From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2001:
FLAGSTAFF, Arizona–As many as 40 newly hatched golden eagles and redtailed hawks may be stolen fron nests within the Wupatki National Monument north of Flagstaff this spring for sacrifices originating out of some of the nastiest known history in North America.
The eagles are the sacred totems of the Navajo; redtails are the totems of their traditional allies, the Apache.
For approximately 1,000 years the ancestors of the modern-day Navajo and Apache treated the Pueblo civilization built by the Hopi and related tribes like a larder.
During droughts betwen roughly 1080 and 1580, Navajo and Apache raiders often stole Pueblo corn, massacred Pueblo adults, and cannibalized the children.
In between, the Navajo and Apache terrorized the Pueblo tribes for amusement.
Cannibalism faded out but frequent raids continued long after the Spanish conquered what remained of the Pueblo civilization and converted the survivors–nominally–to Catholicism.
Unable to distinguish one tribe from another, Spanish garrisons at times retaliated for Navajo and Apache mayhem inflicted on remote missions by killing any Pueblo people who remained nearby.
Kit Carson and the U.S. Cavalry finally stopped the murderous cycle in 1863-1864 by poisoning and shooting all the Navajo sheep. Starved into submission, the former Navajo raiders waited out the U.S. Civil War in concentration camps. They were then given new sheep, of Old World breeds, and moved to the fringes of Hopi land in the Four Corners area, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexi-co, and Utah meet. There–with Navajos surrounding the less numerous Hopi–the tribes have uneasily coexisted ever since.
Historically the Pueblo tribes were far more numerous, more affluent, and much more technologically advanced than the Navajo and Apache, yet seemed perennially unable to mount effective self-defense. The Hopi, however, evolved a religious ritual which mocked the Navajo and Apache by attacking their totems.
Each spring, Hopi men would raid the nests of cliff-dwelling golden eagles and redtails, steal the hatchlings, leave gifts in their places, and bring the hatchlings home to raise as tethered captives. In midsummer, just before the young birds became capable of flight, they were ceremonially smothered to death in corn meal, plucked, and buried. The feathers were used in connection with special prayers and to costume kachina dolls. Eagles and eagle feathers were most highly prized.
The Hopi have continued the ritual despite sporadic efforts of missionaries and U.S. government agencies to repress it.
The sacrifices seemed to be history from the 1962 passage of the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which also protected golden eagles and was superseded by the Endangered Species Act, until 1994, after both bald eagles and golden eagles were downlisted from “endangered” to “threatened” status.
But few eagles’ nests were left on Hopi territory. When Hopi attacked eagles’ nests on Navajo land near Indian Wells, Arizona, in 1995, 1996, and 1999, Navajo police tried to protect the eaglets. Intertribal friction flared.
Then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt bought time by allowing the Hopi to capture eaglets on National Forest land–but the largest concentrations of eagles’ nests in the Four Corners area were within the Wupatki National Monument, near Flagstaff.
Removing eagles from “threatened” status coincidental with the sacrificial ceremonies in July 1999, Babbitt in November 1999 proposed allowing the Hopi to capture eaglets from the National Monument. The Wupatki National Monument had been officially off limits since 1924. The Babbitt proposal accordingly required a regulatory breach in the Organic Act of 1916, which created the National Park Service and has protected wildlife within National Parks and National Monuments ever since.
On January 22, 2001, days before leaving office, Babbitt published the proposed regulatory amendment, to take effect in late March, after a 60-day public comment period. The amendment is vigorously opposed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, humane organizations, and many Navajo leaders, and could be cancelled by Interior Secretary Gail Norton or President George W. Bush.
The amendment is reportedly favored, however, by religious freedom advocates including Christian fundamentalist Bush supporters; 22 Indian tribes which also claim hunting, fishing, and trapping rights within National Parks; and sport hunters and trappers who see the amendment as an opening to gaining access to National Park land.
Eagle feathers are ceremonially important to many tribes, including the Navajo. Most tribes obtain feathers from the National Eagle Repository near Denver, which collects and parcels out feathers from dead eagles found by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Applicants wait up to three years for coveted back and tail feathers.
The delay, combined with growing interest in traditional Native American religion, has created a substantial market for poached feathers. At least 31 illegal feather merchants have been prosecuted since 1994, including Antonio Alvarez, 25, of Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, who drew five months in prison and five months in a halfway house on January 11 for hiding an eagle carcass at his girlfriend’s home on the Lac du Flambeau reservation, and Gilbert George Walks, 38, of Crow Agency, Montana, who on March 8 pleaded guilty to selling 17 feet, a wing, and a tail from bald eagles.
Former President Bill Clinton on his last day in office reversed one of the best-known convictions, however, pardoning Peggy A. Bargon of Monticello, Illinois, who was charged in 1995 after presenting a “dream-catcher” made from eagle, owl, and wild turkey feathers to former First Lady Hilary Clinton, who is now a U.S. Senator from New York.
Founding the Navajo Zoo at Window Rock, New Mexico, in 1963 to house a bear who could not be returned to the wild, the Navajo Museum subsequently accepted eagles and other birds donated by wildlife agencies, and enabled Navajo shamen to bypass the National Eagle Repository by giving them fallen feathers.
The future of the seven-acre zoo was jeopardized in January 1999 when former Navajo tribal president Milton Bluehouse ordered–on his last day in office–that it be closed and the animals be released. Bluehouse said that two Navajo women had seen deities in a vision, who told them that keeping the animals prisoner was blasphemy, even though most arrived at the zoo after suffering injuries that would inhibit their survival in the wild. Others have never lived in the wild.
Bluehouse’s successor, Kelsey Begaye, allowed the zoo to remain open for the remainder of the lives of the animals, but declared that it should not be expanded.
As the controversy subsided, the Zuni tribe opened a similar facility for non-releasable eagles and other birds at Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico.
The Zuni are the largest of the surviving Pueblo tribes. The Zuni of Jemez, and Acoma Pueblos sparked global protest led by United Poultry Concerns and Animal Protection of New Mexico in 1995, after the All Indian Pueblo Council and New Mexico Department of Tourism promoted their spring “rooster pulls” as a visitor attraction. Introduced by the Spanish in the late 16th century, “rooster pulls” are a contest in which a rooster is buried to his neck, after which riders try to pluck him from the earth by the head.
The pulls occur on the feast days of St. John and St. James. Formerly practiced in other pueblos too, they are believed to continue in Jemez and Acoma as private events.