CHEYENNE, Wyo. – A federal government decision to allow a Wyoming tribe to kill two bald eagles for a religious ceremony is a victory for American Indian sovereignty as well as for long-suppressed religious freedoms, the tribe says.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted a permit March 9 to the Northern Arapaho Tribe allowing it either to kill or capture and release two bald eagles this year.
While no one questions the religious sincerity of Northern Arapaho tribal members, spokesmen for some conservation and animal rights groups question why the tribe can't meet its religious needs without killing wild eagles. They say the tribe could raise captive birds, or accept eagle feathers or carcasses already available from a federal repository that collects birds killed by power lines or other causes.
The Northern Arapaho share the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming with the Eastern Shoshone Tribe. The Northern Arapaho decline to say specifically what they will do with the eagles the federal permit allows them to kill.
"It has been since the beginning of time with us, and we respectfully utilize the eagle in our ceremonies," said Harvey Spoonhunter, a tribal elder and former chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council. "We get to utilize the eagle, which we consider a messenger to the Creator."
Bald eagles were removed from the federal list of threatened species in 2007. The birds remain protected under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Several Indian tribes have been allowed permits to kill golden eagles for religious purposes.
Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Morning Star Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based American Indian rights group, notes that only a few tribes still practice ceremonies that require them to kill eagles.
From the 1880s to the 1930s, the federal government enforced so-called "Civilization Regulations" that criminalized traditional ceremonies, including the Northern Arapaho's Sun Dance. Many Indian religious ceremonies were stamped out, Harjo said.
"They've done the correct thing, the proper thing. It's a good step in the direction of the United States trying to make amends for things that they did all too well to suppress Native American religious freedom for so long," Harjo said.
Andy Baldwin, lawyer for the Northern Arapaho Tribe, said the tribe went to court last fall to get the bald eagle permit following the federal prosecution of Winslow Friday, a young tribal member who shot a bald eagle on the Wind River Indian Reservation in 2005 for the Sun Dance. Friday ultimately pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay a fine in tribal court.
"One of the goals of the current suit is to prevent any young men like Winslow Friday from being prosecuted in the future for practicing their traditional religious ceremonies," Baldwin said this week.
The Fish and Wildlife Service says it issued the permit in response to the tribe's application, not the lawsuit it filed against the agency.
Federal lawyers filed a status report in the lawsuit this week saying that the Eastern Shoshone Tribe had opposed the killing of eagles on the reservation the two tribes share. The Northern Arapaho permit specifies the two bald eagles must be killed or captured off the reservation.
Edward Wemytewa, a member of the Zuni Tribe in western New Mexico, said he's happy for the Northern Arapaho.
"The common theme for a lot of indigenous peoples is that the bird, it brings not only strength and courage, it's just one of those creatures that still brings awe to many, many people," he said of eagles.
The Zuni Tribe has a federal permit allowing it to keep live eagles, most of which come from raptor rehabilitation projects while some are caught in the wild. Wemytewa declined to say whether any Zuni practices require killing eagles.
"I think because of ceremonies, our language has survived, our communities have survived, and I think that is one of the keys for endurance of Native American culture," Wemytewa said. "So if again, other tribes harvest birds for sacrifice in the name of ceremony and tradition, and longevity and health, I guess it makes sense."
Reaction to the Northern Arapaho bald eagle permit was muted among some non-Indian groups.
"We hold bald eagles in great esteem as well, and as a humane organization, we don't want to see them killed," said Wayne Pacelle, president of The Humane Society of the United States.
Saying his group understands the importance of many animals in Native American culture, Pacelle said, "in this case, we had hoped they would use feathers and carcasses that they could obtain from trustworthy sources and not resort to direct killing."
Brian Rutledge, vice president for the Rocky Mountain Region of the National Audubon Society, said his group encourages tribes to raise captive birds, rather than killing wild ones.
"But we understand that there are religious decisions that are made here that may not be understandable to all, but are well within the rights of the people acting on them," Rutledge said.
Matt Hogan, assistant regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver, said no other applications to kill bald eagles are pending. And Harjo emphasized the Northern Arapaho permit isn't likely to unleash a flood of applications from other tribes.
"This isn't a wholesale run on the bald eagle that would drive them back into an endangered or threatened position," Harjo said. She emphasized that only a few tribes have intact ceremonies involving eagles and said that only a few individuals within those tribes have a religious need to kill wild birds.
On the Wind River Indian Reservation, the Northern Arapaho are preparing for spring. Nelson White, a tribal elder, said his people are listening for this year's first clap of thunder.
"That thunder represents the eagle hollering," White said. "And when that happens, that's when everything is waking up. The grass is coming back up, the birds are coming back, the plants and animals that were in hibernation are coming out. It's a new beginning."
"So in essence, with this decision, with this you might say victory, we say `ho'hou,' -- `thank you,"' White said.