By EDDIE GLENN
Although the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list last month, the laws regulating the possession of the bird’s feathers are still in place.
Both the bald and the golden eagle are still protected by the federal act that bears their names: the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act – also known as the “Eagle Act” – as well as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The Eagle Act was passed in 1940, and prohibits the “take; possession; sale; purchase; barter; offer to sell, purchase, or barter; transport, export or import, of any bald or golden eagle, alive or dead, including any part, nest, or egg, unless allowed by permit.”
Eagle feathers, however, have had spiritual significance to Indian tribes long before the federal government began passing acts. So in the 1970s, the National Eagle Repository was established to provide feathers of bald and golden eagles to tribal members for ceremonial purposes.
“Legally, you have to apply for eagle feathers through the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife,” said Kelly Anquoe, a member of the Kiowa tribe who is certified to possess eagle feathers.
“You can apply for the feathers, or you can apply for an entire eagle. I applied for an entire eagle, and it came in a box about 3-1/2 feet long, with the eagle on ice.”
To apply for an eagle, or the feathers thereof, a person must have a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood, and be a registered member of a federally recognized tribe.
Eagle feather owners also have to have the certification they receive from the federal wildlife service when they receive their eagle or feathers.
The eagle carcasses are stored at the National Eagle Repository in Colorado, and are provided by state, federal, and tribal agencies that find dead eagles.
Orders are filled on a first-come, first-served basis, and waiting periods can vary from approximately three months for miscellaneous feathers to approximately four years for a complete carcass of the most sought-after eagle – an immature golden eagle.
Anyone who possesses an eagle feather, and doesn’t meet the requirements, could face fines up to $100,000 and a year in prison under the Eagle Act. A second offense is upgraded from a misdemeanor to a felony, and carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The act also provides for a civil penalty of up to $5,000.
Under the Migratory Bird Act, killing an eagle is a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of six months in prison and a $15,000 fine. Commercialization of bird parts is a felony that carries a two-year prison sentence and a $250,000.
“You’re not allowed to sell or trade [eagle feathers that are legally obtained], and legally, anyone you give them to has to be certified to have them,” said Anquoe. “I myself do not like the sell or trade of eagle feathers, so I agree with the law, but I’m sure other Indians would disagree.”
In fact, according to one Tahlequah man who requested he remain anonymous for this story, the sale and trade of feathers is quite common.
“It’s not even the bald eagle feathers that are the most popular items in the underground feather market,” Anquoe said. “It’s the feathers from the immature golden eagle. They’re the ones you see that have a base and quill that are white and a black tip.”
According to the anonymous source, about 70 percent of the eagle feathers a person will see at a powwow are from the golden eagle, with the other 30 percent being bald eagle feathers.
“A lot of Indians look down on the bald eagle because they say it eats carrion. A golden eagle will eat carrion, too, if it gets real hungry,” he said. “But the bald eagle is not really revered as much as the golden eagle.”
A lot of the eagle feathers on the illegal market, he said, aren’t actually taken from dead eagles. They’re picked up off the ground in areas like northwest Arkansas, where commercial chicken houses are common.
A couple of eagles will get into a tussle over which one gets to feast on an unfortunate chicken, and leave a few of their own feathers on the ground. Those feathers are then retrieved by people who, at that point – whether they know it or not – are violating federal law.
Also, Anquoe added, eagle feathers aren’t the only highly regarded plumage. The feathers of other birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act – like hawks and “anhingas,” which are water birds – are often traded illegally, too.
“I’ve had Navajos approach me and offer to trade me a whole bald eagle for 50 scissortail feathers,” he said. “They use them to make fans they use in the Native American Church.”
According to Anquoe, some Indians have had eagle feathers taken away from them by federal agents who attended powwows just for that purpose: to bust illegal feather owners.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the eagle feather laws,” Anquoe said. “A lot of people think you just have to have a CDIB card to have them, but you have to go through the whole application process.”
Contact Eddie Glenn at firstname.lastname@example.org.