Citing religious freedom is no excuse


Among the “cool facts” about golden eagles listed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is this: “Members of the Hopi tribe remove nestlings, raise them in captivity, and sacrifice them.”

“Cool” is not a word the Eagle Defense Network and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) would use. For the last 12 years, they’ve frightened the Interior Department away from finalizing its written plan to invite Hopi eagle collectors into the Wupatki National Monument in Arizona.

But collection goes on elsewhere in the state. For 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued the Hopi permits to take 40 golden eagle hatchlings. PEER had to sue Interior to get it to release the tribe’s complete Arizona kill from 1986 to 2012 – 512 golden eagles and 184 hawks. And that was only the reported kill.

In 2001, I was informed by Eugene Kaye, then Hopi chief of staff, that he saw no reason his people “shouldn’t” take golden eagles in violation of federal laws and that he was “pretty sure” they’d been doing it all along. He was proven correct in 2008 and 2010 when, in three separate court cases, 10 Hopi Tribe members were convicted of doing just that. Of these, nine were ordered to pay restitution fees of between $250 and $500; one was sentenced to 15 days in jail, and eight were placed on probation.

Here’s what I learned from federal biologists, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents and the Hopi: If there are two hatchlings in a nest, the Hopi take both to avoid what they now describe as an “affront to the gods." Before they helped deplete Arizona’s golden eagle population and had an easier time finding hatchlings, they took only one.

Eaglets are tethered to roofs, presented with children’s toys and told how honored they should feel for being selected for sacrifice. Occasionally their eyelids are sewn shut, and straps around their feet sometimes wear away the skin and sinew. When the birds are fully feathered, they are smothered in cornmeal or strangled by hand so they can travel to “the other world” with messages for the gods.

Other tribes, and some Hopi, object. "How would you like to be chained in the sun for 80 days?" a member of the Hopi Eagle Clan -- which reveres free eagles -- told an undercover Fish and Wildlife Service agent. The subject went on to state that his clan sometimes sneaks in and releases tethered eaglets.

"The biggest problem golden eagles have on the Hopi and Navajo reservations (which occupy about 20 percent of Arizona) is overgrazing,” declares raptor biologist Dr. David Ellis. “The primary productivity has been destroyed, so there aren't very many jackrabbits or cottontails. The eagles are hurting already, and then they get hit by Hopi. … I view the Hopi Reservation as an (eagle) black hole."

Ellis, who was chided by his superiors for his outspoken defense of raptors, got passed over for scheduled promotion and took early retirement from the U.S. Geological Survey to avoid losing benefits. Now that timid, politically correct bureaucrats aren’t hanging over his shoulders he can defend raptors as he sees fit. Hancock House is about to publish his book: “Enter the Realm of the Golden Eagle.”

Another federal raptor biologist who asked not to be identified offered this: “The criteria are there to list the golden eagle as at least threatened in northern Arizona. We might as well be putting DDT out there. There are no young birds coming along. We have absolutely no way to justify handing out 40 take permits a year. Some conservation group needs to sue us. It's a no-brain winner; if you can't win that one, you should get another lawyer.”

But litigation is unlikely. The environmental community appears terrified of being perceived as unsympathetic toward such liberal causes as religious freedom and racial and cultural tolerance.

Complaints about the ritualistic slaughter of golden eagles invariably draw charges of “environmental racism.” But here’s another definition of environmental racism -- patronizing Native Americans by pretending they are always at one with nature and then, more likely than not, quoting Chief Seattle’s inspiring pronouncements about “the earth being sacred to (his) people,” penned for him 105 years after his death by a Hollywood screen writer.

I admire and respect the Hopi. But they need to remember that, in addition to being Native Americans, they’re American citizens and that, while our Constitution guarantees complete freedom of religious belief, it does not guarantee complete freedom of religious practice. We do not, for example, permit the sacrifice by fire of live goats. It is odd and sad that we outlaw (or at least talk about) cruelty to livestock, but permit torture and the depletion of wild raptors in the name of religious freedom.

Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He has been writing about fish and wildlife since 1974.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Charles Fox
Charles Fox Subscriber
Apr 19, 2013 12:32 PM
This is a disturbing and important article that illuminates the malfunction that results from "freedom of religion". There's no excuse for abuse, animal cruelty, and the destruction of any life for the empty and oft cited excuse of religious belief. Abuse of all kinds must be recognized and rejected when and wherever they occur. Kudos to the renegade Hopi clans for attempting to rescue those eaglets.
Tom Ricketts
Tom Ricketts
Apr 19, 2013 03:30 PM
Ted Williams is right on! There is no place in 21st century America for anachronistic religious practices based on the exploitation of wildlife. If we condone this are we also ready to resume ritualistic human sacrifice as associated with other ancient faiths all in the name of religious freedom? That is a stretch for sure, however the point is that all human practices evolve and change with time and this is a good example of one that needs change.

The Hopi are an admirable people in many ways. It is obvious from this article that they are not all on board with this practice. The kidnapping and brutalizing of wildlife may be an ancient rite for some, but it is highly offensive to many. That's where freedom of religion ends.
Will Beattie
Will Beattie
May 04, 2013 11:20 AM
Ted Williams' 'respect' for the Hopi rings false. His ignorance of the conservation ethic of Native Americans emerges from his implying that Duwamish Chief Seattle's wisdom was scripted. Mr. Williams has a track record of denigrating tribal resource management - to wit a vitriolic and remarkably ignorant piece critical of the plan to recover the Elwha River watershed. Does Mr. Williams indeed have superior intelligence to the tribal, state, federal, and academic scientists who developed the Elwha Recovery Plan? Many aspects of tribal culture may rub against William’s patronizing ethic, but Native Americans have a 10,000 year history of wise and conservative use of natural resources.
Jim Murdock
Jim Murdock Subscriber
Jun 03, 2013 09:42 AM
On page 166 of "Dream Catchers," Philip Jenkins writes, about Chief Seattle's speech: "Although the speech continues to circulate, it is bogus, at least in the form that it developed during the 1970s. It was created by scriptwriter Ted Perry to make an imaginative point about ecological concern, and despite Perry's protests, it was promptly circulated as it if were an original document. Its obvious historical inconsistencies did not prevent it from winning instant credibility." I once had a small booklet that reproduced all of the known original documents from the original speech, and the various versions derived from it, culminating in the one that is circulated today, and it was easy to spot the additions and occasional contradictions or added interpretations. I recommend Philip Jenkins' book to anyone who is seriously interested in the real American Indians and the versions created by white people.