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Native law group tackles eagle feather controversy

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BOULDER, Colo. – The Native American Rights Fund is initiating a working group to address government intervention in the lives of Native people who work with or use eagle feathers in traditional ways, and tribes are speaking out on the issue.

A number of feather workers and others from scores of tribes have called NARF to express concern about raids they said were conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service, FBI and other law enforcement officials who have seized feathers and demanded documentation, said an attorney with the Native law/advocacy group.

According to a tribal member, the Northern Cheyenne tribal council recently passed a resolution to “continue to use eagles as has been the custom since time immemorial.”

The resolution also states that the tribal president will confer with the elected Wyoming-Montana tribal leadership, that a meeting will be convened with FWS and other federal officials, and that Congress should address the threat to traditional use of eagle feathers with legislation, said Steve Brady, of the Northern Cheyenne Cultural Commission.

Brady, who has testified on traditional eagle use before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said the resolution stemmed from the fact that eagles play a part in “every aspect of our culture and fundamental aspects of our way of life.”

Because the feathers are used in bustles, headdresses and fans, “It does cause a lot of concern with people going into the pow wow season,” he said. Feathers and parts are also used by veterans carrying eagle staffs as well as in the Native American Church and in eagle bone whistles for other traditional religious purposes.

Current raids have been reported in Oklahoma, Utah, Arizona, Montana and other western states, as well as in Washington, where four men were charged with illegally killing eagles and selling feathers.

“I think the Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of the Interior have done an abysmal job of consulting with Indian country, with tribal, political and traditional leaders, about their purpose,” said Steven C. Moore, a senior NARF attorney, of the sting operations,

“We’re not aware of any (FWS) outreach to those leaders about the issue,” he said, adding that people are concerned about having their cars stopped or their homes searched for eagle feathers “they have possessed for many years in traditional ways.”

Under federal law, only Native people can possess eagle feathers through gifts or inheritance, or from a government-run repository near Denver which issues permits specifically for individual birds or parts, generally after lengthy waits.

The FWS is limited in terms of outreach, Patrick Durham, the agency’s national Native American liaison said because they “do not want to compromise ongoing investigations” customarily conducted with the Department of Justice, which has strict procedures that include acting only on good evidence and avoiding entrapment.

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People whose homes have been searched were “temporarily inconvenienced,” a situation that pales in comparison to the hundreds of dead eagles uncovered in illegal trading that constitutes a highly profitable business whose operators “don’t care who they sell to.”

Durham said hawk bustles can sell for $1,500 and eagle tail fans for $2,000 and even more than that abroad; feathers were recently recovered in France.

“Pow wow grounds and pow wows are where a lot of this happens,” he said. Illegal feather sales are, he feels, “mostly attached to competitive dancing.”

Underlying issues in the feather controversy include the responsibility, if any, of craftspeople to determine whether feathers only temporarily in their possession were obtained legally by the original holder, a question to which Durham said he does not know the answer.

Some contend there is an emphasis on Native, rather than the illegal non-Native, uses of eagle feathers. Durham doesn’t know whether most illegal feather purchases are by Natives or non-Native “wannabes, who are buying, but I don’t know how much.”

A fan maker near Tuba City, Ariz. said he has seen non-Native cowboys in rodeo competition sporting eagle feathers on their hats, “and look at all the Aztec dancers – they aren’t targeted.”

The craftsman initially gave his name but later expressed concern about having it used because his case is pending. He said four other feather workers nearby and one in Utah had been raided recently.

He said federal agents may have started targeting people who sold feather work on eBay or other online sites, but “after that, agents started coming to peoples’ houses, setting them up.”

FWS and FBI agents recently spent seven hours searching his house. “They really wanted to know if I sold (protected species) feathers, and I don’t,” he said, explaining that he only uses eagle and hawk feathers sent by customers who want them made into fans and he does not ask them for details about permits. “They send them to me and I use them.”

The Association on American Indian Affairs, a long-standing nonprofit Native advocacy/empowerment organization, is concerned about the recent raids, Jack Trope, AAIA executive director, said.

AAIA will be part of the working group with NARF that is “trying to look at this from a national perspective” and to determine its scope and an appropriate strategy, Trope said. “We don’t want people to feel at risk because of possible actions by commercial traders or others.”