Tribes Work with Feds on Eagle Feather Ceremonial Use

By Carol Berry January 31, 2011
DENVER—The eagle, cultural icon to Native Americans and the U.S. alike, is becoming emblematic of something else too: the effort to balance the ceremonial use of threatened animals with federal law.

Tribal representatives are gearing up for a second round of meetings with officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to discuss the issues surrounding the ceremonial use of eagles in Indian country. Although the bird was removed from the official endangered list in 2007, the U.S. Government wants to protect the endangered species, as do the tribes. But the tribes want to continue Native use of the cultural and sacred icon while preserving it for the future.

Last year Eagle Summit I, convened by the FWS in Denver, provided a forum for Northern Plains and other tribal leaders who objected to federal interference in American Indians’ use of eagle feathers, the present method of obtaining them from the FWS-run National Eagle Repository near Denver, and federal undercover operations on tribal lands, among other issues.

Eagle Summit I attendees agreed, however, that the summit was a good idea, so a second meeting has been scheduled for May 2 at an as-yet-undetermined location in South Dakota’s Black Hills.

Since Eagle Summit I, a 13-member tribal advisory team has been in place to respond to questions from a group that includes representatives from the Fort Belknap Reservation, Mont.; Oglala Sioux Nation, Pine Ridge, S.D.; Northwestern Band of Shoshone, Utah; and Three Affiliated Tribes, Fort Berthold, N.D., who also helped plan the summit.

Besides addressing the ceremonial use and preservation of bald and golden eagles, the FWS hopes to improve communication between the agency and tribes in its eight-state Plains/Prairie region.

The government to date has held that supplying eagle feathers and parts from the Repository to members of federally recognized tribes is the best way to preserve eagle populations and to meet federal trust obligations to preserve tribal culture. But tribes often wait years for the feathers to arrive.

Commercial trade in eagle feathers and parts is prohibited and, with certain exceptions, only members of federally recognized tribes can possess them under current federal regulations.

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