« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Bureaucracy and the birds


In 1975, the Department of Interior reassured Native Americans they would not be prosecuted by the federal government for using eagle feathers for cultural or religious purposes. But the “Morton Policy,” as the directive is known, didn’t answer several important questions, leading to confusion on the part of tribal members. For example, was it okay to pick up found eagle feathers? Did Native Americans need a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permit to possess eagle feathers? Could feathers be bought and sold?

Last week, the Department of Justice rolled out a new policy, developed with extensive input from tribal leaders, designed to answer many of those questions and formalize the DOI’s longstanding practice. The new policy reiterates that the DOJ will not prosecute tribal members who possess, use or wear feathers and other body parts of federally protected birds, including eagles. Picking up feathers from the ground is okay (as long as they’re not plucked from the carcass of a dead bird). Trading feathers among tribal members (but not with non-natives) is permitted as well, as long as no money is exchanged. Killing eagles, however, is still illegal without a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

One thing the policy doesn’t change is how Native Americans can acquire new eagle feathers. Other than finding molted feathers on the ground, the only option is to apply for a permit and make a request from the National Eagle Repository outside of Denver, a kind of graveyard for dead eagles shipped there by other agencies, zoos, etc. As of last May, tribal members had to wait five years for the carcass of an immature golden eagle, two and a half years for a bald eagle and six months for 10 hand-picked wing and tail feathers.

The delay can be burdensome to tribes. Lee Plenty Wolf, an Oglala Sioux living in Fort Collins, Colo., told The New York Times that “more and more of our young people are going back to our spiritual way of life, and we can’t do ceremonies without the eagles.”

The long wait time led some tribes to seek out alternatives to the federal eagle repository. After learning that veterinarians were euthanizing injured eagles, the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico opened an aviary for them. When the birds drop their feathers, the Zuni collect them and distribute them to tribe members. Other tribes have used the aviary model as a feather source as well, including the Comanche Nation in Oklahoma, the Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico and the Navajo in Arizona.

Getting a whole eagle, though, is still problematic. In 2005, Winslow Friday, a Northern Arapaho tribe member, used the long wait for the birds in his legal defense after he was prosecuted for killing a bald eagle on tribal land. After a legal back-and-forth, in 2009 Friday finally pled guilty and paid a $2,500 fine.

Fish and Wildlife does issue a few permits to tribes to kill eagles in the wild, including to the Hopi and the Northern Arapaho. But according to The Associated Press, the Northern Arapaho are suing the agency and say their permit is meaningless because it doesn’t allow them to kill eagles on the Wind River Reservation where they live, and if they go off-reservation, they can be prosecuted by the state of Wyoming, which bans the practice.

The reason they can’t kill eagles on the reservation is because the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, with whom the Northern Arapaho share the Wind River Reservation, oppose the practice. The Eastern Shoshone have also intervened in the Northern Arapaho’s lawsuit against Fish and Wildlife, arguing their religious beliefs demand the eagles be protected. The dispute prompted U.S. District Court Judge Alan B. Johnson to comment, “You’re trying to reconcile something which can’t be reconciled, aren’t you?”

Emily Guerin is an intern at High Country News.

1907 photo of Crow Indian boy with eagle feather headdress courtesy Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library.