RAPID CITY, South Dakota — Federal authorities have busted up a clandestine trafficking ring dealing in hundreds of body parts from eagles and other protected birds to be used for Native American ceremonial headdresses and sold overseas.
Fifteen people have so far been charged with conspiring to commit wildlife trafficking, and violating the bald and golden eagle protection and migratory bird treaty act, according to an indictment filed in federal court in South Dakota.
According to federal prosecutors, the ringleader, Troy Fairbanks, 54, of Rapid City, described himself as “the best feather man in the midwest,” to an informant who purchased tens of thousands of dollars of eagle feathers, wings, heads and talons over the course of a two-year sting.
Fairbanks runs a dance troupe called Buffalo Dreamers which performs traditional Native American dances at public events, through which he allegedly operated his animal parts trading business. His sons, Troy Young Fairbanks, 24, and Majestic Fairbanks, 22, were also charged.
All three are enrolled members of the Standing Rock and Lower Brule Sioux tribes. Several of the deals involved the sale of dog soldier bonnets and eagle feather dance bustles.
Authorities, however, described the ring as basically a “chop-shop for eagles” in which profit was the key motive and bird feathers and eagle parts such as talons and beaks were treated simply as merchandise.
“There was no cultural sensitivity. There was no spirituality,” U.S. Attorney Randy Seiler said. “There was no tradition in the manner in which these defendants handled these birds.”
The defendants knew what they were doing was illegal, prosecutors said, using code words to describe the items, like referring to an eagle head as a buffalo skull and its wings as a wolf.
Between 2014 and 2016, prosecutors say the informant spent tens of thousand of dollars on bird parts from the Fairbanks family and arranged deals in which the elder Fairbanks said he could procure up to 60 eagles.
Other defendants were arrested in Wyoming, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. Authorities said some of the 15 defendant are unconnected to each other.