offering them in our prayers to life’s eternal cycle.”

That multi-generational system of tradition has now been formalized with the creation of the Non-Bird Wildlife Repository, “a program that allows the department to honor our state’s Native American traditions and at the same time further the appreciation of Arizona’s wildlife,” according to Jim deVos, the department’s assistant director for managing wildlife.

“We don’t handle road kill or don’t mobilize anyone to go out and shoot a particular item we get a request for, our compilation of critters is based on the opportunistic collection of items our field crews run across that might have a second use,” says Jon Cooley, Apache, Endangered Species Coordinator, Wildlife Management Division, Arizona Game and Fish Department.

“Our overall wildlife management mission involves a lot of work in the outdoors where we run across dead animals. Normally, unless there’s a need for those items in connection with a legal case, we dispose of them rather than collect stuff endlessly with no purpose in mind.”

Now there is a purpose that has evolved over the years. “We network with Arizona’s 22 tribes quite a bit given the acreage of tribal lands in the state because even though these are sovereign nations who manage their own resources, wildlife doesn’t recognize any human-created boundaries. Over the years, we’ve developed personal relationships and an informal system where, if a tribe is looking for a specific item and we found one, we’d provide it,” says Cooley.

“Over time, we’ve scheduled coordination meetings with tribes to discuss mutual wildlife issues and those interactions over the years lead to this grassroots effort,” Cooley says. “To this point, it’s been one guy knowing another guy and they’ve worked together to help each other like a tribal member would ask one of our wildlife biologists to send them some turkey feathers if any showed up. Now it’s a fully-developed program to meet those needs.

“As tribes got restricted to smaller and smaller tracts of land, they no longer had access to the resources like they used to. Even though their traditions included things like tortoise shells for rattles or bear pelts, if their downsized reservation didn’t have current access to those kinds of wildlife items anymore, they had to look elsewhere for items for their ceremonies.”

As a former wildlife officer with the White Mountain Apache Tribe, Cooley had one foot in both worlds and when he joined the Arizona Game and Fish Department, he discovered the internal interest to help tribes. “We kicked around the idea waiting for someone to step up to the plate and try to make something official happen. I said I’d be willing to do that.”

Working with the non-profit Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, a group of professional wildlife managers responsible for tribal lands, new freezers were purchased to store carcasses and other items found in the field or confiscated after being illegally harvested.

Some of the items kept intact for traditional or ceremonial use include antlers, beaver pelts and tails and turtle shells. (Courtesy photo)

Some of the items kept intact for traditional or ceremonial use include antlers, beaver pelts and tails and turtle shells. (Courtesy photo)

“We agreed to not replicate collections that already existed elsewhere, like birds collected by Liberty Wildlife Center in Phoenix or any eagle remnants that go to the National Fish and Wildlife Service repository in Colorado. We do handle game birds like turkey and waterfowl and frequently receive formal requests for mammal skins, full bear carcasses, and tortoise shells along with deer and bison pelts as well as antelope and badger carcasses. If we come across a deer carcass that’s not ripe, we’ll put it in the freezer and deliver it whole and frozen to a tribe.

“Our largest request involves tortoise shells because the Pueblo tribes, in particular, have a keen interest in them for their ceremonial rattles. And we don’t handle animal remains that were tranquilized or immobilized with any kind of chemical because of tribal sensitivity about what happened to the animal before it passed away.”

This is a program that is driven by demand. As Cooley says, “Our repository isn’t a catch-all for everyday contributions of critters somebody shoveled up off the pavement. It’s us collecting items we know are of interest to tribes.”

And he invites other tribes to participate in the program, expanding the network. “If any tribes are interested in what we’re doing and perhaps want to become a part of it, I welcome that input. This program could be a model for other state wildlife agencies.” 

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Lee Allen is a longtime contributor to Indian Country Today who resides and works in Tucson Arizona.

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