Case Pits Bald Eagle Against Sacred Rites

January 29, 2007

Author: Howard Witt

Source: Chicago Tribune,1,4018336.story?coll=chi-news-hed&ctrack=1&cset=true

ETHETE, Wyo. -- Winslow Friday needed a bald eagle. A sacred Northern Arapaho Indian religious ceremony was approaching, and Friday needed an eagle's wing, plume and feathers to perform his part of an ancient ritual Sun Dance so that his prayers would be carried up to God.

So Friday went out with his rifle one day in March 2005 and shot one of the rare birds as it soared above the sprawling Wind River Indian Reservation in western Wyoming. In killing the eagle, Friday believed, he was answering a higher calling and fulfilling a solemn religious duty.

But he also was breaking the law--a strict federal statute intended to safeguard the nation's symbolic bird that bars anyone from even touching a bald eagle feather without explicit government permission. Friday's own uncle, a wildlife officer on the reservation, reported the shooting to federal officials, and Friday soon was arrested and charged with violating the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, a crime punishable by up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.

Now, as Friday's case makes its way through the courts--possibly on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court--it has become a closely watched test of the federal government's ability to balance two sharply conflicting obligations: the congressional mandate to protect a fragile national symbol, and the constitutional requirement to protect a fragile Native American way of life.

"You can practice religion the way you want anywhere else in the United States, and that was what I was trying to do, but I got in trouble for it," said Friday, 22, an oil-field worker. "I know I broke the law and all, but I had no choice. If we don't have an eagle for the Sun Dance, we have to get one somehow."