When two traditions collide

Controversy surrounds a tribe's request to gather eagles in a national monument

  • Map of Wupatki National Monument

    Diane Sylvain

Poking up from the flat expanses of northern Arizona's Wupatki National Monument are sandstone ruins, 800-year-old pueblos which are abandoned now, though protected for archaeologists and tourists.

But Native Americans haven't disappeared. The Hopi tribe, which traces its roots back to the builders of Wupatki, lives on a reservation just to the east. The Hopis say their clans have collected baby golden eagles for generations, and on the cliffs of Wupatki lies one clan's gathering spot. Each spring, limber young Hopis scale cliffs up to the nests, where they gather eaglets. Months later, the tribe sacrifices the eaglets in a summer ceremony, its central religious practice.

"It's something we've been doing since long before the United States existed," says tribal spokesman Eugene Kaye.

While collecting or killing eagles is now banned by federal law, Hopis receive special permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to gather about 40 eagles per year. Yet Wupatki has been off-limits. The taking of any animal from national parks and monuments has been illegal since hunting was banned in Yellowstone in 1894. To many Americans, national parks remain untouchable wildlife sanctuaries; killing wildlife in a national park would be like shooting animals at the zoo.

These two traditions may soon go head to head. The Department of the Interior is considering a special rule that would allow the Hopis to take golden eagles from Wupatki, which critics say would set a precedent for opening parks to the taking of wildlife.

"What this rule is," says Frank Buono, a member of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, "it's the plow that breaks the ground."

Disputed rights

This isn't the first time the Park Service has been caught between the conflicting demands of mainstream America and Native Americans. Many tribes, including the Blackfeet in Montana and the Quinault in Washington, have treaties that they claim give them the right to hunt in national parks.

The case of the Hopis is different, however, because the tribe's eagle collecting is not upheld by a treaty. But Philip Burnham, author of Indian Country, God's Country: Native Americans in the National Parks, says that over the last 15 years, the Park Service has become more receptive to requests from Native Americans. Indian religious claims in particular have begun to gain clout. In the mid-'90s, for example, the agency helped institute a voluntary rock-climbing ban during June on Devil's Tower in Wyoming, a site sacred to several local tribes (HCN, 5/26/97).

Perhaps it was this atmosphere that led members of the Hopi Greasewood clan to ask park officials for formal permission to collect eaglets in the monument in the spring of 1999. Park Superintendent Sam Henderson said no. Federal law, he said, including the 1916 Organic Act which created the National Park Service, did not allow anyone to take wildlife from national parks. The Hopis appealed his decision, but a Park Service regional director, and then acting associate park service director Linda Canzanelli, cemented the original denial.

Then, in the summer of 1999, Don Barry, Assistant Interior Secretary for the Fish and Wildlife Service, decided that the tribe's case hadn't gotten the attention it deserved. Barry says he believed the decision from Canzanelli, a mid-level Park Service employee, was a "slap in the face" to the Hopis. A river-rafting trip with tribal chairman Wayne Taylor confirmed Barry's doubt, and he withdrew the decision.

Barry asked the Interior Department's legal arm for a new opinion on the Hopis' request. Since then, solicitor general John Leshy has written a draft rule that would circumvent Park Service regulations. Leshy's draft is based on the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which protects the right of Native Americans to practice traditional religions. The rule would allow the Hopis to collect eagles from Wupatki as long as they have a Fish and Wildlife permit and the collection wouldn't "impair park resources," a decision that the park superintendent would make on a case-by-case basis.

Ruffled feathers

Critics call the rule a poor decision by a lame-duck Clinton administration.

"This rule violates the department's own regulations," says Patricia Lane of the Humane Society of the U.S., an animal-rights group that Lane says will consider taking legal action if the rule goes through. "They're trying to go against their own statutes and precedents."

"It will radically alter the national park system," adds Buono of PEER, a former assistant superintendent at Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park. "A special rule at Wupatki is just the first of many such special rules which will open up many parks to the Indian tribes' taking of animals." Buono adds that other special-interest groups like the National Rifle Association may be waiting in the wings to hunt in the parks.

Park Service administrator Dave Kreger, who is overseeing the environmental assessment on the rule, says the Interior Department is "concerned about the cumulative impact" of the rule. But he adds that no other tribes are currently requesting permission to take animals from national parks.

"This is a specific response to a specific request," says Patricia Parker, chief of the agency's American Indian Liaison Office. "It's a sincerely held belief that has a documented practice, and we wanted to see if we could accommodate it in the context of the park system."

The department hopes to release the rule before President Clinton leaves office in January.

"The worst-case scenario," says Don Barry, who has recently left the department to work for the Wilderness Society, "would be to honor the dead and past and not see the connection to the present."

Tim Sullivan is an intern at High Country News.

You can contact ...

  • Eugene Kaye, spokesman for the Hopi Tribe, 520/734-3100;
  • Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, 202/265-7337;
  • Sam Henderson, Wupatki National Monument, 520/526-1157.
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