Earth Notes - Zuni Eagle Sanctuary

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: Zuni Eagle Sanctuary

For countless generations, Native Americans have used eagle feathers in sacred ceremonies. Those of bald eagles, in particular, play a prominent role.

But federal law closely protects all eagles, and distribution and possession of their feathers is carefully controlled. Except for the Hopi, it is also illegal to take eaglets from nests in order to raise them for their feathers.

Until the late 1990s, the only place anyone could get eagle feathers legally was from the National Eagle Repository in Denver, which received carcasses of dead birds and made their feathers available to tribal members.

But that could take a long time. Frustrated by long delays, New Mexico's Zuni tribe decided to create a permanent home for eagles that previously would have been euthanized. These birds, injured permanently by power lines or cars, live out their lives at the aviary, where their molting feathers are collected and used by tribes.

The aviary building is in harmony with its surroundings in the uplands of northwest New Mexico: it's built of local red sandstone and wood milled from locally cut pine trees. It's the first and only such refuge owned and operated by Native Americans, as well as the first built primarily for the purpose of cultural preservation.

Operated in cooperation with the New Mexico Department of Fish and Wildlife, the sanctuary has saved more than two dozen bald and golden eagles. And the hundreds of shed feathers that it has provided have helped keep ancient traditions alive.

-Richard Mahler