Dennis Wiist stands hunched over a bald eagle, its majestic wings spread out across a stainless-steel table. Wearing white disposable coveralls, blue latex gloves and a facemask, the wildlife specialist examines the bird’s wingspan, running his fingers between each wing feather to count them. Turning the bird face up, he notices a trickle of blood coming from one of its nostrils. “It looks like this one may have flown into something,” he says.
Wiist jots down a couple of notes before checking the bird’s talons and tail feathers for wounds or fractures. All told, the examination takes about 15 minutes. Afterwards, he gingerly places the carcass in a plastic bag and sets it inside a walk-in freezer, where it will be boxed and shipped off from the National Eagle Repository, the only facility of its kind in the United States.
Wiist’s job is a cross between a mortician and a medical examiner. “I get to observe eagles in a way that very few people ever get to do,” he says. But unlike morticians, who prepare corpses for wakes and burials, Wiist is readying the eagles for another purpose: to be used by Native Americans for religious and cultural purposes.
The National Eagle Repository, which is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is meant to “provide a central location for the receipt, storage and distribution of bald and golden eagles found dead and their parts throughout the United States,” according to its website.
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 Native Americans who are members of federally recognized tribes can obtain a permit under the Federally Recognized Tribal List Act of 1994 to gain access to golden eagles and bald eagles. The majestic avians have long held a significant role among Native Americans, who use the feathers in religious and cultural ceremonies.
In the 1970s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the repository “in recognition of the significance of these feathers to Native Americans.” In 1994, after meeting with 300 tribal leaders, President Bill Clinton signed an executive memorandum that required all federal agencies send deceased eagles to the repository. The following year, it was moved from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensic Laboratory in Oregon to its current home within the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, a suburb of Denver.
Wiist has been examining deceased eagles for the past 21 years. After he examines them, he prepares them to be boxed and shipped across the country to tribal members who will then use the feathers and other parts to create intricate headdresses, dance shawls and other pieces for religious and cultural ceremonies. Every year, each tribal member over the age of 18 can apply to receive up to one whole golden or bald eagle, or various pieces that are equivalent to what one single eagle would contain, such as a pair of wings, a tail, a pair of talons, a head or a trunk.
“Occasionally, there is an applicant who is especially grateful, and seems quite sincere about what they are doing,” Wiist says. “It really touches some people’s hearts.”
Geoffrey M. Standing Bear, principal chief of the Osage Nation, first learned about the repository when he was in his 20s. Using eagle parts in ceremonies is a long held tradition among his people. Not only are the feathers worn during ceremonies, but they’re also used on a daily basis to bless oneself or others. “My elders once told me to look at [an eagle’s wing] like the Catholics do a crucifix,” he says. “I bless myself every morning and say a prayer with it.”
Back then, Standing Bear found himself short on feathers to pass down to his younger relatives. So he connected with tribal artisans, who pointed him toward the repository.
According to Standing Bear, Native Americans believe that the eagle is closer to God than humans are. “The eagle flies above us and has been here longer than we have and knows God better than we do,” he says. “It has holy powers that we can draw from by respectful use of its feathers [and other body parts]. We show our respect and distill blessings to another person by taking the feathers and touching them on the head and on the heart and on the hands to bless their minds, their emotions and their experiences in life.”
Tink Tinker, also a member of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma, agrees. “The eagle is one of our closest relatives,” he says. “We believe that all of our relatives have distinct energy or power attached to them, and we use the eagle for its powers to help with healing and to give people strength, courage, wisdom and generosity. We use [the feathers] ceremonially to bring the intrinsic energy of the eagle into the ceremony. They’re not just symbols, they have actual power that relates closely to the Indian people.”
Tinker, who is a professor of American Indian cultures and religious traditions at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, says that he and his relatives have been sending applications through the repository for decades. He received his last shipment of feathers on behalf of his tribe about a year ago, which he divided among several relatives.
Tinker says that he has known about the repository since he was a child, and that its existence is passed on by word of mouth. But the number of requests has increased dramatically since Tinker was young. For example, ten years ago, in 1996, the repository received around 1,300 eagles and fulfilled approximately 2,400 orders. In 2015, the repository received around 3,500 eagles with a fulfillment rate of approximately 4,500 orders, according to Schaefer. Given that kind of demand, it’s not uncommon for applicants to wait up to two years for their requests to be fulfilled.
“I’m very liberal in [approving the applications] because I want all of our people to practice our traditional culture and religion, and eagles are critical to those practices,” says Standing Bear, who is responsible for approving all applications from his tribe before they’re sent to the repository. “Feathers are handed down from generation to generation, but as families grow, there’s a shortage.” When asked about the delay, he adds: “It is what it is. We’re just grateful to get what we can.”
There are only a handful of full-time employees at the repository, and Wiist is often the only one processing the eagles. It’s not uncommon for him to have about a half-dozen carcasses resting on shelves inside the laboratory awaiting examination. “The better the condition the birds come in, the faster the processing is,” he says. “Some of them arrive in pretty bad shape.”
Over the years, he’s seen eagles die due to numerous causes, including crashing into telephone poles, hit by cars, lead poisoning and being caught in hunting traps. It’s the responsibility of local state wildlife agencies and special agents working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to alert the repository of the death and include coordinates of where the bodies were found.