Outdoors: Eagles live on in Native culture

By Matt Markey / The Blade
Sat, 23 May 2020 12:00:00 GMT

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Following the eventual completion of the investigation into its death, the bald eagle killed earlier this year when it was struck by a wind turbine blade at the Wood County Landfill will end up here, at the National Eagle Repository.

But this will not be the end of its journey.

Bald eagles or golden eagles that are found dead, taken down by power lines, wind turbines, or impact with vehicles, or those that die in captivity in rehabilitation centers, are stored here before being given to Native American and Alaskan native tribes for use in their religious and cultural ceremonies.

The repository, located at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Denver, is just a temporary stop for the eagles, since the demand for their feathers, bones, talons, wings, tails and whole carcasses far outstrips the number of eagles available for distribution.

Eagles have a prominent place in the history and mythology of most tribes, signifying strength, courage, and wisdom and a special link to the Spirit World and the Creator. The eagle is sacred to many Native Americans since it is considered to possess the ability to exist in the spiritual realm while also remaining connected to Earth.

There are 574 federally recognized tribal nations whose members are eligible to receive eagle parts and feathers, and over the past 25 years, more than 45,000 individual requests from tribes or tribal members have been filled. The facility receives around 3,200 bald eagles and golden eagles each year, and it meets around 3,000 requests for eagles or eagle parts annually.

Requests received by the repository in January of this year for bald eagle wings, tails, feathers, or whole bald eagles are being filled currently, while requests for golden eagle bodies, wings or tails from September of 2016 are just now being filled since far fewer golden eagles are received by the facility.

Frank Ettawageshik, who served for 14 years as chairman of the Waganakising Odawak Nation, also known as the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, said that different tribes hold somewhat different views on the significance of eagles, but they are generally revered by native people and regarded as a sacred bird.

“For my tribe, when the Creator was looking at the world and determined that the world was not doing what it should and it was time to start over, an eagle intervened and because of the eagle’s intercession, the world was not remade,” said Ettawageshik, who currently serves on the appellate court of the Odawak Nation, located in the northwestern tier of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, near Petoskey.

He said Native Americans lament the loss of life of any eagle or any animal, but accompanying that reverence for life is the understanding that one life often lives at the expense of other lives, as with the harvest of plants or animals for human consumption.

“We view it as our sacred responsibility to not interfere with other creatures, but we also are aware that there is a cycle of life, and in that cycle, everything has a purpose,” he said. “It is sad when something is killed, but if it can be salvaged and those parts can move on, then they have another purpose. A way to honor those eagles is to use those feathers in our ceremonies.”

The National Eagle Repository, which currently has a staff of five wildlife specialists, serves as the clearinghouse for the requests by Native Americans for eagles or eagle parts. It is illegal for non-native people to possess any eagle feathers or parts without a special permit.

“If the general public finds a feather or an eagle, it has to be sent to a repository. You can’t keep that feather,” Ettawageshik said, adding that his tribe and some others have repositories of their own.

Eagles are protected under the Federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibit the possession, use, and sale of eagle feathers and parts. The language of the laws states that those individuals of American Indian ancestry who are members of a federally recognized tribe can obtain eagle feathers and parts, while any person unauthorized to possess an eagle or its parts could be fined up to $250,000 for violating the eagle protection laws.

Georgia Parham, an external affairs officer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Indiana, said the carcass of the bald eagle that was killed in January by a wind turbine strike at the landfill just west of Bowling Green has not been sent to the National Eagle Repository since the investigation into that incident is still underway. No further details or a timetable for the estimated date of sending that eagle carcass to the facility were provided by the USFWS.

Sarah Metzer, a USFWS education specialist with the Colorado repository, said every effort is made to handle the bald eagles and golden eagles that arrive at the facility in a timely manner. The carcasses are usually shipped frozen to the repository, and the USFWS often provides shipping boxes and labels in order to expedite the process of getting the carcasses there.

“Time is always of the essence since we want to keep them in as best condition as possible,” she said. “We understand that these eagles are an incredibly important cultural icon, so we want to do everything in as respectful a way as possible.”