Etsy Feather Controversy Goes International

Paul Benton, Pocomoke, has been trying to raise awareness about the sale of feathers from Australia on Etsy, but with little success.

A teepee-maker and self-styled defender of Native rights was startled at the apathy he encountered when he sought support from the online Indian community in his conflict with a global marketer and a shopkeeper in Australia over questionable sales of feathers of protected birds.

“We expected people to be up in arms, but they aren’t,” said Paul Benton, owner of Ahki Tipi Native American Teepees, in Oakland, California. After battling unsuccessfully with NaturesArtMelbourne, an Australian store selling the feathers, and Etsy Inc., the e-commerce website through which the store sold them, he turned to an online petition, expecting a loud outcry of protest.

Only 220 people responded, despite the petition’s assertion that the U.S. is “the second-largest destination market for illegally trafficked wildlife in the world.” It provides links to previous sales by the Australian store, which, it states, “has sold hundreds of eagle, hawk, falcon and owl feathers.”

Similar protests to other feather-sellers have been met with more success, he said. “Most everyone we contacted have greatly appreciated this,” he explained. “Most of them are very unaware they’re doing something illegal and they stop.”

NaturesArtMelbourne sells jewelry made of stone and wood, feather jewelry, feather hair extensions and smudging feathers, which include the feathers in question, according to its website. The shop also sells “guardian angels,” humanoid figures some of which incorporate feathers, and “love heart creations” that include heart-shaped pendants and other jewelry items made of natural materials.

The legality or illegality of the sales is in question, an issue being tackled by Australian Wildlife Trade Regulation officials, who declined further comment.

“I’m Native American and I feel it’s more of a cultural (than legal) thing,” Benton said. He began investigating the feather issue about a year ago, when he initiated the online Native American Thread Group, an invitation-only organization of about 50 artisans and craftspeople across the U.S. who bead, do leatherwork, and produce powwow regalia and other Native-themed work.

The group investigated the Melbourne shop for its use of feathers from eagles and other raptors, which Benton acknowledged may be indigenous to Australia. The shop states on a “smudging fan” hawk feather page, “Please note in some countries it is not allowed to own/sell certain feathers. I do not ship any feathers from birds protected by the Migratory Bird Act to the United States.”

Benton said the disclaimer is new and is a reaction to their repeated contacts with the store—contacts that temporarily cost him his own Etsy account, which was closed and then reopened. The website warned Benton that further unwanted contact with sellers could result in a permanent account termination, according to a message from Etsy.

Benton countered that Etsy—which declined further comment—violated its own policy of not listing live animals or illegal animal products, which the company says “just aren’t in the spirit of Etsy.” Etsy also pointed out it has diverse sellers and told Benton “you may find some content to be disturbing or not in line with your personal beliefs.”

Australia is signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement between governments, which could affect both the export and import of feathers, said Steve Oberholzer, Special Agent in Charge, Law Enforcement, USFWS Region 6 – Mountain-Prairie Region, who was asked to comment on wildlife protection laws.

Depending on the circumstances, there could also be violation of the Lacey Act that prohibits importing, exporting, buying and selling of wildlife or parts—including many types of falcons, eagles, hawks and owls—covered under CITES. Further, more than 1,000 species are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, he said.

Benton, 54, who is also an awning-maker, began making and selling tipis 16 years ago. He’s proud of his descent from Pocomoke peoples, a non-recognized tribe from the eastern shore of Maryland.

He described familiarity with the ceremonial use of feathers in parts of the U.S., but said, “I don’t know if the feathers are sacred to Australia’s indigenous people. I wouldn’t know that.”