PERKINS, Okla. — When the iron gates open to the Grey Snow Eagle House, blue skies blanket the modest buildings that protect one of the nation's most powerful symbols: the bald eagle.
Brought here to heal, 31 have been released back into the wild.
"This one up on the left is wild man. He is blind in one eye," said Megan Judkin, Aviary director. "He was one of our original birds that has come in."
The birds you see at the facility will never again soar in the Oklahoma skies.
"Many of them have been hit by car, hit by coal trucks - even some of them have been hit by trains," Judkin said.
Judkin says they now serve a higher purpose. For these majestic birds, the golden and bald eagles, offer something sacred to Native Americans, like the Ioway tribe, who built the sanctuary.
"We believe that it's the only creature or being to see the face of the creator - or the face of God," said community relations director Abraham Lincoln.
The Bha-Kho-Je people believe eagles flew out of the sun, dropping their feathers.
"We took them in and we believe that God was telling us, use these when you do your prayers, your ceremonies, your dances... whatever you do with them, I will look upon those," Lincoln said.
Every feather is revered.
"We pick up everything from the little down feathers to the bigger flight feathers and tail feathers," Judkin said.
Only members of a federally recognized tribe can possess eagle feathers, and even they have to apply for them.
Lincoln started volunteering here when he was only 12, and is now in charge of his tribe's official program for eagle feather distribution. He says the first year feathers are in great demand.
"A lot of people use those for ceremonial reasons because they believe that's stronger. When you use that feather, God looks upon those feathers for us," Lincoln said.
Lincoln says there's a five-year wait for certain ones. Even the federal government collects eagle feathers, and stores them in heavily secured repository outside Denver.
"In the native American culture the reds and blues is honor and bravery. The white is sovereignty," Lincoln said.
At adulthood, the Ioway give each member, 30, in their lifetime, and keep close track of them.
"You can travel with them overseas but you have to have a timeline of when you leave and when you come back and things like that."
There's even a black market for the feathers.
"So, we do keep them under lock and key. The big gate you came through - that's under 24-hour surveillance. also it won't be opened unless we open it."
The birds are protected and cared for by the tribal members who hold them sacred for the rest of their lives.
Judkin says, in captivity, with good food and medical care, the eagles can live 50 to 55 years.
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