Native Americans and Environmentalists Struggle Over Traditional Ceremony

November 19, 2000

Source: The New York Times

On November 19, 2000, The New York Times reported that "LONG after their military defeat in the 19th century, American Indian tribes remain a world apart. Considered separate governments, Indian reservations are exempt from most state laws, like taxes on cigarettes, and can allow gambling, even if the surrounding state bans it. Practitioners of one Indian religion can legally use peyote, a cactus containing an illegal hallucinogen. Indian burial sites are protected by a 1990 special act of Congress. Devils Tower National Monument, where 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' was filmed, is closed to climbers in June so some tribes can perform rites. But a different kind of separateness is being considered by the Department of Interior, one that is alarming some environmentalists. In a draft about to be circulated for public comment, the Interior Department has proposed a rule that would allow Hopi Indians, in preparation for a religious ceremony, to take golden eagle hatchlings from a federal wildlife sanctuary, where "hunting" is forbidden. But there's something else that's adding strength to opponents of the rule: the Hopi ceremony ends with the birds being killed. The Interior Department finds itself between a rock and a hard place. In addition to the protection of the First Amendment, most Indian religions are covered by treaties, some older than the Constitution. More recently, in the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, Congress directed federal agencies to 'protect and preserve' Indian religious cultural rights and practices wherever possible. To some legal scholars, protecting the eagle ceremony is consistent with federal policy, so long as the preservation of eagles is not jeopardized...But some environmentalists say the Hopi ruling, if made final, would lead to many more exemptions for what is, in effect, hunting, at scores of national parks, monuments and other preserves that extend from Alaska to Florida. At Olympic National Park in Washington, for example, seven tribes near the park have been seeking the right to hunt elk and other wildlife. Non-Indians may then argue that if Indians can get an exemption for hunting, why not other Americans?...The eagle-gathering is seen by few outsiders. In the spring, Hopi Indians scale steep cliffs in northeastern Arizona in search of golden eagle hatchlings. They take them back to the reservation and nurture them. In the Hopi religion the golden eagle is a messenger between the tribe and the gods. In the summer, when the golden eagles are mature, the birds are sacrificed to the gods by smothering them. While it is not an endangered species, the golden eagle is federally protected because when it is young it resembles the bald eagle, which is still on the endangered species list. The Hopis have a federal permit to gather up to 40 young eagles a year and usually take 15 or so...In May 1999 a band of Hopis arrived in Arizona's Wupatki National Monument and were told their federal permit to gather eaglets did not apply to the wildlife sanctuary. The Hopis protested that, like many national parks, the 56-square-mile Wupatki is made up of ancestral Indian lands. (Wupatki is Hopi for 'tall house.') For more than a year, the tribe petitioned the Interior Department to change its policy, which it appears to be doing. TO the Hopis, the initial federal resistance was only the latest obstacle to the ceremony. The Hopi reservation in Arizona sits inside the Navajo reservation, like West Berlin in the East Germany of the Cold War. Relations between the Hopis and Navajos, who also use eagles in ceremonies, are prickly...In the draft version of the eagle-gathering rule, the Interior Department concedes that its National Park Service may 'receive requests from other tribes for similar rule changes to address religious practices.'...The eagle issue may be settled elsewhere than at the Interior Department. "This is an important and complicated issue," said Mr. Simon, the official at the National Parks and Conservation Association. 'It belongs properly in the hands of Congress not the hands of bureaucrats in the eleventh hour of an administration.'"