WASHINGTON - Every spring for centuries, Hopi Indians gathered fledgling golden eagles from nests perched on the red-hued cliffs of what is now northeastern Arizona and used them in religious ceremonies.
But Wupatki National Monument officials stopped the practice last year, saying it violated federal laws prohibiting taking wildlife from national parks.
The case is the latest in a string of disputes involving Indian cultural and religious traditions, the government and environmentalists.
To the Hopi, what's at stake is the essence of their religion, which is older than the 12th-century ruins their ancestors built at Wupatki.
''The practice of eagle-gathering is central to Hopi religion and cultural life,'' tribal chairman Wayne Taylor Jr. said. ''The Hopi regard the eagles as embodying the spirits of their ancestors.''
Interior Department lawyers have been considering the issue for nearly a year and hope to have a ruling before 2001, said Patricia Parker, the National Park Service's Indian liaison.
Critics say the Park Service cannot give the Hopi an exemption without giving all other tribes the same rights in other national parks and monuments.
''If the long-standing prohibitions of taking animals from parks can be waived for religious purposes of the Hopis, then how can you not waive it for the religious purposes of Navajos or Blackfeet or Quinault, or other tribes that claim they want to take wildlife from parks for traditional ceremonial, religious or even subsistence purposes?'' asked Frank Buono, a retired Park Service official.
Buono is a board member of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, one of the environmental groups pressing the Park Service to stop the Hopis from gathering the eagles.
Some Indian leaders complain that environmentalists show ambivalence toward tribes. For example, they joined with the Hopi and other tribes to try to block mining on the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona, but opposed the Makah tribe's whale hunts in Washington state.
''There is still an anti-Indian bias about traditional native religions among a lot of people in environmental groups the same way there is generally,'' said Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne-Muskogee and director of the Morning Star Institute, an Indian rights group based in Washington.
''You find a lot of environmentalists who are only too happy to appropriate the words of Chief Seattle, or take the thinking of other great people of native history about the environment,'' she said. ''There are people who are only too happy to adopt those trappings as their own and continue to disregard the living people who are related to that legacy.''
The Hopi have permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to gather 40 golden eaglets a year for use in religious ceremonies, during which the birds are killed. The ceremonies are exempt from the 1962 federal law protecting golden eagles, which are not listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The permits do not specify where the eagles can be taken. The U.S. Forest Service allows them to be gathered in federal forest land.
Wupatki Monument Superintendent Sam Henderson said he intervened because federal law does not exempt Hopis or other Indians from the ban on killing or capturing wildlife in the monument.
Parker said the prohibition was enforced last year because it was the first time the Hopi made a formal request to gather eaglets in the monument.
Harjo, who helped write a White House report on Indian religious freedom in 1979, said federal law has plenty of exemptions for capturing or killing animals in parks for religious, scientific, safety or other purposes. For example, Sioux tribal members are allowed to hunt for religious and subsistence purposes on part of Badlands National Park in South Dakota. They are the only people allowed to hunt there.
''Allowing an Indian religious taking, especially on lands that are only under federal ownership because they were stolen from Indians, that's the least they could do,'' Harjo said.
Buono said the issue is broader than Hopis and eaglets.
''I think it's important for the Americans of the future of all races to be able to go to places and see wild animals that are not being pursued, hunted, trapped, captured or killed,'' he said. ''If they want to capture eagles and sacrifice them for their religious purposes, fine, but don't come into the parks and do it.''
On the Net:
Wupatki National Monument: http://www.nps.gov/wupa/
Hopi Tribe Cultural Preservation Office: http://www.nau.edu/(tilde)hcpo-p/
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility: http://www.peer.org/