When one in all 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 ft in pink. Subsequent, he removes the bones that kind the crux of its highly effective wings, for use for eagle bone whistles. He positions the ft as if the fowl have been at relaxation, its head tucked on its breast, then binds it in pink 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 finished, he leaves the eagle’s wrapped physique in a excessive crevasse specifically chosen by his neighborhood for that objective.
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 often known as Sia, which suggests “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 power of a dwell eagle. Many different American tribes honor eagles equally. The Hopi Tribe of Arizona has for hundreds of years sacrificed eaglets as a solution to talk with the divine. In Wisconsin, many Potawatomi folks 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 People to own any eagle feathers, elements, eggs, or nests. “Traditionally, if eagle feathers have been used [in ritual] they often got here from a fowl that had misplaced its life,” Waha Thuweeka says. “Usually a life that was intentionally taken.”
Apart from being an eagle cultural middle and an intensive archive for Comanche historic data, Sia is one in all seven tribal-run eagle repositories in america. That implies 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 fulfill two usually competing wants: the safety of our nationwide fowl and the precise of People to apply their faith freely. In doing so, they showcase the distinctive relationship between our nation and an animal that’s not simply an ecologically useful predator but additionally a cultural image. “We really feel strongly that with each eagle feather request and wish that we meet, it saves the lifetime of an eagle within the wild,” Waha Thuweeka says.
Again from the brink
Greater than 60 eagle species take to the skies worldwide, however solely two dwell 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 Middle for Conservation Biology on the Faculty of William and Mary. It was within the mid-Nineteenth century, although, with firearms more and more accessible, 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 1000’s 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 may have catalogues with lists of bald eagle eggs available on the market for about $15,” Watts says. “That was fairly a bit of cash.”
Then, throughout post-World Struggle II industrialization, got here the air pollution—with essentially the most important 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 scary 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 next rebound of the eagle inhabitants to developments 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 go the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and lobbied to get bald eagles listed as endangered. Eagles appeared too culturally useful to lose. “We as society contemplate eagles to be an emblem of freedom and American virtues,” Watts says. “Whenever 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 growing about 8% per 12 months 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. Right this moment, Watts estimates there are 30,000.
Strict restrictions on eagle trafficking helped us get thus 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 dwell eagles or entry to their elements and feathers.
The federal authorities established the Nationwide Eagle Repository within the Nineteen Seventies, making an attempt 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 with the so-called “Morton Coverage” (named for a Secretary of the Inside), meant to reassure Native American communities that, by the repository, they might preserve eagle elements and feathers “with out worry of Federal prosecution, harassment, or different interference”—however that safety didn’t prolong to killing of the birds.
However, “regulation 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 recommendations 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 preserve their most treasured possessions hidden away for worry of feather busts. Within the Nineties, Waha Thuweeka developed protocols utilizing pet microchips to determine 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 previous historic objects coming 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 may course of 15 eagles every, harvesting tail plumage, talons, beaks, and particular person feathers to be used in ritual. The repository has developed significantly over the past 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 purpose 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 at hand over eagles discovered lifeless of their jurisdictions, and state wildlife and raptor rehab representatives who ship them in voluntarily.
Processing an eagle on this context is each strenuous and time consuming, which implies that with some 3,200 lifeless eagles coming into the repository per 12 months—double bagged, frozen, shipped to the ability in a single day in a cooler—there’s nearly at all times a backlog. When Mallory begins analyzing an eagle, she first scrutinizes the wing bones, on the lookout for fractures. Subsequent, she examines the animal’s ft, checking that the talons have retained their sharpness and the scales aren’t too worn. She pays particular consideration to the top, as a result of it’s usually the primary half to decompose, and makes positive the beak isn’t cracked. She feels beneath the thick torso feathers for the fowl’s flight muscular tissues, which is able to inform her how wholesome it was in life. And lastly, she checks for proof of electrocution or doubtlessly harmful viruses, which might trigger injury or put folks 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 knowledge about how and the place it died. (“Typically we’ll get in a well-known fowl, 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 remainder are put right into a pile for cremation.
Plumage from juvenile eagles is in particularly excessive demand for powwow regalia, together with feathers with notably high-quality quill for ceremony. Any enrolled member of a federally acknowledged tribe can apply for elements by the repository, with ready intervals starting from as little as a couple of weeks for feathers from an grownup bald eagle to eight years for a complete juvenile golden eagle.
It’s not a straightforward 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 so much; their talons nonetheless scratch you,” she says. However even in circumstances the place eagle rehabbers are mourning birds they raised for 3 many years, she feels grateful to have the ability to remind them: “this fowl goes to dwell 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 inside 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 rules that restricted tribes from maintaining 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 objective 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 developments. 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 thought of receiving them that “you usually need to pause as a result of they’re weeping on the opposite finish of the telephone.”
Till just 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 ability’s mainstream waste. That disposal methodology 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 method. “It was a small change we might make,” Mallory says. Right this moment, she drives the eagle ashes a brief method outdoors the repository into the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Nationwide Wildlife Refuge, to a quiet stretch of restored prairie, and buries them.
Hatching a brand new technology
Regardless that Sia is at the moment 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 this planet. They begin the day with a prayer to welcome the dawn, a music that was “gifted” in a gesture of conventional honor to one of many beloved elder eagles, often known as Delight, some 40 years in the past.
Waha Thuweeka takes satisfaction in doing work “past simply doling out eagle feathers.” He attends tutorial conferences to maintain up on scientific literature. Eagle researchers sometimes go to Sia, together with one group that just lately got here to check a number of 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. Meaning, partially, offering eagles to be used in therapeutic and different ceremonies by the area 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 function in ceremony, with a cautious eye towards every part that caring for an eagle in captivity entails. Waha Thuweeka discovered 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 hardly ever 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 dad or mum, finally transitioning to enjoying the function of a bonded associate. (That enables him to let the eagles fly free, he says, with out maintaining them hungry to make sure they’ll come again for meals, as falconers generally do.)
Golden eagles which were imprinted to people “depend on us to do every part a wild mate would do,” he says. “Low-key speaking, singing, bringing nest materials.” Golden eagle music 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 associate.
After the dawn prayer, he and Kweeni Mahquetsoi Okweetuni go concerning the morning chores, refreshing water and beginning eaglet feedings. After many years within the discipline, Sia is within the strategy of hatching soon-to-be fourth-generation golden eagle offspring. These are the progeny of birds that “supplied feathers and power 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 objective 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 previous, 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 crucial 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 Could, the yearly molt is effectively underway. One latest day, the eagles had misplaced greater than 20 feathers in a single day. He collected all of them, rapidly and thoroughly, to be saved and sorted at a later date, then despatched out to make their method into rituals throughout the nation.
“Every time a feather is collected, it’s carried out 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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