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As legal battle continues, federal agency says tribe can use eagles

Mar 14, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued the Northern Arapaho Tribe a permit to take two eagles for religious ceremonies as litigation continued over the agency's failure to issue authorization.

Documents filed in the case launched by Northern Arapaho lawyers in U.S. District Court for Wyoming disclosed the agency's action, which some called a rare occurrence.

Steve Moore, a lawyer with the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colo., told The Associated Press the move represents "a legitimate expression of sovereignty by the tribe and respect for that sovereignty by the Fish and Wildlife Service."

The move arrived months after the tribe filed the suit Nov. 7 against the agency and others over their failure to issue an eagle-taking permit allegedly in violation of First Amendment religious freedoms as well as federal trust responsibility.

"Defendants have failed or refused to issue a federal permit to allow the taking of an eagle by members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe for traditional Native American religious purposes," according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims its intent is to protect the "traditional religious rights" of the tribe and its members.

"The denial unreasonably burdens the religious rights of tribal members, unlawfully interferes with the authority of the Tribe to protect and facilitate the taking of an eagle under the laws and customs of the Tribe, abuses and exceeds Defendants' lawful authority, and is arbitrary and capricious," according to the lawsuit.

The authorization issued by the agency names the permittee as the Northern Arapaho Tribe with its principal officer as Business Council chairman Jim Shakespeare.

It lists the type of permit as "eagle take for Indian religious purposes" and allows tribal members designated by the principal officer to take, including capture and release, without eggs or nestlings.

The eagle-take permit allows the designated activity to happen off the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Many American Indian tribes, including the Northern Arapaho, use eagles as part of their religious ceremonies.

The Fish and Wildlife Service oversees the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act that authorizes tribes to obtain eagle parts for religious ceremonies through a permitting process.

American Indians also can use eagle parts obtained from the national eagle repository in Colorado.

Challenges associated with obtaining eagles for tribal religious purposes is nothing new for Northern Arapaho tribal members. Winslow Friday, of Ethete, faced federal prosecution for killing an eagle in 2005 that he later used in a Sundance ceremony.

After the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request to review an appeal of Friday's case, he pleaded guilty under an agreement in December 2009 that resulted in a $2,500 fine and a loss of hunting privileges for a year.

Attorneys for Friday had argued their client had the right to kill the protected bird for religious purposes, but the U.S. Attorney's Office contended he failed to abide by the proper channels for securing permission.

In 2008, convicted baby-killer Andrew Yellowbear Jr. successfully sued the Wyoming Department of Corrections over his failure to obtain eagle feathers for use in religious ceremonies in prison.

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