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The Eagles Have Landed
Native Americans in Oklahoma are following a calling to protect the nation’s most majestic and emblematic birds.
By Megan Rossman
Published July/August 2013
Gods and eagles share a bond as old as faith itself. The Bible makes countless references to eagles; they’re among the various airborne beings that warn of impending doom in the Book of Revelation. The Aztec god Huitzilopochtli disguised himself as an eagle, Zeus took the form of an eagle to abduct Ganymede from Troy, and the Moche culture in Peru worshiped the bird more than a thousand years ago.
But it doesn’t take divine inspiration to see why these raptors have long been revered for their otherworldly elegance, strength, speed, and far-reaching vision. It’s a widespread belief in Native American cultures that the eagle is the only being that flies high enough and far enough to confer with the Creator, so people on Earth send their prayers soaring with it into the ethereal yonder.
In this age of sky-scraping infrastructure and millions of automobiles, eagles may themselves seem in need of prayer and protection. Fortunately, there are individuals and institutions heeding the call.
Last year, 106 birds of prey, eagles included, came through Gary Siftar’s Broken Arrow home. In 2011, it was 87. Though it’s too early to estimate this year’s total, the only certainty is that Siftar and his wife Kathryn will do what they can to nurture each one to full health.
Gunshot wounds, downed nests, and car strikes are some of the most common perils that bring birds of prey to the couple. In the spring, Kathryn sometimes spends sixteen hours a day caring for them while Gary, an electrical engineer, is at work. Once he comes home, he’s at it, too. An enrolled Cherokee and a licensed bird rehabilitator, Siftar has spent tens of thousands of dollars of his own money and many more hours caring for raptors over the past two decades.
“It’s a serious commitment,” Siftar says. “We do it because we think somebody has to.”
Megan Trope, top left, and Victor Roubidoux, bottom right, work with Dr. Paul Welch, a veterinarian at Forest Trails Animal Hospital in Tulsa. Gary Siftar, left, who has become a central figure in Oklahoma’s Native American raptor rehab scene, introduced members of the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma to Welch’s practice, where eagles receive free veterinary care.
Photo by SHANE BEVEL
Very few individuals in the state are licensed to rehabilitate eagles, which were removed from the federal threatened and endangered species list in 2007 but remain under the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, amended in 1962 to include golden eagles. It’s a job that requires extensive training, generous cash flow, and permits.
Federal and state agencies like the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation are regulators, not rehabilitators. That leaves injured eagles at the mercy of nature and concerned citizens. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service rehabilitation permit stipulates that any nonreleasable eagle must be euthanized or transferred to a facility authorized to care for it.
That’s where Oklahoma’s Indian tribes and nations come in. Three of the five Native American bird sanctuaries in the United States are located in Oklahoma: Sia: The Comanche Nation Ethno-Ornithological Initiative in Cyril; the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Eagle Aviary in Shawnee; and the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma’s Grey Snow Eagle House (Bah Kho-je Xla Chi) in Perkins.
The common denominator among them is the Live Eagle Possession for Indian Religious Purposes permit issued by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which acknowledges the bird’s sacred status among Native Americans. This agreement allows federally recognized tribes to house eagles and other bird species that are nonreleasable due to injuries for the duration of their lives.
“It’s great taking care of the eagles,” says Victor Roubidoux, aviary manager at Grey Snow Eagle House in Perkins. “It’s an honor.” The Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma’s newest wildlife program has seen 9,000 visitors since it opened in 2006.
Photo by SHANE BEVEL
One important factor in Oklahoma’s Native American bird programs is the feather. An eagle possesses roughly 7,000 of them, which it molts March through September. The vast majority are small, wispy bits of down, and while even the smallest are collected and used, it’s the large tail and wing feathers that are especially prized.
The feathers of birds, particularly eagles and hawks, have long played an important role in traditional Native American ceremonies and healing. Prayers, dances, acts of valor, and major events like graduations and deaths involve the use or bestowing of plumes, but in the decades since eagles became protected species, feathers have become increasingly difficult to obtain legally.
The National Eagle Repository in Denver, founded in the 1970s and managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, provides feathers to Native Americans for religious purposes, but supply is limited, and demand is great. Wait times can stretch into years. Now, thanks to the religious-use permit, the three facilities in Oklahoma can dispense naturally molted eagle feathers to enrolled members of any federally recognized tribe—and in a timelier manner than the Denver office.
While the Oklahoma programs operate under many of the same permits, all three organizations are independent of one another, each distinguished by its own culture and philosophy.
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All of the following facilities are open by appointment only; call ahead to arrange a visit. Sia: The Comanche Nation Ethno-Ornithological Initiative is located at 106 Looking Glass Way in Cyril, (580) 464-2750 or comancheeagle.org. The Citizen Potawatomi Nation Eagle Aviary is located at 41960 Hardesty Road in Shawnee, (405) 275-3121 or (405) 863-5623 or potawatomi.org/culture/eagle-aviary. Grey Snow Eagle House is located at 335588 E750 Road, about 2.5 miles south of Perkins along U.S. 177. (405) 334-7471 or iowanation.org.