The Plight of the Disappearing Eagle

A Repository for Eagles Finds Itself In Demand , By Dan Frosch The New York Times

O’siyo. For centuries American Indians have used Eagle feathers in their sacred ceremonies.  Today, because eagles are an endangered species, federal law protects all eagles, including their feathers. Unauthorized possession or distribution  of eagle feathers is illegal.

Eagle in flight. Photo credit John Sather.

The only place American Indians are able to obtain eagles legally from the federal government is from The National Eagle Repository located in Denver.  Unfortunately, there is growing demand for eagles, and the supply is very low.  American Indians feel that they should have the right to obtain eagles on their own, without waiting (some for as long as 4 years) for them to be delivered.


Lee Plenty Wolf held a fan made of eagle feathers. He received an eagle after a three-year wait. Photo credit- Matthew Staver for The New York Times

“Miles from downtown Denver, in a small warehouse on the city’s edge, Bernadette Atencio watched as two men methodically bundled piles of dead eagles into boxes, careful to include enough frozen gel packs so the remains would not thaw…Despite appearances, this was not some surreptitious animal-smuggling ring. It was a typical Wednesday at the National Eagle Repository, the only place where American Indians can legally obtain bald and golden eagles from the federal government for traditional ceremonies.

Through a series of federal acts dating to the 1940s, bald and golden eagles have been fiercely protected. It is illegal to hunt the birds and also to collect feathers or eagle parts without the proper permit.

And so, for more than 30 years, this United States Fish and Wildlife Service program has been shipping thousands of eagle carcasses and parts to American Indians, who view the animals as sacred.

But a growing backlog of applications, and a slew of recent court battles over when American Indians can lawfully obtain eagles on their own, has raised questions about whether the repository is sufficient.

Tyron, a magnificent example of eagle feathers regalia. Photo credit- Wildbirds

Currently, tribal members seeking an immature golden eagle, the most coveted bird, must wait about four and a half years. Wait times for a bald eagle are two years. Despite the efforts by the Wildlife Service to ship animals as swiftly as possible, the waiting list has swelled to more than 6,000 applications.

More and more of our young people are going back to our spiritual way of life, and we can’t do our ceremonies without the eagles,” said Lee Plenty Wolf, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe who lives in Fort Collins, Colo., and received a bald eagle on April 26 after waiting almost three years…

Daniel M. Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an e-mail that the agency was especially sensitive to American Indians’ religious needs and recently streamlined the application process to reduce wait times. Mr. Ashe also cited a special program that has, in recent years, allowed five tribes to keep injured eagles that could not be released in the wild. The tribes are permitted to distribute naturally molted feathers for ceremonial use, but cannot kill the birds…

Zuni Eagle Sanctuary. Photo credit-Knau-Earth Notes

This is an issue across all tribal nations,” said Myron Pourier, who sits on the executive board for the Oglala Sioux tribe in South Dakota, which hopes to build its own eagle repository. “All of them are going through the same federal red tape when they shouldn’t be. Especially when this is a part of our way of life.”

This is an issue across all tribal nations,” said Myron Pourier [executive board member for the Oglala Sioux tribe in South Dakota] All of them are going through the same federal red tape when they shouldn’t be. Especially when this is a part of our way of life.”



Category: Animals