AUTHOR: Karen Floren, Staff Writer for TheDay.com
Narragansett Tribal Historian John Brown says "the birds that carry the wind" have always had a religious and cultural significance to his tribe, and that people who deal with birds of prey in Rhode Island are well aware of that.
So tribal members felt slighted after learning that a red-tail hawk killed last week by turbulence from an airplane at T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, R.I., was turned over to an employee of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center.
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The Narragansetts think the bird should have been turned over to them, since it came from their ancestral lands, and a couple of members have spent several hours on the phone in the past week with officials from the airport, Mashantucket museum and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The tribe also questions whether the bird was legally transported over state lines.
"There are just some things you don't do," Brown said. "There are protocols to be followed."
Depending on the condition of the bird and the circumstances of its death, certain ceremonies should take place when a bird of prey falls within Narragansett territory, Brown said. The feathers may be used as part of a member's regalia, though that honor is bestowed to very few tribal members.
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"Most of the people that have worn them have presented them to our medicine man to have them accepted as part of their regalia or as part of the tribe," Brown said. "There are ceremonies that are done to address those things because of the importance of those feathers and because of what the bird means to us."
The tribe learned about the incident by reading a story in The Providence Journal. The airport authority, with whom the tribe has dealt on other matters, should have known to call the Narragansetts, Brown said.
"It was never meant to slight anyone, in state, out of state or wherever," said Patti Goldstein, director of public affairs for the Rhode Island Airport Corp. She said the employees who handled the situation had good intentions.
"Its regrettable that such a positive story may have bothered some people, but it will be given consideration should it ever happen again," Goldstein said.
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The museum employee who has the bird could not be reached for comment. David W. Holahan, public relations manager for the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, said the people who were involved were not acting as Mashantucket Pequots or as employees of the tribe. He said the bird was not in the tribe's possession.
"I think they were acting in good faith and meant to do right and probably did right," Holahan said. "I think they have it and plan to bury it."
Brown said he was considering contacting Mashantucket Chairman Michael J. Thomas. He said he was upset that the bird ended up in the hands of an Indian from the southwest.
"I would never go into the White Mountain Apache Territory and take something that had some religious or cultural significance without approval from the tribe," he said.
The Department of Environmental Management did not return a phone call seeking comment. Brown pointed out that since the hawk was a migratory bird, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service actually should have had jurisdiction.
An employee of the fish and wildlife service's Rhode Island complex said this week that he also learned about the dead hawk after reading the newspaper story, but didn't give it another thought until he heard of the Narragansetts' complaint.
Gary Andres, assisant refuge manager, agreed the airport probably should have contacted the Rhode Island tribe, though he noted red-tailed hawks do not recognize state lines.
"I guess my gut read on that is that all native tribes believe in the same Creator and they (the Narragansetts) would feel good about (the proper burial)," said Andres.
While federal law prohibits animals that are taken illegally to be transported across state line, it was unclear whether that law would apply under these circumstances.
The wildlife service would typically try to use the remains of a bird of prey for educational or display purposes, according to Andres, who said tribal members could apply to use the feathers for ceremonies.
Goldstein, the airport spokeswoman, said Green has a wildlife management program in which workers use noisemakers to scare off birds that fly too close to air space. She said hawks are helpful in keeping smaller birds away.
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Karen Floren is a staff writer for TheDay.com. Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org