After their mother passed away in 2007, grief overtook Jennifer Randell and Bree Dunham.
“We were kind of lost,” Randell said.
When representatives from their tribe, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, presented the family with an eagle feather, the gesture “kind of changed our lives,” Randell said.
She was looking at the feather and decided to go to eagle watches. In doing that, she learned about Native American aviaries and started thinking about opening one for the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Soon after, she and her sister spoke with tribal officials who supported the idea and the women started training for the role. The tribe opened the third aviary in Oklahoma in 2012. It was established with eight eagles.
“I always go back to that eagle feather. So many tribes don’t have access to the material and cultural ways because it’s so hard to get eagle feathers,” said Randell, manager of the aviary.
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Today, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Eagle Aviary houses 14 eagles, the majority of whom were injured in vehicle accidents. The aviary houses injured eagles that cannot be rehabilitated, and it is funded in part by a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Even though they are injured, they still have the same instincts they’d have in the wild,” said Dunham, assistant manager of the aviary.
The aviary also disperses eagle feathers to tribal members for religious and cultural purposes. The eagle aviary is another option aside from the national repository, which uses feathers from eagles that have passed away.
For the 30,000 tribal members of Citizen Potawatomi Nation, the wait is about six months for an eagle feather, Randell said, but if a need is immediate, such as someone passing away or a veteran returning home, those needs can be met. The aviary gives out about 200 to 300 feathers per year.
Each eagle at the CPN aviary gets its own Potawatomi name during a naming ceremony. “We bring them in as part of the family,” Randall said.
“Our beliefs are as far as individuals, the creator can see the top of our head and hear our prayers. But they can’t see our face until you have your Potawatomi name. So, since these eagles cannot fly so high anymore and hand off our prayers, we feel it’s important to have the Potawatomi name.”
In 2013, the community came together to watch the release of a juvenile bald eagle. The eagle had been transferred to the aviary from the Florida Audubon Society after suffering an injury to her left wing. She had been unable to fly.
However, she eventually rehabilitated herself, Randell said. “A few months after being here she literally started doing figure-eights,” she added.
Veterinarians were consulted, and it was decided the bald eagle was a candidate for release.
When she arrived at the aviary, she was five months old and given the Potawatomi name, which means child or young one. She ended up receiving a new name, Wadase Zhabwe, which means the brave break through, before her release.
“She’s kind of gotten famous. It’s exciting for the whole community,” Randell said.
A GPS-tracking device follows her, and she still returns to the aviary at times. A nest has been placed in a tree to encourage her return to visit, Randell said. “It’s fantastic she still comes back to the aviary. That means she had good experiences here,” she added.
Such events with the eagles really help bring the community together, Randell said, adding that the schools have enjoyed visits from eagles. “This is no charge. This is a non-profit based program. That’s a big thing for us: outreach and education.”
Dunham notes that each tribe obtains a permit for aviary, but each religious permit can be tailored to the tribe’s needs. “If you need an education bird that you can take out for ceremony or presentations to educate your people, and that’s all you needed, that’s possible,” she said. “It really is up to the tribe.”
The Citizen Potawatomi Nation is also one of seven tribes in Oklahoma taking part in a project to help restore monarch butterfly habitat in the state. Both the eagles and the monarchs are threatened by habitat loss, Dunham noted.
The eagles are very intuitive and routine-based, Randall said. They joke that it’s like a coffee shop because each of the eagles has their own regular perch that they go to each morning, Dunham said. “They’re really social. That’s something I had a misconception about – being social birds,” she said.