DENVER (CN) – A member of the Northern Arapahos in Wyoming faces trial for shooting and killing a bald eagle as a sacrifice for the tribe’s Sun Dance religious ceremony. The 10th Circuit upheld the Bald and Golden Eagle Act, which makes it illegal to shoot eagles, as the “least restrictive means of pursuing the government’s compelling interest in preserving the bald eagle.”
The ruling reversed a federal judge’s decision for Winslow Friday, who argued that his “taking” is exempt from the act because the Sun Dance and its offerings are important religious rituals for Plains Indian tribes. Friday’s cousin, Nathaniel, was the sponsor for the 2005 ceremony, which meant his family was responsible for getting the materials for the ceremony – including an eagle. During the dance, the tribe offers up the tail fan of an eagle to the Creator by raising it on a pole.
The government charged Friday with violating federal law by shooting the eagle used in the Sun Dance.
Tribal hunting regulations forbid eagle killing and make no exception for the Sun Dance, but the written regulations were drawn up with the neighboring Shoshone tribe and may not reflect the tribe’s true practices. Eastern Shoshones and Northern Arapaho share the Wind River Reservation in western Wyoming.
Golden eagles are traditionally used in the ceremony, but a member of the Northern Arapaho Language and Culture Commission said the bald eagle, with its white feathers, may be used to symbolize old age. “When you’re an old man, that’s when you qualify to use the bald eagle,” William C’Hair said.
Friday did not have the permit needed to take an eagle for religious purposes, but his lawyers argued that he would not have been granted one had he applied.
The court rejected this claim, saying the government occasionally grants tribal permits. And while the circuit judges understood the district court’s frustration with the “biased and protracted nature” of the permit process, they said the law is not futile.
“We cannot deny the government its authority to enforce a congressionally enacted criminal statute based on no more evidence than this,” Judge McConnell wrote.