Cherokee Nation opposes push to widen eagle feather use

BY CHAD HUNTER
Reporter
07/25/2019 08:00 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Proposed changes to the federal government’s eagle feather program would allow anyone with “sincere religious” beliefs to posses the feathers. U.S. FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICE
TAHLEQUAH – Cherokee Nation leaders officially oppose a proposal to change federal regulations that would allow not only citizens of federally recognized tribes but also “all sincere religious believers” to possess eagle feathers.

Under current law, possession of an eagle feather is illegal, though tribal citizens are permitted to have one for religious or spiritual reasons. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has been asked by pastor Robert Soto and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty to revise its rules to include the eagle feather expansion.

“Our position has been that allowing non-Indians to possess eagle feathers prohibits federally recognized Indians from having access to feathers, which are already difficult to get a hold of,” CN Secretary of Natural Resources Sara Hill said. “If you put in a request for feathers from the (Fish & Wildlife) service, you know how long it can take to get those feathers. It also creates an opportunity for more of that black market trading that already goes on.”

The Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 – revised in 1962 to include golden eagles – made it illegal to possess eagles and eagle parts without a permit. An exception was made “in recognition of the significance of eagle feathers to Native Americans,” according to the Fish & Wildlife Service, which established the National Eagle Repository in Denver to “provide Native Americans with the feathers of golden and bald eagles needed for ceremonial purposes.”

Submitted a year ago, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s petition includes formalizing the eagle feather rule into a federal regulation with the stipulation that it “apply to all sincere religious believers who use federally protected feathers in their religious exercise.”

“No sincere religious believer should be banned from possessing feathers or risk criminal prosecution for simply possessing the feathers necessary to practice their faith,” the petition states.

The petitioners describe policies surrounding the religious use of federally protected bird feathers as “unjust” and “unlawful.”

“The department’s regulations are so restrictive that they ban all kinds of sincere religious behavior,” the petition states. “Today, nearly every bird species native to North America is federally protected. So, a grandmother who bestows an eagle feather on her non-enrolled grandson to honor his college graduation turns both herself and her grandson into criminals. A Native American teenager adopted by a non-Native family breaks the law when he prays with a feather to reconnect with the spirits of his ancestors. And a member of a state-recognized tribe is subject to prosecution merely for possessing a single protected feather.”

The Fish & Wildlife Service sought feedback on the revisions until July 16. The CN was among 532 tribes, tribal citizens and other individuals and organizations to respond.

“The Nation strongly opposes the use of eagles and eagle parts by non-Indians,” the tribe’s comment states. “Bald and golden eagles are connected directly to our ceremonial practices, oral traditions, lifeways, clans and kinship in ways that are unique to the Nation and having access to bird feathers and parts is critical to the continued existence of the Nation.”

CN citizen Tanya Peila, of University Place, Washington, voiced her opposition in part based on what she feared would be “longer wait times for those of federally recognized tribes” to “obtain these sacred feathers.”

“Please do not open the registry up to anyone claiming sincere religious beliefs,” she wrote. “Many people will disingenuously make this claim for the legal right to posses these feathers.”

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians expressed similar concerns.

“The use of eagle feathers remains important to the exercise of some Cherokee traditions,” the EBCI statement says. “Today, we continue to use eagle feathers as implements of prayer in ceremonies the Creator has given us. As (Fish & Wildlife) knows, the backlog on access to some eagle feathers leads to years and years of waiting for our members to receive the feathers they need. Opening access to individuals who are not members of federally-recognized tribes would unduly limit our access to eagle feathers.”

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota passed a resolution opposing the rule revision. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Idaho stated that while it was “sympathetic to the claims of others that desire to use these feathers in their ceremonies,” it would not support a change “that will make it more difficult for our members to obtain feathers that are so important to our culture.”

A review of the comments indicated that while tribes typically opposed the changes, a majority of individuals supported them via similar templates to which names and tribal affiliations were added. These support letters declared that the proposed changes “would ensure that the federal government respects the unique role that feathers play in Native American faiths.” Other letters offer support because, “All Native Americans deserve clear legal protection as they carry on their religious traditions.”

Ricardo Gonzalez, a member of the non-federally recognized Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, urged the wildlife agency to approve the proposal.

“Right now, many Native Americans are under threat of criminal punishment for practicing their heritage and their faith,” he wrote. “The rest are relying for protection on a promise that is no better than a handshake from the federal government.”

A handful of those who weighed in supported certain aspects of the petition. The Coquille Indian Tribe in Oregon backed “changes to make the National Eagle Repository more effective and efficient,” but rejected “constitutionally vulnerable ambiguities.”

“Specifically, the proposal fails to define ‘sincere’ or ‘sincere religious beliefs,’” Coquille Chairwoman Kippy Robbins wrote. “Failing to define these terms would subject the proposed rule to subjective interpretation.”
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