"Even Where Eagles Fly," a Commentary by Martin E. Marty

January 1, 2007

Author: Martin E. Marty

Source: Sightings


Weary as we have a right to be after the wearying December Wars that pit one kind of Christian versus all kinds of everyone else, or after ringing the latest changes on Muslim-Christian and everyone-else issues, let's turn away and lift our eyes, which means to do our "sighting" high above such conflicts and issues. We can take a day, or a week, off and train our eyes on soaring eagles, thus escaping such mundane things as church-state rulings and contentions.

Fat chance. We can't evade such issues merely by scanning the horizons and clouds and cliffs where eagles fly and land. "Church and state" battles are not to be evaded or avoided. Here's an illustration, described by Wyoming author Brodie Farquhar in one of my favorites, High Country News. We are told of a Northern Arapaho named Winslow W. Friday, who violated the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act by shooting a bald eagle on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Don't think that aeries are far from the world of dockets and the long reach of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, followed by conflicting 9th and 10th Circuit Court rulings.

Stick to your subject, Sightings, the subject being religion. Well, we are sticking to it, the eagles being sacred and their feathers necessary for religious rituals of the Northern Arapaho, and protecting them being sacred to the Wildlife Protection people. A Hopi, Berra Neil Tawahongva, spiritual kin to Winslow Friday, last August killed a golden eagle but did not convince the 9th Circuit Court that needing to get a permit to kill the bird violated the "free exercise of religion" clause in his case. The judge: "It is clear to this Court that the Government has no intention of accommodating the religious beliefs of Native Americans except on the law's own terms and in its own good time."

Over against it, a 10th Circuit Court ruling wants to add emphasis to "the sanctity of the Sun Dance and the obligation of the Arapaho people to nurture our sacred ceremonies for generations." The Arapaho say they will not endanger the survival of the eagles, which "the Creator gave ... to the Arapaho. We want more eagles. We want them to flourish." Some picture that the conflict of court rulings will destine this to a Supreme Court future, while others think not. Some dream of compromise of the sort worked out by some tribes who are given some wounded eagles, and then breed them for feathers. The Arapaho say that feathers alone won't do; for some religious rites they need the whole bird.