Eagles, Indian Tribes, and the Free Exercise of Religion
66 Pages Posted: 3 Jul 2012 Last revised: 22 Aug 2014
Date Written: May 22, 2014
The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act prohibits the taking or possession of eagles and eagle parts. Recognizing the centrality of eagles in many Native American religions, Congress carved out an exception to that prohibition for 'the religious purposes of Indian tribes.' The problems with the administration of that exception are reaching crisis proportions. At the Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Eagle Repository, which collects dead eagles from around the country and distributes them to members of federally recognized Indian tribes, more than 6,000 tribal members are on a waiting list for eagles. That list grows each year. Frustration with the current system is feeding a burgeoning black market that threatens the viability of eagle populations. Neither of the Eagle Act’s goals are being met: eagles are not adequately protected, and tribal religious needs are not satisfied.
Scholarship in this area has neither fully elucidated the cross-cutting tensions in the administration of the Eagle Act, nor prescribed a realistic solution. This article fills that gap. First, the article examines a series of tensions: between species preservation and religious freedom; between accommodating the religious needs of tribal members, but not others with the same religious needs; within the case law itself; and between the government’s effort to accommodate tribal religion and the deep dissatisfaction of the tribal community. This article then proposes a solution: changing the Fish and Wildlife Service’s administration of the exception from permitting individuals to permitting tribes and ultimately turning over much of the administration of the Indian tribes exception to the tribes acting collectively. The article explains how scholarship on indigenous cultural property, community property solutions to the tragedy of the commons, and tribal self-determination support this proposal. Finally, the article shows how this proposal will alleviate some of the tension in the administration of the Eagle Act’s Indian tribes exception.
Keywords: Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, Indian law, religion
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