Diné finds passion for rehabilitating hawks

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Nov. 14, 2013

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(Times photo – Shondiin Silversmith)

TOP: Tsili, the red-tail hawk in Larry Kee Yazzie’s care, takes a break as he enjoys a bit of quail from Yazzie’s hand.

BOTTOM: Tsili flies over to Larry Kee Yazzie’s hand after Yazzie called him over with a flute. Yazzie said after Tsili’s flight demonstration at the Navajo Nation Zoo, he needs to develop more strength.

Unfamiliar with the strange environment of the Navajo Nation Zoo and distracted by the crows flying above, Tsili, the red-tailed hawk, perched on the ground for a few minutes before he heard the flute that called him over to feast on a quail.

This is what Larry Kee Yazzie, a hawk rehabilitation specialist, taught Tsili. Every day before taking Tsili out to fly, Yazzie weighs the hawk, which has a 1.5-pound flying weight.

"This one is really a jewel," said Yazzie, owner of Sovereign Wings, Inc., about Tsili, whom he started rehabbing after the Second Chance Wildlife Rehabilitation contacted him.

Yazzie, of Tuba City, Ariz., works with his company, Sovereign Wings, Inc., and the Second Chance Wildlife Rehabilitation, and presents on the hawk and its importance to Native American tradition and culture.

Last Thursday, a tribal employee from the Navajo Nation Zoo and Botanical Park witnessed firsthand Yazzie's rehabilitation work with Tsili.

Tsili landed in the care of Yazzie after being struck by a car and injuring his right wing.

"He's coming back and getting stronger," said Yazzie, while also demonstrating how he puts a hood over Tsili's eyes to keep him calm in stressful situations, like at the Navajo Nation Zoo.

Yazzie began rehabilitating hawks, and most recently an eagle, after becoming fascinated with falconry as a 12-year-old foster child attending school in Utah.

It was in Utah he was influenced by teenage boys learning the "art and science" of falconry, and it's also where his guidance counselor put in him contact with scientists and specialists in falconry.

The pleas of Yazzie's parents didn't stop him either. Traditional Navajos believe cultural teachings and ceremonies are necessary for those who work with such birds of prey.

"First thing they said was 'yee-yah. It's going to gash you,'" Yazzie recalled, adding that after a while they gave up and said, "We're just going to pray for you."

On top of his parents' prayers and the traditional Navajo teachings regarding these birds of prey, Yazzie is also ordained by different tribal customs of falconry, including the teachings of the Oteo Indians.

"These birds will never be domesticated," Yazzie said, as Tsili was feasting on the quail Yazzie bought for him. "They'll always have a free spirit."

Rehabbing birds of prey like Tsili is soothing and relaxing for Yazzie, who is an attorney and works as a tribal judge for the Tohono O'odham tribe near Tucson, Ariz.

Though Yazzie is hopeful about healing Tsili, so that he can fly up in Father Sky -- his home -- the chances of that happening are slim to none. Mostly since Tsili's right and left wings are now structurally imbalanced and also since the hawk still has a heavy diet.

From Tsili's flight demonstration last Thursday, Yazzie noticed he still needs to develop strength, which means more work and lighter meals.

Tribal Zoo employee Dloohe'e Tsinhnahjinnie asked Yazzie what different flute tunes he uses on Tsili, and if they're the same with the other birds of prey he rehabs.

In response, Yazzie said, "Once they start eating, the process speeds up."

The one eagle Yazzie rehabbed -- which he called a dangerous experience -- took about two weeks to develop trust in people.

"I was in terror of him," he said, adding, "We became friends. He was intelligent."

According to research gathered by officials from the Navajo Nation Zoo, red-tailed hawks like Tsili are called Atsáeelchii in Navajo. The red-tailed hawk is revered by the Navajo people for being a fast and efficient predator known for making no mistakes, or "The Efficient One."

"Because of this, their feathers can be tied to arrows so they fly true and make definite kills without mistakes," states the Navajo Nation Zoo and Botanical Park.

Their feathers are also used in certain Navajo ceremonies and can be tied to the mane or fail of horses to give them speed, according to the tribal zoo.

David Mikesic, zoologist for the zoo, expressed to Yazzie how impressed he was with rehabbing Tsili.

"It's very inspiring to do the work you're doing," Mikesic said, adding that the park is also willing to acquire Tsili.

Mikesic explained that most of the zoo's animals were either injured or orphaned in the wild and are placed at the zoo for safety, protection and care.

"We provide long-term care for them," Mikesic said. "We're glad that you're here today."

Yazzie is To'díchíinii (Bitter Water People), born for Tl'ízí Lání (Manygoats People Clan). His maternal grandparents are Táchii'nii and paternal grandfather is To'dich'íinii.

Information: Contact Larry Kee Yazzie at 623-210-3547 or email at Lyazzielaw@yahoo.com.