ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The Comanche Nation and Fish and Wildlife Service have met to formally establish a Comanche-operated feather repository that “heralds a new day in Native American-federal governmental relations,” tribal and federal spokespersons said at the FWS’ Southwest Regional offices.
“The repository will be operated by Sia: The Comanche Nation Ethno-Ornithological Initiative to provide for the ethical and legal acquisition and distribution of culturally significant feathers of all species of migratory birds other than eagles,” they said.
The FWS said the two-year pilot program will issue feathers for religious and cultural use to federally enrolled tribal members based on an application and acquisition process used by the National Eagle Repository in Denver.
“Provisions for legal access to bald and golden eagle feathers through the federal government have existed since 1962,” Comanche Nation spokespersons said in prepared remarks. “However, until today, there has not been access to the feathers of other migratory bird species from a culturally dedicated entity.”
Feathers available will be those “known to be traditionally used (non-eagle) feathers for religious purposes,” including red-tail hawk, ducks, song birds, and anhinga, or water bird, as available, the FWS said.
“A Native American feather repository can only be truly successful if established and operated by Native Americans,” said Sia founder and executive director Wahathuweeka (William Voelker). “There are nuances of culture and sensitivity to the essence of the living bird that only comes from generations of cultural oneness with these essential species. Our ancestors established living bonds with these creatures long before the rest of the world knew we existed.
“We Native Americans have the history, science and spirit to best address the unique requirements of living our historically based, cultural lifeways while simultaneously adhering to environmentally responsible conservation ethics of the 21st century.”
He explained that feathers and parts for traditional doctoring ceremonies are specific to species, and may be specific to sex and age as well, and the new program will be specific to need. “We can ask the questions the Fish and Wildlife Service can’t because of freedom of religion issues,” he said, noting, for example, that the precise number of feathers to create a fan would be requested and provided. Sia will fill one request at a time.
“It’s Native Americans working to meet the needs of Native Americans,” he said. “The other ways just don’t work.”
Native American Church and Southern Plains ceremonies as well as other spiritual practices nationwide require the use of the feathers and/or parts of many different species of migratory birds, and “unless these feathers have been handed down from generations that predate the laws that prohibit the acquisition of these feathers from wild birds, there has not been the legal mechanism for acquiring such feathers.”
Sia will address the issue primarily by using molted feathers from birds legally held in captivity by zoos, rehabilitation facilities, educational centers and falconers, processing and cataloging the feathers and then assembling them to meet the needs of Natives across the country.
He said the program has already received requests for endangered species feathers or parts and they will be able to fill such requests by applying for and filling out additional specific permits so the process simply entails more paperwork.
Sia, based in Cyril, Okla. has pioneered authentication methods for individual feathers “so that once distributed, the feathers will carry a unique identity,” he said. “This aspect of Sia research and protocol will minimize the illegal abuse of migratory bird feathers” whose sale, barter or trade is prohibited.
The FWS noted that at one time the National Eagle Repository in Denver also distributed feathers and parts of other protected and regulated migratory birds including hawks and falcons, but that practice was discontinued in the late 1990s and the agency was looking for other ways to meet tribal needs for non-eagle feathers.
“Establishing this tribally managed repository demonstrates our commitment to working collaboratively with tribes to promote natural resources conservation activities that honor Native American culture and religion,” said Benjamin Tuggle, FWS regional director, Southwest Region.
Various protected migratory birds, feathers and parts will be authorized for transfer to the new repository by FWS bird rehabilitators, zoos, falconers, and other FWS-permitted entities, he said.
The FWS issued a reminder that it is illegal for individuals to possess bald or golden eagle feathers and parts, but members of federally recognized tribes may apply for them through the National Eagle Repository in Denver, which receives, stores and distributes them for cultural and religious use.
Sia (the Comanche word meaning “feather”) is one of three tribes to be granted a Native American Religious Use Permit allowing for the permanent housing of non-releasable bald and golden eagles. Under that authority, feathers molted by the eagles can be distributed to members of the Comanche Nation and members of any of the federally recognized tribes, 44 of which have received feathers from the Sia program.