CYRIL – Preservation of 28 eagle species remains the top priority of an avian sanctuary whose founders call upon the birds’ energy to make a spiritual connection with the Almighty.
Waha Thuweeka, co-director and founder of the Sia Comanche Ethno-Ornithological Initiative in Cyril, believes the eagles, hawks and other birds of importance to the Comanches must be kept safe so traditional tribal members can maintain the life ways of their ancestors.
Sia, the Comanche word meaning “feather,” strives to preserve eagles through cultural understanding of the eagle in history, science and spirit. The Comanche Nation Ethno-Ornithological Initiative facility, where the Sia Gallery of Eagle Art is located, offers a wide variety of historical archives, science research and educational experiences with live eagles.
Thuweeka is a Comanche purist who believes in the tribe’s lifestyles dating back to the days of freedom in the 1800s. The Comanche Nation, which was located primarily in the southern Plains, were forced into captivity June 2, 1875.
“Unfortunately, the bulk of Comanches are focused on gaming and gadgets,” he said. “There’s about 30 percent of the (Comanche) population that adheres to the (old) life ways.”
Still, Thuweeka and co-director Troy (who has no last name) maintain the bird sanctuary and a significant number of archives that include 4,400 historic images, many of which have never been published. About 138 eagles from five continents live on site, including some that are in rehabilitation from injuries or sickness. Other eagle species live on property outside of Cyril.
“We call upon the energy of the golden eagle and birds like them when making a spiritual connection with the Almighty,” Thuweeka said.
A tour of the half-block facility shows bald eagles, golden eagles and other indigenous birds connected to the Comanches. According to the center’s website, “Captive behavioral research, propagation and in-depth plumage studies now span four decades of experience by Sia founding directors. Several world first accomplishments are credited to ongoing research which includes the hatching of the first Bald Eagle to be produced via artificial insemination.”
Thuweeka said the Sia facility is the only indigenous center that still operates a breeding program for the “great eagles of the world.” In addition, the center has released 400-plus healthy eagles into 14 states as they repopulate the eastern highlands.
“There are sacred sites from here to Montana,” Thuweeka said.
Thuweeka, 68, doesn’t stay at the Cyril location. Instead, he continues to lead eagle surveys that take him and his team to rugged land and mountains ranging from the Sooner state to Montana. By completing the surveys, Thuweeka and his colleagues are able to determine the number of indigenous Comanche birds that exist.
The center also serves as a feather repository.
“We’ve spent 40 years fighting the U.S. Department of the Interior so we could legally gift original feathers,” he said, adding that the center can only distribute feathers to members of federally recognized tribes. “We do not sell any feathers.”
The center attracts about 10,000 people each year, including bus trips that originate through the state tourism department.
“We get more people coming here from outside Comanche County than we do from (within) the county,” Thuweeka said.
Thuweeka noted that the Sia center split from the Comanche Nation on Jan. 7 and that the center currently has the federal permit to operate the facility.
The Comanche Nation “never met their financial responsibility in the last 20 years,” prompting the Interior Department to give the permit to the center’s founders. Tribal members voted in 2017 to stop funding the center, according to published reports.
“It’s hurtful and we know the families of the people who are here today,” Thuweeka said. “When you have tribal leadership that doesn’t embrace the old ways, it makes it tough.”
The eagles and hawks are just one part of the Sia center. Thuweeka and his co-founder Troy work extensively on maintaining and collecting archives that date back to times of freedom for the Comanche Nation.
“We have life items that go back 300 years,” Thuweeka said. “We have security that exceeds what you see at the Smithsonian. We have land allotment documents and photos that were taken with the old glass plate negatives.”
Thuweeka estimates he and Troy have identified about 97% of the people in the photographs from the 1800s and 1900s.
“This is all we do 24/7,” he said.
The archives include more than 24,000 pages of unpublished historic journals, diaries and letters pertaining to Comanche history, historic photographs taken prior to forced captivity as well as first generation post-captivity individuals.
In addition, the archives include original land allotment patents and reports of heirship generated at the turn of the 20th century.
The Sia center also hosts celebrities who come to the Cyril location for guidance and to view the eagles and hawks. Some also visit the center to learn the Comanche’s cultural life ways, Thuweeka said. One of the noted celebrities is Johnny Depp, star of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie franchise who is currently the plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard.