TURTLE LAKE, Minn. — After a young bald eagle died last week after befriending the residents of Turtle Lake, Minn., the Department of Natural Resources picked up the body.
But the story doesn’t end there.
The bird was sent to the National Eagle Repository, a one-of-a-kind facility operated and managed by the Office of Law Enforcement, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and located at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Denver.
For hundreds of years, natives have used eagle feathers for religious and cultural purposes.
But by federal law, it’s illegal to possess, use or sell eagle feathers—a policy that is meant to deter hunters from poaching wild eagles for their feathers or body parts. A violation can result in a fine of up to $200,000, one year of imprisonment, or both.
However, the law, which is part of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the 100-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act, stipulates that natives can obtain a permit under the Federally Recognized Tribal List Act of 1994 to gain access to golden eagles and bald eagles.
The majestic birds have long held a significant role among Native Americans, who use the feathers in religious and cultural ceremonies.
To the Ojibwe people, all feathers from all birds hold significance.
A feather is considered an honorable gift from the Creator, which may be received ceremonially, found, or passed down.
Once a feather is received it is the responsibility of the carrier to carry that feather with respect by walking in the ways of the seven teachings to the best of his or her ability.
The eagle feather is the most sacred of feathers, according to Anishnaabeg Bimaadiziwin: An Ojibwe Peoples Resource.
In recognition of the significance of these feathers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Repository in the early 1970s.
It provides a central location to receive, store and distribute bald and golden eagles found dead and their parts throughout the United States.
Whether they were hit by cars, flew into power lines, were chopped by wind turbines or died for unknown reasons, like the young eagle on Turtle Lake, the eagles are frozen and shipped overnight to the Repository, where they are sorted and then shipped to qualifying people for use in Indian religious ceremonies.
Through the Repository, it’s possible for natives to order up to one whole Golden or Bald eagle or equivalent parts.
Other orders can be for loose feathers; a pair of wings; a whole tail; or a head, pair of talons, or trunk.
If a whole bird isn’t needed, a “loose feather” request can be made for either 10 high-quality loose feathers or 20 lower quality miscellaneous feathers.
The hand-picked, high-quality order consists of eight wing feathers and two tail feathers.
Wing feathers are selected half from the left wing and half from the right wing, unless specified all from one side.
Workers at the Repository, whose job is a cross between a mortician and a medical examiner, try their best to match up the best quality feathers available.
The lower-quality order consists of assorted feathers such as primaries, secondaries, tail, and
To make a request, the enrolled tribal member must be at least 18 years old, and the requests are filled on a first-come, first-served basis.
Since the number of requests far exceeds the number of eagles available, there are often long wait for orders to be filled – up to two years for an adult bald eagle or an adult golden eagle, and five years for an immature golden eagle, which has tail feathers that are white with dark tips.
The wait is 3 months to a year for a group of either 10 or 20 assorted feathers.
And it’s not just individuals that can make the request. Schools can also request eagle feathers to present at graduation to native students.
The young Turtle Lake eagle that died last month, was “very thin,” but no cause of death was determined, said Detroit Lakes DNR Area Wildlife Manager Rob Baden.
He said the DNR and other state agencies make a concerted effort to make sure eagle bodies are shipped to the National Eagle Repository.