Malcolm Bowekaty, governor of the Zuni Pueblo tribe
in western New Mexico, is proud of the latest addition to the
All earth tones and pueblo-style architecture, the new building
blends well against a backdrop of sharp-edged mesas. Vertical rows
of neatly ordered pine slats separated by 2-inch gaps form the walls
and give the structure an airiness that is important to its 11
occupants: golden and bald eagles.
"Not only do we revere wildlife," Bowekaty said, "many species
... are sacred and some are considered to be incarnations of our
ancestors. One of these is the eagle, and many aspects of our
religion call for the use of eagle feathers."
Since Congress enacted the Bald and
Golden Eagle Protection Act in 1962, tribes must apply for
permits and make official requests from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service's National Eagle Repository near Denver, Colorado. The
facility stores birds specifically for the purpose of distributing
carcasses or feathers to tribes.
"While this system has its benefits, it often takes more than
three years to receive an eagle carcass," said Steve Albert, then director of the
Zuni Fish and Wildlife Department. "This is an unacceptably long
delay when a tribal religious leader needs feathers for an upcoming
The Zuni aviary houses eagles so that tribal members can use the
feathers in religious ceremonies. The tribe does not kill birds or
keep carcasses in the facility.
Largest of the 19 New Mexico Indian pueblos, Zuni is home to one
of the most traditional tribes in North America. Devotion to
tradition is the reason for the many requests for feathers. For the
past few years, according to Albert, up to 40 percent of all
requests to the National Eagle Repository from the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service's Southwest region were from members of the Zuni
The Zuni Pueblo aviary houses
non-releasable birds. Birds with broken bones, a missing wing,
no vision or other permanent injuries are considered
years ago, the tribe initiated discussions with the Fish and
Wildlife Service about how to alleviate the waiting period.
"One of the alternatives," Albert said, "was to build our own
eagle aviary, with the hope that there would be a supply of
non-releasable birds to place in it."
Birds with broken bones, a missing wing, no vision or other
permanent injuries are considered non-releasable. Eagle
rehabilitators — certified veterinarians trained to rehabilitate
eagles and other raptors — usually determine whether a bird has
regained the ability to survive in the wild.
"Any tribe can have eagle aviaries with the proper permits," said
John Antonio, the service's Native American liaison for the
Southwest region. "But to fulfill the various technical
requirements, it takes some innovation and a great deal of
After the Zuni Pueblo council determined the technical
requirements of operating an eagle facility, tribal members began
construction of the aviary, using private funding and donations of
time and materials from the Zuni community. Noted Albuquerque
architects Claude Armstrong and Donna Cohen volunteered their
expertise in designing the building, which strongly reflects its
natural surroundings. The structure was completed in March 1999.
The facade of the new aviary is made of
The main flight
area is 100 feet long by 25 feet wide and 18 feet high, with four
smaller enclosed areas for flightless birds. The floor is
river-washed pea gravel, and the facade is made from locally
The wood comes from sustainably harvested trees milled at the
Zuni community sawmill. The front of the building intentionally
faces Dowa Yallane, a sacred mesa to the Pueblo tribe.
After requesting and receiving permits from them U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service to keep eagles, the tribe received two
non-releasable mature bald eagles from rehabilitators in New Mexico
Other eagles have come from various rehabilitation centers. The
aviary houses 11 birds, most of which are golden eagles. The tribe
is currently discussing the possibility of initiating a captive
breeding program, not only to satisfy religious purposes but also to
assist in golden eagle restoration efforts in the Southwest.
Reprinted with permission of Ben Ikenson,