By Charly Edsitty
Four Golden Eagles sit perched on branches inside a cage at the Navajo Nation Zoo, patiently waiting for a new 80 by 30 foot aviary.
It will house up 30 rescued eagles and hopefully be the answer to a persistent poaching problem on the reservation.
"We were successful in prosecuting several individuals for the past several years in federal and district court for the illegal marketing of eagle feathers on our reservation," Gloria Tom said, director of the Navajo Nation Zoo in Window Rock, Arizona.
The eagles call the zoo home because they are believed to be targets of poaching. All have had a portion of their wings amputated, some due to gunshot wounds, and are unable to fly. The birds are viewed as sacred animals by the Navajo people and their feathers are in high demand because they're used in cultural practices.
"We use them in our prayers, our ceremonies in our traditional ways of life," Tom said.
Only Native Americans are legally permitted to possess eagle feathers, which are protected under federal and tribal laws. But Native Americans must adhere to strict guidelines in order to obtain them, which entails submitting an application for approval through an eagle feather repository.
There is only one federal repository located in Colorado and a few others run by other tribes that only permit tribal members to apply.
"The time that you submit and process your application to the time you actually receive feathers is probably a good 3 to 5 years," Tom said.
The high demand and long waits coupled with the poaching problem on the Navajo Nation prompted the zoo to begin their own program for tribal members in August of 2012. They're the only zoo in the nation with this program.
"It basically allows one Navajo tribal member to receive up to two feathers per year," Tom said.
The wait for feathers provided by the zoo can be as little as 30 days. Navajo people are asked to provide a driver's license, certificate of Indian blood and also submit an application for approval. Once approved, there is a $20 processing fee.
The tail feathers are the most requested feather to be used in ceremonial fans. Those fans, when sold illegally, can cost up to one thousand dollars. Both federal and tribal laws prohibit the buying, selling and trading of eagle feathers.
Construction on the zoo's new aviary is expected to begin in a few weeks and will be completed by the end of the year. About $800,000 in grant money will fund the project, that is aimed at not only preserving cultural practices, but protecting eagles inhabiting the tribal land.
"People really see this facility as a major major steppingstone for our people," Tom said. "To take charge of our cultural and traditional needs when it comes to our natural resources."