A Native American eagle feather’s unlikely journey | NOVA

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When an eagle dies in America, it could find yourself at certainly one of our eagle repositories—distinctive establishments working to guard each birds of prey and Native American traditions.

A bald eagle in flight over Colorado. Picture Credit score: Matt Dirksen, iStock

When certainly one of his eagles dies, Waha Thuweeka begins by portray the highest of its head with a conventional dry ochre paint usually utilized in Comanche ceremony, then traces the paths of its main arteries and the pads of its toes in crimson. Subsequent, he removes the bones that type the crux of its highly effective wings, for use for eagle bone whistles. He positions the toes as if the hen have been at relaxation, its head tucked on its breast, then binds it in crimson cloth and buckskin. 

All of the whereas, Waha Thuweeka (who additionally makes use of the English identify William Voelker) burns fragrant juniper and pinyon pine resin over sizzling coals. The resin is supposed to represent tears, he says; “Once we put it on sizzling coals, we let the tree cry for us.” After the ceremony is completed, he leaves the eagle’s wrapped physique in a excessive crevasse specifically chosen by his neighborhood for that function.

Waha Thuweeka and his co-director, Kweeni Mahquetsoi Okweetuni (who additionally goes just by Troy) look after 144 grownup eagles and their offspring at a sprawling compound outdoors of Oklahoma Metropolis referred to as Sia, which implies “feather” within the Comanche language. His love of the birds runs deep. He started serving to his grandmother, who practiced conventional Comanche eagle medication, at age 8. His father, who labored within the West again when golden eagles have been being slaughtered by ranchers, collected eagle feathers and elements from the lifeless creatures he discovered—some 2,200 in all.

Within the Comanche custom he follows, the eagle is “holy past phrases,” Waha Thuweeka says, a “connector between we earthbound creatures and the almighty.” Rituals could require feathers in key elements of prayer, and a few conventional medication requires the vitality of a stay eagle. Many different American tribes honor eagles equally. The Hopi Tribe of Arizona has for hundreds of years sacrificed eaglets as a method to talk with the divine. In Wisconsin, many Potawatomi individuals use eagle feathers in naming ceremonies. And eagle feathers have develop into sought-after objects as elements of regalia utilized in ritual and at powwows.

However for the reason that passing of the Migratory Hen Treaty Act, the Bald Eagle Safety Act, and its subsequent golden eagle modification in the course of the twentieth century, that reverence has been in battle with conservation coverage—since these legal guidelines make it unlawful for Individuals to own any eagle feathers, elements, eggs, or nests. “Traditionally, if eagle feathers have been used [in ritual] they often got here from a hen that had misplaced its life,” Waha Thuweeka says. “Normally a life that was intentionally taken.”

Apart from being an eagle cultural heart and an intensive archive for Comanche historic information, Sia is certainly one of seven tribal-run eagle repositories in america. That signifies that enrolled members of federally acknowledged tribes can apply to obtain molted feathers and different elements that come from Sia eagles to be used in non secular ceremonies, freed from cost. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service additionally runs an eagle repository in Colorado, distributing feathers and elements from lifeless eagles discovered on federal lands.

Collectively, these repositories work to satisfy two usually competing wants: the safety of our nationwide hen and the proper of Individuals to follow their faith freely. In doing so, they showcase the distinctive relationship between our nation and an animal that isn’t simply an ecologically priceless predator but in addition a cultural image. “We really feel strongly that with each eagle feather request and want that we meet, it saves the lifetime of an eagle within the wild,” Waha Thuweeka says.

A Husi Numukahni (Comanche Peyote Tipi) surrounded by 4 Comanche eagles positioned on the 4 instructions. The eagles usually sing in accompaniment to the boys singing within the tipi. Picture courtesy of Sia: The Comanche Nation Ethno-Ornithological Initiative.

Again from the brink

Greater than 60 eagle species take to the skies worldwide, however solely two stay in North America. And for many of U.S. historical past, these eagles have been in some form of hassle. Till the 1800s, that hassle was largely because of deforestation, says Bryan Watts, director of the Heart for Conservation Biology on the School of William and Mary. It was within the mid-Nineteenth century, although, with firearms more and more obtainable, that the issues actually began.  

Fur trappers and fishermen shot bald eagles, viewing them as rivals; farmers shot them for stealing sheep and piglets and to maintain them from nesting close by. Between 1917 and 1952 Alaska ran a bounty program that paid out for the killing of 128,000 bald eagles. Throughout that point ranchers within the West carried out large-scale killings of tens of hundreds of golden eagles, even searching them from airplanes within the Nineteen Thirties. And trophy hunters additionally started stalking eagles, buying and selling birds and eggs like stamps or cash. “Again within the Twenties you could have catalogues with lists of bald eagle eggs in the marketplace for about $15,” Watts says. “That was fairly a bit of cash.”

Then, throughout post-World Warfare II industrialization, got here the air pollution—with probably the most vital injury coming from the insecticide DDT. Contaminants within the meals chain ended up in eagle eggs, making them too brittle and lowering chick survival charges. (This affected bald eagles greater than goldens, Watts notes, due to their differing prey.) The Bald Eagle Safety Act was handed in 1940, with an modification added for golden eagles in 1962. However eagle populations continued to lower.

“Right here within the [Chesapeake] Bay, reproductive charges have been all the way down to horrifying ranges all through the Nineteen Sixties,” he says. “At that time, we as a tradition confronted a choice. Are we going to let this species go?”

Watts attributes the following rebound of the eagle inhabitants to tendencies in public opinion and cultural stress. The U.S. banned DDT in 1972. The Audubon Society, then in its infancy, rallied the general public to move the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and lobbied to get bald eagles listed as endangered. Eagles appeared too culturally priceless to lose. “We as society think about eagles to be a logo of freedom and American virtues,” Watts says. “Once you look globally, a handful of species transcend their biologies—bald eagles are one.” (Pandas and elephants are two others, he provides.)

With bald eagle eggs returning to viability, “our inhabitants has been rising about 8% per yr and now has reached ranges nobody ever dreamed of,” Watts says. On the species’ nadir in 1962, Audubon counted 416 breeding pairs within the decrease 48 states. At the moment, Watts estimates there are 30,000. 

Strict restrictions on eagle trafficking helped us get so far. The varied conservation insurance policies enacted within the Nineteen Seventies made it unlawful for anybody to own eagles, both alive or lifeless; residents who discovered lifeless eagles have been prohibited from amassing any a part of them, together with feathers. However that prohibition included these tribes whose non secular lives require contact with stay eagles or entry to their elements and feathers. 

The federal authorities established the Nationwide Eagle Repository within the Nineteen Seventies, trying to create a centralized vacation spot for the nation’s eagle stays and a brand new pipeline for these communities to obtain eagle elements for ritual. The repository labored along side the so-called “Morton Coverage” (named for a Secretary of the Inside), meant to reassure Native American communities that, by the repository, they may hold eagle elements and feathers “with out concern of Federal prosecution, harassment, or different interference”—however that safety didn’t lengthen to killing of the birds.

However, “legislation enforcement had a heyday,” Waha Thuweeka remembers. “It was a tragic time.” So-called “feather busts” turned commonplace on reservations within the Nineteen Seventies and ’80s, with federal brokers raiding tribal gatherings and confiscating something adorned with feathers, claiming they have been appearing on tips on birds being killed illegally. 

“Typically they have been proper, however too many instances there have been harmless bystanders,” he says. Even immediately, many elders hold their most treasured possessions hidden away for concern of feather busts. Within the Nineties, Waha Thuweeka developed protocols utilizing pet microchips to establish particular person feathers as they have been distributed, thus making a mechanism for recipients to substantiate their provenance if questioned by authorities. “Now we’re seeing outdated historic objects getting into again into the general public realm,” he says. “The sensation of all that energy is superb.”

When an eagle dies

On particularly productive days on the Nationwide Eagle Repository in Colorado, Laura Mallory and three of her colleagues would possibly course of 15 eagles every, harvesting tail plumage, talons, beaks, and particular person feathers to be used in ritual. The repository has advanced significantly during the last 45 years, by quite a few authorized battles with Native American teams. It re-formed in its current location outdoors Denver after an particularly rocky interval within the Nineties, with the intention of serving alongside seven tribal-run repositories because the federal authorities’s greatest try and bridge the hole between eagle conservation and tradition. Its eagles now come from a mixture of federal businesses, that are required handy over eagles discovered lifeless of their jurisdictions, and state wildlife and raptor rehab representatives who ship them in voluntarily. 

A lifeless bald eagle is processed on the Nationwide Eagle Repository in Colorado. Picture Credit score: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Processing an eagle on this context is each strenuous and time consuming, which signifies that with some 3,200 lifeless eagles coming into the repository per yr—double bagged, frozen, shipped to the power in a single day in a cooler—there’s virtually all the time a backlog. When Mallory begins analyzing an eagle, she first scrutinizes the wing bones, in search of fractures. Subsequent, she examines the animal’s toes, checking that the talons have retained their sharpness and the scales aren’t too worn. She pays particular consideration to the pinnacle, as a result of it’s usually the primary half to decompose, and makes certain the beak isn’t cracked. She feels beneath the thick torso feathers for the hen’s flight muscle groups, which is able to inform her how wholesome it was in life. And lastly, she checks for proof of electrocution or probably harmful viruses, which may trigger injury or put individuals in danger, excluding an eagle from subsequent use. 

As she does this, Mallory enters info from the eagle’s paperwork right into a database, together with its age and information about how and the place it died. (“Typically we’ll get in a well-known hen, and the paperwork will checklist what motion pictures it was in,” she says.) Birds, or elements of birds, which are in adequate situation for redistribution are then stashed in one of many repository’s 4 deep freezers—and the remaining are put right into a pile for cremation.

Plumage from juvenile eagles is in particularly excessive demand for powwow regalia, together with feathers with significantly high-quality quill for ceremony. Any enrolled member of a federally acknowledged tribe can apply for elements by the repository, with ready durations starting from as little as just a few weeks for feathers from an grownup bald eagle to eight years for a complete juvenile golden eagle.

It’s not a simple job. Working with so many lovely, lifeless animals—appearing as a “mortician for eagles” as Mallory places it—could be each bodily and emotionally draining. “These birds are massive and frozen; they weigh rather a lot; their talons nonetheless scratch you,” she says. However even in instances the place eagle rehabbers are mourning birds they raised for 3 a long time, she feels grateful to have the ability to remind them: “this hen goes to stay one other life.” 

The system stays removed from excellent. Because the repository has restricted workers and solely federal businesses are required to submit their eagles, a fraction of eagles that die throughout the U.S. are despatched there—and a fraction of these attain the communities that want them. The federal authorities continues to tinker with eagle retention coverage and, in August 2019, the Trump administration eased laws that restricted tribes from retaining eagles discovered on their very own land. However pressure stays between federal businesses and the tribal communities counting on them for entry to eagle elements and whose historical past of mistreatment retains them cautious.

Even so, the repository continues to work towards its twin function of supporting eagle conservation and sustaining tribal non secular tradition. Researchers at each Fish and Wildlife and america Geological Survey can entry the repository’s eagle database, to be used in analysis on nationwide populations and mortality tendencies. And on the cultural facet, Sarah Metzer, an training specialist on the repository, notes that on calls to substantiate an applicant’s info earlier than sending out requested feathers and elements, recipients are sometimes so moved by the concept of receiving them that “you usually must pause as a result of they’re weeping on the opposite finish of the cellphone.”

Till lately, any unused stays on the Nationwide Eagle Repository—these eagle elements that weren’t in adequate situation to be despatched out to be used in ritual—have been incinerated and disposed of together with the power’s mainstream waste. That disposal technique turned a subject of debate throughout a 2017 tribal session on the repository, and the Fish and Wildlife Service made efforts to discover a extra respectful strategy. “It was a small change we may make,” Mallory says. At the moment, she drives the eagle ashes a brief approach outdoors the repository into the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Nationwide Wildlife Refuge, to a quiet stretch of restored prairie, and buries them.

Sia Co-Director Kweeni Mahquetsoi Okweetuni (Troy) with a golden eagle throughout dawn prayer following an all-night Native American Church ceremonial. Troy wears histroic 1870s garb and behind him is Jeff Indeck, previously of the Panhandle-Plains Historic Museum. Picture courtesy of Sia: The Comanche Nation Ethno-Ornithological Initiative

Hatching a brand new technology 

Although Sia is at present closed to guests as a result of COVID-19 pandemic, Waha Thuweeka and Kweeni Mahquetsoi Okweetuni nonetheless begin their mornings earlier than daybreak. It’s, in spite of everything, hatching season, and the eaglets want care it doesn’t matter what’s occurring on the earth. They begin the day with a prayer to welcome the dawn, a tune that was “gifted” in a gesture of conventional honor to one of many beloved elder eagles, referred to as Satisfaction, some 40 years in the past.

Waha Thuweeka takes delight in doing work “past simply doling out eagle feathers.” He attends educational conferences to maintain up on scientific literature. Eagle researchers often go to Sia, together with one group that lately got here to check among the birds’ capacity to listen to totally different frequencies as a part of a research on eagle listening to. And in answering an applicant’s eagle request, “we attempt to reconnect that particular person with the cultural and religious lifeways,” he says. Which means, partially, offering eagles to be used in therapeutic and different ceremonies by the local people. “Traditionally an individual that was ailing was taken to an eagle nesting space,” he explains. “Now we take the eagles to them. We’re on name 24 hours.”

It additionally means elevating eagles that may tolerate that position in ceremony, with a cautious eye towards every little thing that caring for an eagle in captivity entails. Waha Thuweeka realized a lot of his eagle husbandry from his grandmother and father—in addition to what he jokingly calls a three-year “Comanche raid” on Cornell College’s ornithology and genetics choices as a scholar—together with strategies not often practiced elsewhere. He was the primary to efficiently hatch artificially inseminated bald eagles and raises a portion of each new technology of chicks imprinted on him as a mum or dad, ultimately transitioning to enjoying the position of a bonded companion. (That permits him to let the eagles fly free, he says, with out retaining them hungry to make sure they’ll come again for meals, as falconers generally do.)

An grownup golden eagle strikes to cowl a bald eagle chick with a ceremonial blanket at Sia. Picture courtesy of Sia: The Comanche Nation Ethno-Ornithological Initiative

Golden eagles which were imprinted to people “depend on us to do every little thing a wild mate would do,” he says. “Low-key speaking, singing, bringing nest materials.” Golden eagle tune adjustments relying on the person, he says. Some sing in a low throaty squawk, some in a higher-pitched yodel, so he alters his voice to match his companion.

After the dawn prayer, he and Kweeni Mahquetsoi Okweetuni go in regards to the morning chores, refreshing water and beginning eaglet feedings. After a long time within the discipline, Sia is within the means of hatching soon-to-be fourth-generation golden eagle offspring. These are the progeny of birds that “supplied feathers and vitality for our ancestors going again over 60 years in the past. To have the present technology of birds producing feathers for what are generally the great-great-grandchildren of those ancestors” is a particular honor, he says, and one which additionally works towards a bigger aim of conservation. “These poachers will exit and kill an eagle for one set of feathers. By nurturing an eagle, we are able to have over 50 years of feathers.”

The eaglets—little greater than cheeping heaps of feathers mendacity in specialised dishes lined with felt—eat their first meal at 18 hours outdated, a mixture of quail meat from breast, coronary heart, and lung. Waha Thuweeka mixes the meat himself, feeding the eaglets as much as six meals a day, served in minuscule bites utilizing forceps. (“You don’t need them to affiliate your fingers with meals,” he says.)

After which, there’s maybe a very powerful activity of the morning: amassing feathers which were misplaced in a single day. “Eagles are very playful,” he says. “If the feather lays on the bottom too lengthy, they’ll pounce on it and play with it,” rendering it unusable for ritual.

By Might, the yearly molt is properly underway. One latest day, the eagles had misplaced greater than 20 feathers in a single day. He collected all of them, shortly and thoroughly, to be saved and sorted at a later date, then despatched out to make their approach into rituals throughout the nation.

“Every time a feather is collected, it’s accomplished so in prayer,” he says. “We’re taught to be grateful, whether or not it’s a feather within the wild or one which birds dropped right here.

We are saying, ‘Nu tsutai.’ Bless us.” 

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