Eagle feathers are essential to Native American ceremonies, but they are hard to come by and regulated by federal law. Producer Daniel Kraker reports from the Zuni reservation in New Mexico on the nation's first Native-run eagle aviary.
CURWOOD: For America, eagles are the symbol of freedom, courage and strength. For Native Americans, eagles are a crucial element in religious ceremonies. For half a century, the federal government has struggled to protect eagles while fulfilling the Native American religious demand for eagle carcasses and feathers. Now, the Zuni tribe of New Mexico has opened it’s own aviary: the nation’s first tribally owned and operated eagle sanctuary. The goal is to supply feathers to tribal members, and revive an ancient practice of eagle husbandry. Daniel Kraker reports.
[SOUNDS OF EAGLES]
KRAKER: I’m standing inside a huge birdcage, as long as a football field and two stories high. The walls and roof are wooden slats, allowing the high desert breeze to blow through. Across from me, perched comfortably on Astroturf roosts, are eleven eagles. They stare at me with cold eyes, and squawk at my intrusion.
LUNA: The majority of the ones on the lower perches are juvenile bald eagles, pretty much all the ones on the high perches are goldens.
KRAKER: Nelson Luna is a wildlife technician for the Zuni Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the new aviary and cares for its 21 eagles. Though his voice is understated, Luna’s affection for his charges is clear as he talks about his job. He leads me past a small pen of golden eagles off the main cage or flyway.
LUNA: He’s microphone-shy.
KRAKER: They quiet as we pass, and we enter another room.
[SOUNDS OF FOOTSTEPS, OPENING DOORS]
LUNA: In this second enclosure we've got all of the mature bald eagles I think this big female was from Tulsa, it got hit by a vehicle eating roadkill in the winter two years ago. In order for them to be saved they had their wings amputated, thus they're deemed non-releasable, and that's the primary reason why they're in this facility.
KRAKER: If these birds could fly, federal law would require they be freed. But since they’re injured, the law says they can go to zoos, educational centers, or somewhere like here, where eagles are considered sacred. Like many Indian people, Zuni religious leader Francis Liki, Jr. is reluctant to talk about their ancient ceremonies. But in talking to him, it’s clear there is a huge religious demand for eagle feathers.
LIKI: There's two different times than we have to make prayer feather offerings, in the winter and the summer, and most of the tribal members do that. The other type of religious doings is through our cultural, our religious dance purposes, the night dances, we use a lot of eagle feathers then. There are medicine men, some other religious societies that use a lot of eagle feathers too.
KRAKER: And that’s just on the Zuni reservation. There are more than 500 federally recognized tribes, and most use eagle feathers in ceremonies. The Zuni gather molted feathers here every day, but that doesn’t come close to meeting even the local demand. Until the Zuni built their aviary, the only place Native Americans could legally get feathers was from a place called the National Eagle Repository in Denver. Bernadette Atencio is a supervisor there.
ATENCIO: We average about 1,000 eagles a year. Currently, we have over 5,000 Native Americans who are on a waiting list to receive eagle feathers. Right now, with 5,000 people on the waiting list, the waiting period for a whole bird is about three and a half years.
KRAKER: Whole birds are prized for their full sets of tail and wing feathers. But loose feathers, like the Zuni aviary provides, are also in demand. The U.S. government thinks more tribally run aviaries could help reduce the waiting time for feathers. And John Antonio, who works with the Fish and Wildlife Service as a tribal liaison, says it would be no trouble finding eagles to fill those sanctuaries.
ANTONIO: There’s quite a few birds. I was surprised to find out talking to the different rehabbers, that there's a lot of birds that they get all the time, injured birds. A lot of times they'll call and say, hey do you have any other aviaries ready to go, because we can certainly help supply some birds. So they're excited, because they now have an option. Rather than euthanize these eagles, they can provide them to the tribes.
[SOUND OF FLAPPING WINGS]
KRAKER: The afternoon has turned warm on Zuni. A few golden eagles take flight to cool themselves and stretch their wings. Eagles will soon also be flapping on Oklahoma’s Cherokee reservation, where construction is set to begin on the country's second tribally operated eagle sanctuary. The Cherokees have asked the Zuni Tribe to borrow their design. But for the Zuni, the aviary is more than just a source of eagle feathers. It’s a way of reconnecting with their ancient customs. Prior to federal laws protecting eagles, Zuni religious societies would rear their own eagles in village cages. It was a sacred practice. Edward Wemytewa of the Zuni Fish and Wildlife Department says the tribe can now reclaim that tradition, even if it does mean putting up with federal oversight.
WEMYTEWA: It's a very uncomfortable feeling when we can't openly express our philosophies, our ideas and our activities. But again, we're trying to be, I guess, accommodating to a certain extent. Personally, I would say that we're going to play the game, and that eventually it's going to be a win-win situation.
KRAKER: So far, the Zuni have played the game well. John Antonio says they have gone above and beyond what’s required in caring for a threatened species. They have plans to expand the main aviary, and have two mini aviaries under construction. The new, smaller facilities are being built right in the communities. Religious societies will care for the birds, just as they did hundreds of years ago.
For Living on Earth, I’m Daniel Kraker, on the Zuni reservation.
CURWOOD: And you’re living to NPR’s Living on Earth.
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