-- Every religion has its icon. They are well-known symbols, easy to reproduce and distribute.
For many American Indians, the eagle is the most sacred religious icon. The awesome predatory birds are believed to have a special connection with God. They represent truth, honesty, majesty, courage and wisdom.
The feathers, heads and talons of bald and golden eagles are prized among almost all North American tribes and are used in religious ceremonies.
But, unlike crosses or images of the Virgin Mary, genuine eagle parts are not easy to come by. The big birds are federally protected; they cannot be legally hunted.
The only way Indians can legally obtain eagles is through the National Eagle Repository, a federally run program in the Denver area.
The repository collects eagles found dead in the wild from as far away as Alaska, cleans them up and distributes them to Indians throughout the nation.
"The primary parts are the wings and the tails," said Bernadette Atencio, who heads the repository. "They are the parts that are used the most in regalia and creating religious artifacts. The head and claws would be next."
The repository is a small operation with five employees in a warehouse on the former Rocky Mountain Arsenal, which is now a wildlife sanctuary. U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents find dead birds in the wild, put them on ice and ship them to the center. The repository keeps the birds in freezers and salvages all usable parts.
"Every tribe is different," Atencio said. "They all have different uses for different parts, and we cater to all of them."
Indians apply for the eagle parts -- the service is provided at no cost to the tribes -- and the repository workers ship 25 to 35 orders each week.
The repository receives more than 3,000 requests for eagles each year but takes in only about 1,600. The wait for an eagle is usually three years.
Marjorie Waheneka of Pendleton, Ore., applied for an eagle in 1993. She received her eagle -- a young bald eagle -- last month. Waheneka, with roots in the Palouse and Umatilla tribes, says it was worth the unusual 12-year wait. She put her eagle in the freezer and plans to use it for several purposes.
"Sometimes we need feathers when there is a death or when there is a marriage," she said. "They are to be given for education accomplishments or for services. Also, I have two granddaughters, and I am happy to have plumes and feathers they can use when they are dancing at celebrations."
For those who just need only feathers, the wait can be just a few months.
"We have lots of options for other parts if we don't get a whole bird," Atencio said. "There are a lot of people waiting."
The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.).