My sister, Nan, killed an eagle in Canada. Distraught, she choked out the words, describing her crime to me. Having worked for the Department of Ecology in Washington State, she assumed she’d go to jail. Although her close encounter with the eagle had been an accident, she knew these giant birds were sacred to the First Nations Peoples, so she’d sinned against them also.
Nan had arrived in Queen Charlotte City, a small coastal town near Alaska, a day ahead of me to tour the totem pole villages before we embarked on a fishing boat. Driving her rental car through the countryside, a teen-aged eagle rose from a ditch where it had been feeding on road kill. It had brown speckled feathers, not yet matured to the classic black and white plumage: it was almost full-sized. Apparently, young eagles couldn’t always manage their heavier weight after eating–think Thanksgiving dinner–rendering them unable to clear a passing car. This poor teen-ager crashed into Nan’s windshield, completely shattering it, bathing my sister in tiny sparkling shards. She’d had leapt out of the car and tried to save the youngster, unafraid of slashing claws and beak, but it was too late.
When I saw Nan, an hour after the accident, she’d extended her hands out to ward me off, so her glassy veneer wouldn’t wound me with one thousand slices if we hugged. She had already turned herself in to the Canadian authorities. Much to her confusion, they’d refused to charge her.
Later that evening, when she’d showered and changed into less lethal clothes, we found a Haida elder, a member of the dominant First Nations tribe in the area. She immediately confessed her evil deed, expecting a harsh native punishment, the likes of which we dreaded imagining but, nonetheless, did. Images of cannibalism, stewing pots and slavery arose, for the fierce Haida were historical bad boys. The modern man shrugged his shoulders, “That’s no big deal here,” he said, much to our surprise. And then he showed us his cedar carvings. I fell in love with a red and black eagle woman mask with bear claws attached.
But Nan seemed nonplused. She couldn’t find anyone to punish her.
After a few days in the area, we understood. Fish canneries lined the shores of Queen Charlotte City to process the many recreational and commercial fishermen’s catches, attracting thousands of eagles to clean up the fish waste that the companies recycled into the sea, much to the birds’ delight. Each cannery named their familiar bird comrades who hung around all day. Henry, at the top of the pecking order, lorded over St. Jean’s Cannery while Elizabeth guarded her prime spot, with majestic grace, next to the British Columbia Fishing and Packing Company. Queen Charlotte City could be named Eaglesville, for the birds far outnumbered humans, who considered them scavengers and pests. But I had a secret laugh, for, I thought many humans might be defined the same way.
Even if none of the First, Second or Third Nations’ Canadians cared, I knew Nan still felt a spiritual stain on her soul for killing an eagle. In the U.S., this made sense. Up in Eaglesville, not so much.