Pueblo's Rules Take a Back Seat in Bald Eagle Case

Carol Berry
May 23, 2013


Martin Aguilar, of Kewa Pueblo, New Mexico, found himself in federal appeals court in Denver May 17 trying unsuccessfully to describe an alleged misunderstanding over the killing of a bald eagle in 2010 and shortcomings he said exist in federal laws governing eagle protection and their ceremonial use by tribes.

Aguilar, identified as a medicine man in lower court records, contended before the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals that he thought federal agents were acting under authority of Kewa Pueblo’s governor when they interviewed him about the eagle he shot and said that he was required to defer to his governor’s authority by talking to them openly.

He was subsequently indicted for violating the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and in 2012 unsuccessfully challenged two adverse rulings of the U.S. District Court in New Mexico that he then appealed to the Tenth Circuit: orders denying his motions to suppress warrantless evidence obtained by the federal agents and to dismiss the indictment based on his belief the Eagle Act violated his religious practice under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

Aguilar shot the eagle near the Rio Grande River on his reservation for religious purposes, but two days later the pueblo’s governor told him to stop shooting eagles. The governor’s edict, coupled with the appearance in Kewa’s main village of two unescorted federal agents, led Aguilar to believe the governor sanctioned the agents’ investigation (Aguilar noted that under Kewa law, non-members must be escorted in the village by a tribal officer).

As a result of his belief the visit was sanctioned, Aguilar later discussed the shooting with the special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and gave them permission to see the eagle feathers at his home, where tribal officers who were also present told the agents they should report immediately to the pueblo’s governor. Before the agents left they seized a .22 magnum rifle, eagle feathers, and a pair of mounted eagle wings, according to the federal appeals court.

The Tenth Circuit upheld the lower court in stating that Aguilar failed to undermine District Court findings about the federal agents’ procedures and he also failed to show that present federal practices violated his rights under RFRA. The delisting in 2007 of the bald eagle from the USFWS’ threatened and endangered species list was not relevant, the court found in United States of America v. Martin Aguilar.

The Eagle Act and other wildlife protective laws, as well as RFRA, are to balance compelling and sometimes competing government interests of protecting eagles and fostering the culture and religion of federally recognized Indian tribes, the courts have said.




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