An Ethics of Biodiversity: Christianity, Ecology, and the Variety of Life

By Kevin J. O'Brien | Go to book overview

Chapter 8
Biological and Cultural Diversity

In 1983 Dwight Dion Sr. was arrested for hunting and killing four bald eagles in South Dakota. At the time eagles were a severely threatened species, protected not only by the Endangered Species Act but also by the Bald Eagle Protection Act, passed by Congress in 1940. The earlier act, designed to protect the nation's symbolic animal long before the extinction of other species was a widespread concern, makes it illegal to take “any bald eagle …or any part, nest, or egg thereof.”1 The pro- tection of eagles is therefore one of the longest-standing conservation commitments in the United States.

However, Dwight Dion argued that the Endangered Species Act and the Bald Eagle Protection Act did not apply to him. A Yankton Sioux, Dion was hunting on his tribe's reservation, an area declared sovereign at its establishment in an 1858 treaty with the U.S. govern- ment. In that treaty the Sioux were explicitly guaranteed the right to hunt on their land undisturbed. Dion did not dispute that he had taken eagles in violation of the law; instead, he claimed that these laws did not bind him. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, which finally upheld Dion's conviction. The justices determined based on a close reading of the Eagle Protection Act that the 1940 legislation ”abrogated the rights of members of the Yankton Sioux Tribe under the 1858 treaty.”2

At issue in Dion's case was not just the conservation of a species but also the sovereignty of minority communities in the face of federal conservation laws. In 1996 representatives from tribes and tribal orga- nizations across the country gathered in Seattle to discuss this broader issue, focusing particularly on the implications of the Endangered Species Act for their sovereignty. They forcefully argued that this law ”does not and should not apply to Indian Tribes,” asserting that “tribal rights to manage their resources in accordance with their own beliefs and values must be protected.”3 While this group did not dispute the goal of conservation, they did object to the U.S. government's claim that it can enforce conservation on Indian lands. Indeed, many tribal

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