Amid the recent debate around eagle kills at Wyoming wind farms, one sentence in the Federal Register concerning Native American religious practices has received scant attention.
Perhaps like a fuse, the requirement for the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service to consult with the tribes about their cultural practices relating to eagles has begun to burn with some Native traditionalists.
“The public sees how [the Department of] Interior is talking about how many [eagles] are going to be killed, even in prime habitat, and these wind farm outfits, they’ll talk about how many are going to be killed … we wouldn’t want the public to think these things should be treated this way. There’s a true sacredness [to the eagle], the most important thing around your [religious] ceremonies, and here people just throw these numbers around nonchalantly. That’s not the way you deal with these things,” said Casper resident Steve Weber, a longtime advocate for greater recognition of Native American spiritual practices.
“In some ways I look at it and say, ‘Well, all you people that want to kill all these eagles, you know you’re killing our angels out there?’ Maybe that gets through to people, they hear that. ‘You’re killing our angels, you want to do it a little bit more respectfully? Maybe come talk to us about our feelings about this?’”
Part Menominee by birth, Weber has been trained in native healing practices, participated in the sun dance, and has conducted traditional sweat lodge ceremonies at his home for nearly two decades. Weber also successfully fought federal charges of possession of eagle feathers and ceremonial items in 2009, with his case later spurring an investigation into PacifiCorp (d.b.a. Rocky Mountain Power in Wyoming) that led to a $10.5 million fine against the company for failure to protect golden eagles from being killed on its power poles in the state (232 between 2007 and 2009). Weber said he sees similarities with the burgeoning wind industry.
“You know every time these things come up, no matter what it’s around, it’s always about educating,” Weber said. “Without education of the importance of [eagles], there’s no true conversation that goes on. People don’t understand one another, they just don’t. It takes something to try to wrap your mind around and understand the significance of these eagles. You’re talking ancient religious ceremonies that still maintain their connection with everything in nature.”
Importance of the eagle
The eagle is a significant part of many Northern Plains tribes’ ceremonies.
To the Arapahos on the Wind River Indian Reservation, the eagle is considered “essential to the survival and wellbeing of the tribe and its members,” according to its Tribal Council.
Crawford White, a member of the Arapaho’s Council of Elders, explained the eagle’s unique place in their spiritual traditions.
“It’s very sacred, very sacred … pretty high (raising his arm over his head),” White said. “Sometimes we pray to it, we talk to it. We ask it for healing. We ask for good things. It’s a messenger to the Creator, and I don’t know how to really explain how high it is to us. It’s supreme.”
Perhaps nowhere is the eagle more critical to the Arapahos, and many other regional tribes, than in the sun dance, an annual renewal ceremony at the heart of their spiritual culture.
Each dancer requires an eagle wing and an eagle bone whistle to participate, and the sun dancer’s sponsor must provide a ceremonially “clean” eagle, which plays the central and highest role in the Arapaho’s ceremony. Every element in the sun dance has spiritual purpose and meaning, White said, and is guided by traditional protocols reaching back into antiquity.
“Niitouuh’oo, whistles; beeh’h, that’s the wind, asking for wind, a breeze … bless yourself,” White said of the eagle bone whistles and the movement of the eagle wings. “Like I say, that eagle is sacred, he knows. [You] use them wings, and at the same time you’re calling it. There are lots of reasons why we do things, those little things that have meaning to our ways.”
White added that some matters concerning the eagle in particular were too sacred to discuss publically and by Arapaho tradition are only conveyed through direct instruction and experience.
“Over here, it’s really pretty sacred,” White explained. “There are some unwritten laws that we have to go by … unwritten laws have been handed down to us. We have to go by those things, so this limits what we can say and what we can do, because it’s so sacred. That’s the best way I can put it of why we use it. We use it in our ceremonies, all of our ceremonies, not just one. It’s with us all the time, that’s the best way I can put it.”
Obtaining ceremonial eagles
Weber said the way the eagles are acquired varies from tribe to tribe. Some traditions permit the capture of birds, others only those that have died from natural causes, and some are a mix. One thing they have in common, however, it is always surrounded by the spiritual practices and culture of the tribe.
“From the get-go, you know, it’s nothing but ceremony, it’s nothing but prayer. All the things that are so important, the whole process of that encounter [with the eagle] and what leads up to it has to be all ceremonial, all prayer, all spiritual, just as best as you can,” Weber said. “They’re so highly esteemed, they’re everything, you know, they’re everything. And they’re there, and they came there in ceremonial ways, these are ‘clean’ eagles.”
Bald and golden eagles are federally protected because of significant declines in historical numbers, and their value as the symbol of the nation. Their possession is closely monitored and restricted and it is illegal to have an eagle or eagle parts without a permit, a lengthy and sometimes uncertain process and an issue for many native American tribes concerning their traditional and spiritual practices. With few exceptions, Native Americans must now acquire all their eagles, or parts such as feathers, through federal repositories.
“We don’t know that ceremony where you go into the lodge and you pray for your eagle, then you go in the house and you fill out your paperwork for the [federal eagle] repository, and sometime over the next year or two the UPS gods bring you an eagle. We don’t know that one,” Weber commented.
“People never have what they need, never. You’re always in situations where people can’t sun dance because they don’t have what they need, and that’s hard. That’s a burden to these religious practices, because the people that are your sun dancers are the backbone of the whole ceremonial practice and the tradition,” Weber stated. “Those people go on to serve their communities and run sweat lodges. They go on to uphold these [religious] traditions in these ways. And you don’t have all [the leaders] that you should have, because they don’t have what they need.”
Unceremonious eagle deaths
Weber said a recent spate of activity, particularly around wind farms and eagles, has caught some tribal members’ attention, including the first federal fines levied for wind energy-related eagle deaths (Duke Energy’s Top of World/Campbell Hill wind farms outside of Douglas); the Interior Department’s ruling to extend the length of eagle kill permits for wind farms from five years to 30 years; eagle permitting activity around the Chokecherry/Sierra Madre wind project, the largest proposed wind farm in the world to be located just south of Rawlins; and a sudden increase in bald eagle deaths in Utah, apparently from disease.
“There have been different ceremonies around this to prepare to understand what’s going on right now. Why are we talking about eagles? Why are they in the newspaper now? Why is it everywhere? They’re on TV now, these ones in Utah. So it’s that time, it opens the doorway for education and understanding,” Weber said.
“These eagles are always about unifying people. Always when they’re in the news and they’re making themselves known, you can bet they’re up to something, because they always are,” Weber said.
“When you have an eagle come in and buzz your sweat lodge, and everybody is in awe because it’s down low through the trees, by golly, there are things that strike you, that that bird has a lot of intelligence. It has a consciousness. It knows it has a function and you see it around these things. It isn’t just the people that know this, these eagles know this too.
“So we look at that, and we say, ‘What can we do with these situations where something decent can happen around this?’” Weber said. “There are only so many eagles around, and breeding pairs. We’ve seen it firsthand. When eagles get killed, you’re not just killing those eagles, you’re killing those eagles they would have made, you know? It doesn’t take long to devastate the whole area. A couple of years and all those birds are gone, and they don’t come back, or the ones that do come back wind up getting killed like those [others] did. You would not be rushing to give 30-year kill permits to wind farms, that’s not Interior being compelled to preserve.”
“So we went out and we met with that Council of Elders … in Lander, and people talked about how sacred [eagles] are. Even amongst people that understand this, and sun dancers who’ve known each other for years. It’s still hard to talk about. It’s beyond words. It puts you in awe when you really understand the spirit of that and how it plays into things,” Weber said.
“So we see that the time has come, we’ve talked about it for years, I’ve talked to my [Native] relations out west, and they show a strong interest in how these birds are handled. We do too,” Weber said. “This has to happen. These birds can’t lay on the ground and rot, as we see at some of these wind farms. Those birds should go into a ceremony.”
It’s about live eagles
Weber said a number of ideas have emerged on how to begin to work with the situation at the local, state and federal levels, including a state coordinator.
“Some of the elements of this that we’ve discussed concerning these eagles are long-range management, ceremonial handling of eagles, an in-state repository, active and timely retrieval and monitoring of killed birds, and we’ve talked about directly increasing eagle numbers,” Weber said, adding, “The traditional people that are working with the birds have a vested interest in them. They need to have a seat at the table.
“We like this concept of live birds. [Live birds)] should be at these ceremonies. I see the old sketches of stuff from I think the 1850s, 1860s, where there are live eagles sitting on a pole fence outside the sweat lodge. There are a lot of things that used to be different. It wasn’t always about dead eagles, it’s about live eagles. Everyone, all over the papers, they want to talk about dead eagles. Let’s talk about live eagles. Let’s talk about more eagles not less eagles. It’s getting to be a bad habit.”
Proposing a Wyoming repository
“The thoughts are, we need an in-state repository, [where] the people that have the ceremonial rights to handle the birds handle the birds. That’s how the tradition is. You might be able to take birds that really shouldn’t be used for sun dances, and maybe, somehow, through the handling of them, for the ceremonies they should go through when they’re found … you might be able to fix some of this up. Where the complaint that’s gone on for decades with the repositories, from every tribe you can think of, is these birds are inappropriate to use [because] they’re not ‘clean’ birds. You don’t know how they got there, [or] where they come from.
“We’ve watched millions of dollars get spent and we’ve got less and less eagles every year. That doesn’t seem to be doing it. So another thing we’ve talked about is a program of, kill an eagle, replace an eagle. Open an eagle hatchery. If you directly produce more eagles, guess what? You’ll have more eagles. You don’t have to wonder. Or maybe like everything else, you could go over to China and buy golden eagles cheaper than if you kiss away millions of dollars trying to conserve, but not produce more eagles.
“We’ve looked at rehabilitation. There are some eagles that are going to be hurt in all these wind projects. Rehabilitate those eagles, save their lives, do something with them,” Weber added, saying many of these activities could be coordinated through an eagle center in the state, which would also offer cultural and educational opportunities.
“So we’ve looked at all these different things. These birds are so sacred that it’s time the people get active around this and do the right thing. You know they want to. These wind farms [and] the guys that run them, they want to respect these traditions and these ceremonies. Interior, it never hurts for them to have a little reminder of how important these things are.
“It’s kind of what we advocate. Take some time, pray on it some, see what kind of guidance you’re getting on it … there might be solutions out there that no one has seen yet but really are just the thing that helps industry, helps Interior, helps the state, helps conservation groups, helps us in our ceremonies. That’s the ideal thing, and everybody wins. Then you really have got something. There are big solutions out there that really look good and sound good and smell good. Everybody smiles and they’re happy, and the bad guys don’t look so bad.”
“It’s a spirit,” White had said about the eagle. “You know in springtime, when you hear that thunder, when you first hear that thunder? That’s that eagle hollering, waking everything up – in the grass, even the ones underground, they wake up. It’s a new year for us. That eagle is the one waking everybody up, new life. Just thought I would mention that.”
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