In the free-roaming days on the Western Plains, only certain tribal members were given the right to trap eagles.
They dug pits in the flight path of eagles and lay down inside, covering the opening with a lattice of sticks and leaves. Fresh meat baited the trap. It always faced west because eagles came down on the west wind, according to Hidatsa legend. The Hidatsa, who now live in North Dakota, are close kin to the Crow and were as one with them hundreds of years ago.
While the eagle focused on the meat, a skilled eagle hunter lying in the loosely covered pit would grab the bird’s feet and tie them together. The wings were tied as well. The hunter would carry the eagle back to camp. If only one or two eagles were caught, the Hidatsa plucked the tail feathers and released their captives. If there were more, some might be killed.
It was not a disrespectful, wanton act. Eagles, spirit messengers and spirit helpers to those who had been visited by the bird during vision quests, were held in high regard by Plains Indians.
That’s not the way eagles have been treated by poachers preying on the population in Montana and other states. In a recent case on the Crow Reservation now making its way through the courts, six tribal members were charged with and pleaded guilty to various violations related to illegally trafficking in eagles and eagle parts.
At least 10 whole bald and golden eagles were listed in the indictments along with feathers, wings, tails and bones of many more.
Court documents said Ernie L. Stewart, 33, of Wyola, told a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service informant that he baited eagles with deer ribs and would sneak up on the feasting birds and shoot them. The document said he also disclosed to the informant that he sold eagles with a partner in Arizona and could get $2,500 to $3,500 per bird.
FWS and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Billings declined to provide even general information on how big a problem eagle trafficking is in Montana and the region.
The Crow Tribe’s Fish and Game Code has protections for eagles that mirror federal statutes, said Burton Pretty On Top, Crow cultural director. The traditional Crow spiritual leader knows firsthand how long it can take to get the eagle parts needed but said he recognizes that the eagle population needs to be protected and honored.
“You follow the law; you respect the eagle,” he said. “You don’t sell eagles for profit. I don’t know what their (the Crow eagle defendants’) purpose is. I don’t condone their action.”
Pretty On Top said that on one of his 12 vision quests, he went to the Crazy Mountains and fasted for four days and nights.
“One time an eagle came to me and spoke to me and I was adopted by him,” he said. “I was up in the air flying with eagles.”
He uses eagles for peyote ceremonies at the Native American Church and for naming ceremonies. He has been asked 33 times to preside at naming ceremonies, where Crow names are given to young people.
“I ask God for a special blessing for those people who I give names for,” he said. “I firmly believe that the eagle is my sacred helper.”
He has waited years for eagles from FWS National Repository in Denver. He has received two and is waiting for a third.
“Anyone can do as I have done. Eventually, when your time is right, you will get an eagle,” he said.
Conrad Fisher, historic preservation officer for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, said people do get frustrated when they can’t have ready access to eagle feathers that have been an important part of spiritual life going back thousands of years. It’s not just the Cheyenne, he said. More consultation with FWS is essential to help protect Native Americans’ spiritual needs, he said.
“The tribes are realizing they need to play a role in how feathers should be distributed,” he said. “We’ve got to have something in place — otherwise there’s a lot of trafficking going on.”
Jerome Whitehip, who works with the Crow Cultural Department, said, “Some members of the tribe made a mistake killing eagles and selling feathers, which is not right. At the Cultural Department we try to educate people not to do that.”
Many of the eagle fans and feathers used now in traditional ceremonies have been handed down for generations, since long before eagles were protected by any law. Whitehip’s own war bonnet has served four generations of his family.
He resents any implication that eagle poaching is uniquely an Indian Country problem. Farmers and ranchers who poisoned and shot eagles to protect their livestock brought eagles to the brink of extinction, not tribal members taking a few for religious purposes, he said.
“We respect tribal law and federal law,” Whitehip said.
In times long past, hunters seldom killed eagles, he said.
“They’d take the feathers they needed and let them go,” he said. “Before Europeans came, we didn’t have any endangered species.”