A Navajo Nation tribal aviary assistant spreads the wing of a captive Golden Eagle. In Native American cultures, eagle feathers—worth thousands on the black market—lift prayers to the heavens. Photo: Dawn Kish

Conservation

Native American Demand Is Driving a Black Market for Eagle Feathers

Tribal aviaries provide a legal supply of Bald and Golden Eagle feathers for ceremonial use, but not enough—so poachers put wild birds in peril.

Elvis is 13; he is blind in one eye. Liberty, who is six years older, was found sprawled on a beach in Alaska. She, too, is partially blind. Sandy was shot. Ivana is an amputee. Bingo, a.k.a. Big Girl, was hit by a car in Cody, Wyoming. Green Hornet was electrocuted in Arizona.

Ivie is the prime suspect in the deaths of two other residents, so she is in solitary confinement. Runner is strapped to a table, being treated with antibiotics for a purulent lesion on his foot. One of the staff is dabbing on a paste supplied by a medicine man.

The tribal eagle aviary in Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, houses 18 eagles in all, both Bald and Golden. Most of them occupy a long, narrow flightway with slatted walls and roof. Ivie and Runner are housed in separate individual mews along one side. The birds fill the space with noise—the high-pitched serial squeaks and whistles of the Bald Eagles, surprisingly feeble for such a majestic creature, and the ear-piercing screeches of the Goldens.

None of them will see the wild again; many can no longer fly. Until 20 years ago, they would have faced the euthanizer's needle. But here they will live out their days in relative comfort—and captive eagles may live many decades, often longer than wild birds.

Nelson Luna, the aviary director, is a solemn, stocky man of 60 with an iron-gray mustache and hair worn in a single long braid. “For us, these aren’t just wild creatures,” he said. “When we take in a new eagle, we cleanse it of bad spirits and accept it into the tribe as a family member. We treat them with the respect they are due, and when they die, we take care of them as we would a deceased relative.”

It was mid-October, and the annual molting season was almost over. On the pea-gravel floor a few feathers lay here and there, and it is for those appendages that eagles are most valued. “They provide us with the resources we need to fulfill our religious obligations,” Luna said. “The eagle brings you mental well-being, prosperity for yourself, your family, your tribe. These are the things we pray for with our offerings of feathers.”

Other tribes use eagle feathers ceremonially, too. Yet the right to procure them has long been caught up in the fraught relationship between Native Americans and the federal government, both of which revere the eagle—one for its ancient, sacred significance, the other as a national emblem—but through very different worldviews.

The Zuni have provided a model for bridging that gap. But even tribal aviaries may not be enough to cement the tremendous rebound of the Bald Eagle, or to stabilize the Golden Eagle population, as forces both religious and non-religious have driven the feather market underground.

B

irds are central to Zuni culture. The eagle, sometimes called the Hunter God of the Upper Regions, flies closer to the heavens than any other living creature. The turkey is honored for teaching the tribe how to grow corn and ward off evil spirits. The macaw and the crow are at the heart of the tribe’s creation story, leading the first Zuni on their great migration after they emerged from the bowels of the Earth in the Grand Canyon. The macaw led one group south to the Land of Everlasting Sunshine; the followers of the crow headed east, searching for what they called the Middle Place.

I went to the Middle Place one day with Kenny Bowekaty, shaman to the Fire God. We walked in a blustery wind through the narrow streets of Zuni Pueblo, past modest adobe houses and a derelict Spanish mission with an overgrown graveyard, until we came to a staircase that led to the highest rooftop. It commanded a panoramic view of Dowa Yalanne, the sheer-sided red rock mesa where the Zuni took refuge from Spanish invaders in 1540. Below us was a small enclosed plaza. Bowekaty pointed down and said, “Here is the Heart of Mother Earth.”

The reservation today is home to about 8,000 Zuni, two-thirds of the tribe’s recognized members. Like all Native Americans, they must navigate the contradictory pull of tradition and modernity—for example, alternately producing hand-carved kachina dolls, which symbolize ancestral spirits, and traveling 40 miles to Gallup for jobs at Wal-Mart. Their relationship with eagles, too, reflects this tension.

For centuries the Zuni gathered feathers for ceremonial purposes directly from birds taken from their ancestral lands. “The elders used to have their own little aviaries, and we were self-sufficient,” said Octavius Seowtewa, a 70-year-old elder in the powerful Galaxy Medicine Society, one of the six Zuni religious fraternities. “The old men had birds and raised them for their feathers. People fed and cared for them, and everyone got their share.”

Eventually, rampant hunting and poisoning led to the decline of eagle populations throughout the United States, prompting the passage of several overlapping wildlife-protection laws. The Lacey Act of 1900 prohibited the traffic of birds, nests, and eggs across state lines. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918 made it illegal to keep any migratory bird or part without a federal permit. Next came the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, amended in 1962 to include Golden Eagles. It, too, prohibited the possession of eagles and their parts. Suddenly old tribal ways were against the law.

Golden and Bald Eagle feathers collected from captive birds at the Zuni Pueblo Tribal Eagle Aviary. Photo: Dawn Kish

To provide Native Americans with a legal pipeline for feathers, the government established the National Eagle Repository, which is housed today just outside of Denver, and federal agencies were ordered to send all dead and injured eagles there. Members of a federally recognized tribe could apply for up to one whole Bald or Golden Eagle each year, or the equivalent in parts. But the repository couldn’t keep up with the demand from 573 different tribes. “For a whole carcass of a Bald Eagle the waiting time may be six months to two years,” Luna told me. “For a juvenile Golden Eagle with white tail feathers and brown tips, the kind you see on war bonnets in the movies, it can be six years.”

Injured eagles had to be euthanized—and in that rule the Zuni found a potential solution to the problem. Why not keep eagles alive and well cared for by the tribe, thereby guaranteeing members a fresh supply of molted feathers? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed and granted the Zuni a permit to build an aviary for religious purposes, which opened in March 1999. Since then seven other tribes have done the same.

A

lthough winter was still some weeks away, the sky was a curdled mass of dark clouds, and a thin sleet was blowing in through the slatted walls of the flightway. Across the parking lot from the aviary, Luna’s staff had taken advantage of the foul weather to sort through the season’s feathers.

 

“Every morning we greet the eagles, collect up the feathers, and put them in a bucket,” said Stafford Chimoni—Bobo to his friends—who was cheerfully supervising two young Zuni assistants. “Once the bucket fills up, we put them in a paper sack and store them in the refrigerator.” Now the team was stuffing them into plastic bags, sorting them by type: leg covers, plumes, spoons, primaries, secondaries, and the most prized of all, the tail feathers, kya’de:we.

Chimoni showed me the form people use to request which feathers they want and for what purpose. It might be for the winter Shalako festival, where dancers represent couriers for the rain gods, or the Mother Corn fetish, or one of the kivas, the secret chambers in which men conduct religious ceremonies. “The main demand is for prayer sticks, especially during the winter fasting season,” he said. He handed me one, a peeled twig six inches long. “They’ll use about five feathers for one of these, depending on the size of their family, and use it to pray for long life, prosperity, and happiness.”

Each new arrival to the aviary is quarantined to prevent the spread of infection, vaccinated against West Nile virus, and given an annual physical by staff of the Albuquerque zoo. At its peak, the population grew to three dozen birds. Luna showed me a photograph of a Golden female named Olo that he had glove-trained. She was perched on his wrist, wings outspread. “Unfortunately, we lost her in 2007,” he said quietly.

Zuni aviary director Nelson Luna holds a Golden Eagle feather. Photo: Dawn Kish

Hers was among a sudden rash of deaths. Several Golden Eagles succumbed to respiratory tract infections. Four Bald Eagles died of cancer. In 2010, Luna discovered the culprit. The aviary had been built on a lot, leased from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, that had previously housed storage tanks for diesel, gasoline, and pesticides. The tanks leaked and the bureau had simply covered the contaminated area with a six-inch layer of gravel. The Zuni are still locked in a dispute with the agency over who bears responsibility for the cost of remediation. Until that is settled, Luna says the FWS has all but suspended the intake of new birds, which is the main reason the aviary population is down to its present 18.

Luna watched his staff bag the feathers and sighed. It would take six times as many eagles, he said, just to satisfy the immediate needs of the tribe’s various religious groups, let alone the everyday requests for items like the humble prayer sticks. Tribal aviaries had helped create a feather supply, but they couldn’t keep up with increasing demand.

T

he Navajo Nation is the biggest tribe in the country, with 332,000 people—almost 30 times as many as the Zuni. Its eagle aviary, which is housed roughly 60 miles away, in the Navajo Zoo in Window Rock, Arizona, has just 13 birds.

Lionel Tsosie, an assistant at the Navajo Nation eagle sanctuary, housed at the Navajo Zoo, holds the talons of a female Golden Eagle named Lady Pearl. Photo: Dawn Kish

On my way there I stopped in Gallup, where I had dinner with a man named Eddy Benally. We met at the historic El Rancho Hotel on Route 66, where the menu paid tribute to the old-time movie stars who stayed there while filming Westerns. Benally ordered a John Wayne Burger, which came with a topping of American cheese and guacamole; I had the Rita Moreno Enchiladas.

Benally was a tribal law-enforcement officer and a Navajo himself. After a stint working undercover in narcotics, growing his hair to his waist to blend in among dealers and addicts on the reservation, Benally had spent the past 20 years chasing poachers who supply a thriving black market for feathers. Now, a month away from retirement, he had a lot to get off his chest.

“There’s a lot more money in animal parts than there is in drugs,” he said. “Immature Golden Eagles sell for $2,000. Join a Native American group on Facebook, and you’ll find someone to sell you eagle feathers. People say to me, ‘Why are you looking at Native Americans? We care for wildlife and Mother Earth.’ And that’s how the white man sees us, too. Well, that’s a crock. Native Americans are the biggest killers of eagles.”

Beyond the obvious pressures of demand from so many people, poachers are driven by two things, he said: the powwow and the Native American Church—both relatively modern innovations.

The powwow originated with individual tribes, mainly on the Plains, but it has evolved over the past half-century into a shared, collective assertion of Native American identity. It has become a social event, a tourist attraction, a spectacle highlighted by the elaborate feathered outfits of the powwow dancers, celebrated in parks and fairgrounds, sponsored by casinos, and twinned with rodeos. The Navajo have enthusiastically embraced it.

“It’s about showmanship, money, prestige,” Benally said. “There are $10,000 purses. The more eagle feathers you’re wearing, the more points you get.” The tail feathers of the juvenile Golden Eagle are the most valuable, but the speckled feathers of a young Bald Eagle are also highly prized. “So they’re shooting a lot of them, too,” he said.

It isn’t just eagles, he added, showing me a photograph of Northern Flicker feathers that were for sale online. “It’s not because the particular species is sacred,” he said, “it’s just for the colors, the regalia.”

The usual response of the Navajo tribal courts is a slap on the wrist, Benally told me. More serious cases are referred to the feds; the FWS handles between 700 and 800 MBTA and eagle-protection cases a year nationwide. Sometimes these result in protracted undercover operations. In 2015, a joint investigation by federal special agents and the Navajo Nation broke a black-market ring trafficking in feathers and prosecuted 36 people. The biggest recent bust was the result of a 19-month-long operation called Dakota Flyer; 17 individuals in four states were found guilty in August 2018 of violating the Lacey Act, the MBTA, and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. But in lesser cases, Benally said, the government is reluctant to take Native Americans to court. “They get a public defender and say it’s their religious right,” he said. “It’s really hard to prosecute.”

In the 1970s the government had found itself in a bind, with wildlife-protection laws clashing sharply with guarantees of religious freedom. The arrest of 28 Native Americans in Oklahoma for possessing eagle feathers had evoked bitter memories of the 19th-century Religious Crimes Code, which had outlawed tribal dances and ceremonies. After that, the Department of the Interior clarified it would not seek legal action against Native Americans who merely possess feathers or exchange them without compensation. Then, in 1978, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which protects the rights of Native Americans to practice traditional religions, including the “use and possession of sacred objects.”

Culture and religion are infinitely elastic, constantly evolving in response to historical circumstances. Federal laws had tried to balance the ­protection of the eagle with respect for Native American culture by making feathers available for use in religious ceremonies. But no matter how important it was to the Navajo, could the powwow honestly be described as a “religious ceremony”? And what about the Native American Church?

The church had its roots in government-backed efforts of 19th-century missionaries to convert Native Americans to Christianity. In 1918 many of those converts rebelled against the outlawing of something that was fundamental to their beliefs—the use of hallucinogenic peyote as a sacrament, a means of communion with God and Jesus Christ. They demanded, and were granted, exemption from federal drug laws, citing religious freedom and the First Amendment. The church had begun in Oklahoma, but over time attracted a strong following on the Navajo reservation. By the 1960s, more than one in three Navajo were taking part in its ceremonies, and in 1983 its adherents formally registered the Native American Church of Navajoland. One of the main accoutrements of its priests, or “roadmen,” is an eagle feather; other trappings of the peyote ceremony include feather fans and whistles fashioned from eagle bones.

Benally reserved his harshest comments for the Hopi, whose small reservation is entirely surrounded by the Navajo lands. The Hopi consider the eagle to be a human being in animal form, yet they have a federal permit to sacrifice 40 a year, a religious ritual that involves smothering the young bird in cornmeal so that it can ascend to the heavens to relay messages to the gods.

He showed me a photograph of a man with two juvenile Golden Eagles chained to a rooftop. “That’s on the Hopi rez,” he said. “And see back behind the guy? Those two mountains are their sacred buttes. That’s where they find the nests.” What angered him most was not just what he saw as the inhumanity of the ritual; it was that a controversial inter-tribal compact allows the Hopi to take 18 of their 40 eaglets from nesting territory on the Navajo reservation.

And then, he said, there was the Hardman case, which involved a white man who had embraced the religion of his Native American wife. He was caught with Golden Eagle feathers he’d been given by a Hopi religious leader, but a court had ruled in his favor—citing yet another federal law, the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

It was a lot to digest. The story of the Zuni aviary had seemed straightforward: a reasonable if imperfect compromise between the federal government and a deeply traditional tribe. But viewed through a wider lens, the eagle inhabits a political, legal, and ethical minefield, with three federal laws protecting the bird, two guaranteeing religious freedom, a slew of federal regulations, and voluntary tribal compacts. On grounds of religion, the Native American Church had been granted an exemption from federal drug laws; the Hopi from laws protecting the eagle; and a white convert from the “Indians only” rule.

Eventually Benally laughed, pushing aside the remains of his John Wayne Burger. “Maybe I just see things this way because I’ve been a cop for too long,” he said. “Maybe I should have been a plumber or a carpenter or something instead.”

A Golden Eagle statue marks the entrance of the Navajo Nation aviary, managed by David Mikesic. Photo: Dawn Kish

T

he Navajo aviary is run by an Anglo, an affable wildlife biologist named David Mikesic. While the Zuni built their aviary with tribal and private funding, the Navajo jump-started theirs with a $200,000 Tribal Wildlife Grant, as have other tribes like the Iowa and the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma. (The FWS has proposed eliminating the program, created to fund proactive conservation solutions, so that the Interior Department can “address higher priorities.”)

The Navajo aviary has no Bald Eagles, only Goldens, whose preferred nesting habitat is in the high cliffs of the surrounding red rock mesas, where they feast on jack­rabbits and prairie dogs. At the entrance is a towering statue of the bird, perched on a symbolic montage of things that kill it, like automobiles and power lines. Worried about the potential impact of the Hopi sacrifices and a perceived decline in Golden Eagles, Mikesic supervised a 10-year study of Goldens on the reservation. The two biggest identifiable causes of mortality, other than the Hopi take, were poaching and power lines. Golden Eagles are particularly susceptible to electrocution because their wingspan, which can be almost eight feet, is enough to bridge the gap between the ground wire and the energized conductor.

Until the Trump Administration, no government of either party had questioned that the plain intent of the MBTA was to prohibit not only poaching but also the predictable if unintended killing of birds by hazards like oil spills, wind turbines, waste pits, and power lines. The threat of liability was a powerful incentive for energy companies to find practical remedies—covering pits with netting, for example. But an Interior Department ruling in December 2017 changed all that. Companies would now be liable only if they set out deliberately to kill birds. Accidental mortality from power lines, which kill up to 64 million birds a year through collision or electrocution, would no longer incur any penalty.

While Audubon and others are now challenging the ruling in federal court, the Navajo Nation has a legal code of its own, including the Navajo Endangered Species List, with extensive protections for migratory birds and other wildlife. In 2008 Mikesic crafted enforceable standards for “raptor-safe” power poles—not only for eagles but also Ferruginous Hawks, the only other species with a wingspan large enough to put them at risk of electrocution. This independent legal authority is potentially significant, for the 27,000-square-mile reservation houses the coal mines and oil wells of the San Juan Basin, the Four Corners coal-fired power plant, and natural-gas fracking rigs in the Chaco Canyon. If MBTA protections are nixed, the Navajo “would have every right to develop their own laws and regulations in any way they see fit,” Mikesic said.

Still, Navajo lands remain an uneasy avian sanctuary. Two of the birds in the Navajo aviary are survivors of the most notorious recent case of poaching, a string of shootings on the reservation in March 2018. The first victim was a wing-shot Bald Eagle. “The tail feathers had been pulled out while it was still alive,” Mikesic said. “How much crueler can you be to a wild animal, let alone the most sacred animal? It breaks my heart. The bird had been left out in the desert without food or water, unable to fly. The gunshot wound was infected. It had lost blood. It had to be euthanized.”

Over the following two weeks, two Golden Eagles were shot nearby, a male and a female. Their tail feathers were also gone, but both survived, and they’d been brought to the aviary after a spell in rehab. Under the Navajo Zoo’s Adopt-an-Animal program, the female had been named Atsa’bah, or Female Warrior Eagle; the male, Iron Heart.

One of Mikesic’s assistants, Lionel Tsosie, fetched an intact female Golden Eagle, placed a hood over her head, cradled her gently, and spread her gorgeous fan of 12 tail feathers. “For a set of these, you’re talking thousands of dollars,” he said.

Tiffany Shaw photographs Iron Heart, a Golden Eagle named after her father. The bird was brought to the Navajo Nation aviary after being found shot and stripped of its tail feathers. Photo: Dawn Kish

A family of Navajo had been listening to our conversation from a caged viewing platform. “Which one is Iron Heart?” one of the women asked. She told me that the bird had been named in honor of her father, who had passed away in August. “My dad was a prosecutor for the Navajo Nation for a long time, all over the rez,” the woman, Tiffany Shaw, said. “He rode a motorbike with the Navajo Hopi Honor Riders to honor veterans. And he was a powwow dancer. He always had eagle feathers and he was always giving them away to people.”
One of the eagles took off abruptly with a loud screech and a great beating of wings, and a small, snowy body feather, more fluff than vane, drifted down toward us.

“What a Navajo medicine man will do is pray to one of these little white feathers and then blow it in the air and ask for his prayer to be carried to the deities,” said Tsosie. “Because the eagle is the one in charge of carrying our prayers from this world to the heavens.”

The great bird glided back to its perch, and the feather lodged in the bars of the viewing cage. One of Iron Heart’s family reached out and took it carefully between thumb and forefinger. Mikesic smiled at him and said, “You have a permit for that?”

This story originally ran in the Spring 2019 issue as “Mixed Blessing.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.

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