A Blackfoot woman in Alberta who says she bought an eagle wing for $250 to make powwow regalia for her family is now fighting charges that she was trafficking wildlife parts illegally.
Rachel CrowSpreadingWings, a member of the Kainai Nation (Blood Tribe) in southern Alberta, is charged with one count of trafficking wildlife and one count of possession for the purposes of trafficking.
The maximum penalty for both charges is $100,000 in fines and/or two years in jail.
"Eagles have always been sacred in our ceremonies and our prayers," says CrowSpreadingWings. "How is it wrong to give somebody money, when they give you a sacred object, when it's in mutual respect of that object and they know you're going to use it correctly?"
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The 32-year old traditional powwow dancer and singer is set to go to trial in Lethbridge in May, arguing she has a constitutional right to possess and trade religious items.
Eagle feathers are considered sacred by many First Nations in North America. Feathers, wings and sometimes whole eagles are used in spiritual ceremonies and to adorn traditional regalia.
Provincial wildlife officials refuse to comment on the case, but CrowSpreadingWings says the charges stem from an exchange in January 2013.
Tobacco and cash for an eagle wing
She claims she was approached by two men, Craig and Donovan Jackson, who offered to sell her a wing from an eagle they said they found. They told her they consulted an elder on how to prepare the bird. She agreed to exchange tobacco, a customary gift among many Aboriginal Peoples, for a wing.
She says she also gave them $250 cash, to assist with groceries and a bus ticket to their home at the Saddle Lake Cree Nation.
'What I did was I gifted him what I had, and he gifted me what he had.'- Rachel CrowSpreadingWings
"What I did was I gifted him what I had, and he gifted me what he had," says CrowSpreadingWings. She estimates the wing contained nearly 100 feathers, which she planned to use to make dance regalia for her children and brother.
But a month later, she was contacted by the RCMP, who had charged the men for trafficking wildlife. She later gave a statement to a wildlife officer.
She admits she exchanged cash for the eagle wing, but says she didn't "purchase" it.
"I wasn't doing anything wrong," insists CrowSpreadingWings. "When somebody comes to you and asks you to help them, you help them if you can."
She says her father was a Sundancer and taught her how to treat sacred items with respect.
Trafficking eagle parts
Selling or possessing eagle parts is illegal under the Alberta Wildlife Act. A spokesman for Alberta's Justice and Solicitor General office says eagles are a sensitive species, and cross-border smuggling of eagle parts is a "concern."
"The Alberta courts support that existing treaty rights (to harvest wildlife) must be linked to subsistence," says Matt McCorquodale, staff superintendant of Alberta's commercial wildlife crime unit.
The province has an eagle repository, where aboriginal people can apply to obtain feathers for cultural or ceremonial purposes.
"There's high demand, no doubt about it," says McCorquodale, who estimates the waiting list to be up to a year.
Feathers and eagle parts can yield thousands of dollars on the black market. A whole golden or bald eagle can sell for as much as $600, but McCorquodale says their value increases "tenfold" when turned into headdresses, bustles or fans and sold as aboriginal artifacts to collectors in Europe and Asia.
In the past decade, Alberta wildlife officers engaged in four undercover operations into killing and trafficking birds of prey, which resulted in 12 people being convicted and fines totalling $175,000. McCorquodale says investigations receive "tremendous First Nations support," and many who phone their tipline are aboriginal people concerned about eagle poaching.
McCorquodale characterized the exchange between CrowSpreadingWings and the two men as a "one-off," rather than organized crime. Craig Jackson was fined $7000, after he pleaded guilty to unlawfully trafficking wildlife. Donovan Jackson's case is still before the courts. He has yet to enter a plea.
Support from Kainai Nation
Several elders and members of the Kainai Nation have attended CrowSpreadingWings' court hearings to show support, including spiritual advisor Allen Eli-Wolf Tail.
"She had no intent to profit," says Wolf Tail, who carries a medicine bundle for the Horn Society, a Blackfoot sacred society. "The concept was to help somebody. It was empathy. She didn't do anything wrong in our ways."
Wolf Tail says barter and trade has always been part of Blackfoot culture, and cash is part of the way spiritual people are gifted in contemporary times. "Realistically, you need to get from point A to point B to attend ceremonies. You need gas money. You need to feed your family."
'The concept was to help somebody. It was empathy. She didn't do anything wrong in our ways.'- Allen Eli Wolf Tail
But, he adds, he considers killing eagles wrong.
CrowSpreadingWings, a broadcasting student at Lethbridge College and single mother of two young children, has represented herself in court thus far. She says she refused a plea bargain offered by the Crown. "I'm not willing to say the province has say over our traditional life."
She recently started a Facebook page to keep supporters informed of developments in her case.