Cruel practice is remnant of crueler history
FLAGSTAFF, Arizona––As many as 40 newly hatched golden eagles and at least as many fledgling redtailed hawks may be stolen by Hopi warriors from nests within the Wupatki National Monument north of Flagstaff this spring, as in every spring of the 21st century, for eventual use in sacrifices originating out of some of the nastiest known history in North America.
The eagles are the sacred totems of the Navajo; redtails are the totems of the Apache.
For approximately 1,000 years the ancestors of the modern-day Navajo and Apache, invading the American Southwest from the north, treated the Pueblo civilization built by the Hopi and related tribes like a larder.
During droughts between roughly 1080 and 1580, archaeologists have learned, Navajo and Apache raiders often stole Pueblo corn, massacred Pueblo adults, and cannibalized the children.
Cannibalism faded out as the drought cycle eased, but that more-or-less coincided with the arrival of Spanish conquistadores, followed by ranchers and priests.
The Spanish subjugated what remained of the Pueblo civilization and converted the survivors—nominally––to Catholicism.
The Navajo and Apache meanwhile captured runaway Spanish horses, sometimes traded for stolen horses with the Hopi; stole horses themselves, both from the Spanish and each other; and relatively rapidly developed formidable cavalry cultures.
The Hopi mostly did not become a mounted people, tending to accept Spanish conquest and conversion to Catholicism in hopes of gaining military protection from the Navajo and Apache.
Sometimes that strategy succeeded. However, often unable to distinguish one tribe from another, Spanish garrisons at times retaliated for Apache mayhem inflicted on remote missions by killing any Hopi or Navajo people they found nearby, often at least as gruesomely as the Apache had killed Spanish victims.
Hopi drove out Spanish, asked U.S. government for help
The Spanish enslaved many Hopi and set them to work herding sheep; the Navajo mostly fled into rugged habitat where the Spanish had difficulty maintaining pursuit.
Hopi revolts between 1680 and 1700 drove the Spanish out, never to return.
The Navajo and Apache, meanwhile, had acquired sheep and goats much as they had acquired horses, through the combination of trading and theft, stealing most often from the Hopi.
Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, including nominal title to all of what is now the U.S. Southwest, but showed little interest in governing either Hopi, Navajo, or Apache-occupied territory.
When the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican War of 1846-1848, bringing the Southwest into the United States, the Hopi almost immediately appealed to the U.S. government for defense against the Navajo and the Apache.
Kit Carson killed sheep
Eventually, in 1861-1864, the U.S. Cavalry, under Lieutenant Colonel Kit Carson, destroyed the Navajo and Apache raiding culture, heightening the ancient enmities among the Hopi, Navajo, and Apache.
Carson ended the last Navajo resistance by poisoning and shooting all of the Navajo sheep his troops could find, also cutting and burning thousands of wild peach trees to starve the remnant Navajo into submission.
Forced marches of Navajo survivors to concentration camps followed.
After the U.S. Civil War ended, several years later, the Navajo were given new sheep, and were moved to the fringes of Hopi land in the dry and desolate Four Corners area, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet.
There––with Navajos surrounding the less numerous Hopi––the tribes have uneasily coexisted ever since.
Ritual defies Navajo & Hopi
Unable for most of a millennium to mount effective armed responses to Navajo and Apache raiders, retreating instead into their almost inaccessible cliff dwelling strongholds to avoid attack, the Hopi evolved a religious ritual which defied the Navajo and Apache by mocking their totems.
Each spring, Hopi men would scale the cliffs above their villages to raid the nests of golden eagles and redtail hawks, steal the hatchlings, leave gifts in their places, and bring the hatchlings home to raise as tethered captives.
In midsummer, just before the young birds became capable of flight, they were ceremonially smothered to death in corn meal, plucked, and buried. The feathers were used in connection with special prayers and to costume kachina dolls.
Simplest, most obvious explanation
Over time, the eaglet-and-hawk-killing ritual has been explained in various other ways, for instance as a substitute for child sacrifice.
A more popular explanation in recent years is that the eaglets and young redtails are “spoiled” as if they were privileged children, then dispatched to tell the gods of Hopi kindness and generosity.
Yet the simplest, most obvious explanation is simply that the ferocity of the Navajo and Apache totems is overcome by the corn meal, symbolic of Hopi agricultural productivity, which enabled the Hopi to survive the centuries of drought even as the Apache and Navajo resorted to cannibalism.
The Hopi have continued the eaglet and redtail-killing ritual despite sporadic efforts of missionaries and U.S. government agencies to repress it.
Navajo tried to stop Hopi eagle captures
Always practiced in secret from outsiders, the eaglet and redtail-killing eluded mention in any of the mainstream media accessible through NewspaperArchive.com for more than a century.
Indeed, the sacrifices seemed to be history from the 1962 passage of the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which also protected golden eagles, and was superseded by the Endangered Species Act, until 1994, after both bald eagles and golden eagles were downlisted from “endangered” to “threatened” status.
But few eagles’ nests remained on Hopi territory. When Hopi attacked eagles’ nests on Navajo land near Indian Wells, Arizona, in 1995, 1996, and 1999, Navajo police tried to protect the eaglets. Intertribal friction flared.
Then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt bought time by allowing the Hopi to capture eaglets on National Forest land––but the largest concentrations of eagles’ nests in the Four Corners area were within the Wupatki National Monument, near Flagstaff.
Religious freedom advocates
Removing eagles from “threatened” status coincidental with the sacrificial ceremonies in July 1999, Babbitt in November 1999 proposed allowing the Hopi to capture eaglets from the National Monument.
The Wupatki National Monument had been officially off limits to any hunting or trapping since 1924. The Babbitt proposal accordingly required a regulatory breach in the Organic Act of 1916, which created the National Park Service and has protected wildlife within National Parks and National Monuments ever since.
This was accomplished in 2001 despite vigorous opposition from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, humane organizations, and many Navajo leaders.
The amendment was favored by religious freedom advocates including Christian fundamentalists, 22 Indian tribes who also claim hunting, fishing, and trapping rights within National Parks; and sport hunters and trappers who saw the amendment as an opening to gaining access to National Park land.
Eagle feathers are ceremonially important to many tribes, including the Navajo. Most tribes obtain feathers from the National Eagle Repository near Denver, which collects and parcels out feathers from dead eagles found by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Applicants wait up to three years for coveted back and tail feathers.
The delay between requesting and receiving feathers, combined with growing interest both from Native Americans and others in traditional Native American religion and regalia, has created a substantial market for poached feathers. At least 31 illegal feather merchants were successfully prosecuted between 1994 and 2001.
But former President Bill Clinton on his last day in office, in January 1999, reversed one of the best-known convictions, pardoning Peggy A. Bargon of Monticello, Illinois, who was charged in 1995 after presenting a “dream-catcher” made from eagle, owl, and wild turkey feathers to then-First Lady Hilary Clinton.
Navajo Nation Tribal Eagle Aviary
The Navajo Zoo at Window Rock, founded in 1963 to house a bear who could not be returned to the wild, subsequently became a wildlife rehabilitation center as well as a zoo.
Accepting eagles and other birds donated by wildlife agencies, the Navajo Zoo enabled Navajo shamen to bypass the National Eagle Repository by giving them fallen feathers, via the Navajo Nation Tribal Eagle Aviary.
The Zuni tribe later opened a similar facility for non-releasable eagles and other birds at Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico.
The Zuni are the largest of the surviving Pueblo tribes. The Zuni of the Jemez and Acoma Pueblos sparked global protest led by United Poultry Concerns and Animal Protection of New Mexico in 1995, after the All Indian Pueblo Council and New Mexico Department of Tourism promoted their spring “rooster pulls” as a visitor attraction.
Introduced by the Spanish in the late 16th century, “rooster pulls” are a contest in which a rooster is buried to his neck, after which riders on horseback try to pluck him from the earth by the head.
Formerly practiced in other pueblos too, “rooster pulls” may continue in Jemez and Acoma as private events, but there seems to be no public record of any occurring since 1995.