Eagle rights for Native Americans?

Hunkpapa_Lakota_Headdress-2005.03.27-04.34.04Here is another look into the church-state future, another case of a classic liberal value from the past clashing with a powerful liberal value from the modern world. No, this is not another collision between religious liberty and the sexual revolution. In this case, Los Angeles Times reporter DeeDee Correll has offered a complex look at another painful issue -- a religious liberty clash between the ancient beliefs of Native Americans and new laws efforts linked to conservation and even animal rights.

The creature at the heart of this story could not possibly be more symbolic. Here's the top of the report from Commerce City, Colo.

On Wyoming's Wind River Indian Reservation, Winslow Friday is preparing to surrender in his long fight with the federal government.

The seeds of the conflict were planted four years ago when Friday shot a bald eagle out of a tree. His cousin needed a tail fan for an upcoming Sun Dance, the Northern Arapaho tribe's most important religious ceremony, and Friday wanted to help.

So when Friday spotted the bird, he seized his chance. Charged with killing a bald eagle in violation of federal law, Friday had argued that the law hinders the practice of his religion -- a battle closely watched on the reservation.

"Some agreed with what he did, some didn't," said tribal spokesman Donovan Antelope. "But they all agree with the reason he did it -- for the Sun Dance. We know he wasn't doing it just to kill an eagle."

Yes, government leaders know that the Native Americans have an historic and, yes, doctrinal reason for needing these feathers. Seen from this perspective, this case is a matter of doctrine. The clergy of this religion have rites to perform, in keeping with traditions that are much, much older than the conservation laws.

In a way, this case raises issues similar to those that plagued courts trying to decide if religious believers have a right to use marijuana in rites that are older than the laws making use of the drug illegal.

Aren't there other ways to obtain the feathers? Yes, the story covers that:

"You have a precious commodity. It's precious to Native Americans, but it's also precious to the American people. How do you balance that? We're trying our best," said Bernadette Atencio, who supervises the National Eagle Repository in Commerce City, Colo., which collects dead eagles and provides them to Indians for religious use.

Once endangered, the bald eagle has rebounded in recent decades but remains under the protection of the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The law provides an exception for Native Americans who want eagles for ceremonies: They can acquire birds from the repository or may apply for a permit to "take," or kill, an eagle.

But many tribes eschew both options, saying the former can take years and yield unsuitable specimens.

There is content in those simple words "unsuitable specimens."

What if the rites themselves involve the hunting and killing of an eagle? That was not the case in this instance, but a court may face that variation on this theme. In other words, feathers harvested from an elderly, dead, even damaged eagle may not fit the precise details of the rite (which may require and unblemished specimen).

Who decides whether the tribal leaders have to change the fine details of their beliefs and worship services? The government? Since when? Can the government demand doctrinal changes in other ancient faiths? Are some faiths bad, while others are good? Who decides (when a case does not involve profit, fraud or clear threat to human life)?

From the viewpoint of the tribes, here is the bottom line:

"People are fed with up with the federal government telling them: 'This is what you have to do for your religion. This is how we feel you should do it.' "

This is a fine story, so please read it all. The key religious-liberty issue is placed right at the heart of the report, where it belongs: Does the government get to define which religious beliefs are acceptable and which ones are not?

Photo: Lakota eagle-feather headdress, North Dakota, late 19th Century. From the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.

Please respect our Commenting Policy