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The federal government has granted Wyoming's Northern Arapaho Tribe a unique permit. The tribe will be allowed to kill two bald eagles, just two, for religious purposes. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued similar permits in the past for golden eagles, but never for bald eagles. The decision comes after the tribes sued on grounds of religious freedom. Wyoming Public Radio's Tristan Ahtone has the story.
TRISTAN AHTONE, BYLINE: For Native Americans, performing traditional religious ceremonies isn't simple. It can often involve heavy regulation by federal authorities, especially when it comes to the use of sacred items like eagle feathers.
CRAWFORD WHITE: We use different ceremonies.
AHTONE: That's Crawford White, an Arapaho ceremonial elder from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. In one hand, he holds an eagle tail fan. In the other, he holds eagle bone whistles.
WHITE: Sun Dance, sweat lodges, ceremonial Native American church, powwows. Here's your eagle bone.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)
AHTONE: Some of these ceremonies may sound familiar to you, others more exotic. But either way, for many Native Americans to be able to participate in their religious ceremonies, they need eagle parts. And to get those parts, you can go to the black market, get them when passed between friends and family, or you can put in an order to the National Eagle Repository in Denver where Bernadette Atencio serves as supervisor.
BERNADETTE ATENCIO: The Native American eagle feather program was actually implemented in the early 1970s, and it was actually developed to provide a legal means for Native Americans to acquire bald and golden eagle feathers for use in religious practices.
AHTONE: This program is for natives only. No tribal enrollment papers, no eagle parts. That's the law. And even after you put in a request, no matter how fast the repository works, you have to wait. Atencio's team severs their wings and tails, plucks feathers, then bags, zip-ties and ships them out.
The demand is steadily outpacing supply. Last year, the repository got three requests for every one bird it received, and most of those birds were unusable. Atencio says that's because the repository can only receive eagles that have been found dead in the wild.
ATENCIO: That puts a lot of pressure on the inventory, so there's no way we can fill everybody's order even within a year. Unfortunately, the waiting period is lengthy.
AHTONE: Like up to three years lengthy. On top of that, some tribal members have been unhappy with the quality. On the Wind River Reservation, Nelson White says he's seen a goose arrive instead of an eagle and another instance where the bird was too decomposed to even be used.
NELSON WHITE: That's unacceptable. You know, if a non-Indian had to get his Bible from a repository, and it was sent in a box, and he opened it, and it was rotten, how would he like it?
AHTONE: This is why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife permit is so important. Since the repository can't meet the religious needs of the Arapaho, the tribe is getting the federal permit. For the tribe, this is a better option because the act of capturing an eagle is part of its religious practice. Fish and Wildlife regional supervisor Matt Hogan says this whole process comes down to respect.
MATT HOGAN: We're really talking about Native Americans who have had a long time, customary traditional relationship with eagles - in some cases, thousands of years. And so we're constantly trying to balance the conservation of the species with the religious needs of Native Americans.
AHTONE: The Fish and Wildlife Service says with the permit, only two eagles can be taken by the Arapaho tribe. After that, tribal members will have to reapply or get in line at the National Eagle Repository. For NPR News, I'm Tristan Ahtone in Laramie.
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