Native American Symbols: Eagle, Bison Reclaimed

Three symbols of native America - the bison, the eagle, and the Native Americans themselves - have been endangered during recent decades. But, says commentator Harlan McKosato all three are making a comeback. Just outside Perkins, Okla., the Ioway tribe is building an eagle aviary for injured birds. The tribe's herd of bison will protect the aviary from predators.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Three symbols of Native America--the bison, the eagle and the Native American people themselves--have been endangered in recent decades. But commentator Harlan McKosato says all three are making a comeback together.

HARLAN McKOSATO:

I grew up in a small town along the Cimarron River in north-central Oklahoma. I was raised by my mother's relatives, the Ioway or Buxoje people. We thrived along the upper Mississippi River until being forcibly removed by the US government to Indian Territory, which later became Oklahoma. Growing up, I was led to believe that Native Americans, or Indians, like the buffalo or bison and the bald eagle, were objects from America's past. That was the way we were portrayed in history books, and that was the way I felt in the classroom.

The great buffalo herds of the Americas once stretched across the Great Plains, but by the time the tragic buffalo slaughters of the West were over, there was only one herd left. Bald eagles had vanished from all but the remote corners of the county, and they were the national symbol. Pesticides, hunting, water pollution and others factors led to their demise. Native Americans, too, were on the brink of extermination up until just several decades ago. At one point, the Ioway of Oklahoma had just several hundred members left, and poverty was rampant.

Today, even though Native Americans are still the poorest of the poor, a recent study shows that we have increased our population rate and our per-capita income more than any other ethnic group in the country during the past decade. And because by law Native Americans are the only US citizens allowed to possess eagle feathers for cultural and religious practices, we are now providing sanctuary for these birds and the buffalo, as well. Recently, the Ioway tribe, through an unprecedented grant from US Fish & Wildlife, broke ground for an eagle aviary that will nurture injured birds back to health, or keep them out of harm's way until they die a natural death.

The eagles will be protected by a herd of buffalo bought several years ago in an effort to revive another part of the tribal history and culture. The buffalo will provide night security for the birds, keeping predators like wolves and coyotes at bay.

A couple of months ago, before the groundbreaking, I visited the spot overlooking the Cimarron Valley just outside of Perkins, Oklahoma, where the eagles and buffalo will live. My uncle, a former Green Beret who fought for this country in Vietnam, is managing the project, and I could hear the pride and the excitement in his voice as he told me, my nephew and my cousin about his plans for the aviary. And I couldn't help but feel rejuvenated, and my spirit was lifted. As a child, I was led to believe that eagles, buffalo and Indians were things of the past. But recently, as I visited my hometown, I saw something I never thought I'd see there: All three of these icons of America are alive and well.

SIEGEL: Harlan McKosato lives in Albuquerque.

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