Understanding another religion is no easy business. Americans nowadays often fool ourselves that religions can be put on or off like a suit of clothes, and that our own world-view is not religious unless we say so. We -- especially secular humanists -- also claim superiority for our idea of “nature,” an abstract space separate from everyday life, for leisure, imagination, or scientific observation. Here, we can safely root for our favorite charismatic species, while ignoring the destruction of others.

Moreover, our recent arrival in the West, displacing and often destroying native species --Homo sapiens, birds, and others -- makes explaining unusual Native religions even more problematic. But arrogantly judging Hopi eagle-gathering without objective evidence or any personal knowledge does little for mutual understanding of people or environment.

The Hopis have dwelt on the Colorado Plateau for at least a millennium, and probably much longer. Their adaptation to a landscape of little water requires near-legendary toughness and respect for the natural environment. Hopi religion is fundamentally attuned to the environment and its metaphysical underpinnings. “A farmer in the desert never forgets God,” as Vernon Masayesva puts it.  The strongest surviving indigenous tradition in North America, Hopi religion focuses on seasonal and daily attention to preserving the world in balance. Appeal to deity operates through prayer, song, and ritual. Like wafers and wine for Christian communicants, certain material elements are basic: cornmeal, tobacco-smoke, honey, and feathers. Pahos that include eagle feathers are perhaps the sine qua non, carrying human prayers to deities and ancestral spirits. Those prayers highlight renewing life for all species, including eagles.

“Eagles are our lifeline,” as Percy Lomaquahu (whose name, coincidentally, means “beautiful eagle”) used to put it. Without them, Hopis are cut off from their means to renew life forces. From a Hopi perspective, the world itself -- not only locally, but globally -- suffers serious problems without their religious intervention. Unsurprisingly, many Hopis see present ecological imbalance as caused by the absence of a similar environmental solicitude among their fellow humans.

Hopis have special relationships with many species, but eagles are qapaysoq hìitu, truly exceptional: eagles are human beings in another form. Each clan in each village only has certain nesting areas it may visit: the rules are strict, ensuring preservation of the population from year to year. Before arriving at the Hopi mesas, the clans migrated from ancestral villages, whose ruins dot the Colorado Plateau. The route of its final migration remains sacred property, associated with the clan’s ancestral spirits. It is only in these precincts where a clan may gather eagles. Eagles born at the clan nests reincarnate the ancestral spirits, answering the prayers of their descendants.

As recorded for more than a century, gathering is very careful, hedged about by taboos whose purpose is explicitly conservationist. On arrival in the village, the eaglet, treated as a human child, has its head washed, is given a personal name, and gifted with baby presents. From then on, it dwells tethered in a rooftop shelter, and is fed with rabbits hunted by young boys, until the Home Dance, when it watches the Katsina spirits perform and absorbs their song-prayers. At the ceremony’s conclusion, the eagles are quietly taken to a private place and quickly suffocated, as painlessly as possible. Their spirits are sent home with the Katsinas until the following year, when both are petitioned to return with their blessing power. The eagles’ bodies are taken to the kivas, where feathers are carefully plucked and arranged by religious purpose. Finally, they are buried in a special cemetery, identically to humans. Hopis treat no other species in this manner.

Eagles and Hopis have interacted for a very long time, as shown by prehistoric rock art along the Little Colorado River. The very basis of these practices requires that humans and raptors renew their relationship annually. It is complete anathema to Hopi interest that eagles should cease to be plentiful. With commissioned studies of raptor populations by wildlife biologists, the Tribe is committed to preserving and enhancing the species.  There is no evidence that the small number of eagles and other raptors Hopis gather -- by official federal permit -- has had any impact on species decline. Residential and municipal development on the Navajo Reservation and in nearby towns, and industrial development throughout the West, are, rather, the worry for raptor populations. Failure to address those factors is dodging the real issue. Self-righteous blame of Hopi eagle-gathering is myopic scapegoating, and neglects true threats to those species and possible means to avert them.

Peter Whiteley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the curator of North American ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.