The National Eagle Repository in Denver is the only place where American Indians can legally obtain the carcasses, supplied by the federal government. Eagles are heavily protected by federal laws that make it illegal to kill the birds or even keep their feathers or parts without a proper permit.
For 30 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken eagles that were hit by cars, electrocuted or died of natural causes and shipped them to American Indians around the country for ceremonial use. However, a considerable backlog of applications and lengthy waiting periods between two and four years have resulted in a debate over whether new laws need to be put in place.
Bernadette Atencio, who manages the repository, says it is tough to maintain a balance between conserving the eagle population and respecting tribal spiritual practices.
"It's a supply-and-demand issue," she told The New York Times. "It's a double-edged sword. To fill all the requests in a timely manner means we need more dead birds."
Tribal representatives have approached the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with strategies to address the issue of demand. The Crow tribe in Montana is drafting a plan that would allow members with special permits to keep dead eagles found on tribal land.
Melissa Holds the Enemy, a lawyer for the Crow, says the long waits have been a source of frustration in her tribe.
"Eagles are sacred to us, so of course we are interested in eagle protection," she said. "But there is a huge disconnect that is not being addressed. Protecting eagles and accommodating Indian religious freedoms do not need to conflict with one another."