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Stokes: Eagle feathers and the imperialist conquest of state-recognized tribes

Congress should expand the eagle feather permit system to include state-recognized tribes.

Under the current law (50 CFR 22.22, commonly called the ;'eagle feather law''), only members of the nation's 562 federally recognized tribes are allowed to obtain eagle permits. This oversight leaves another 62 state-recognized tribes out in the cold, unable to obtain eagle feathers needed to practice and preserve traditional ways of life.

What the American public doesn't realize is that religious freedom is a myth and that the attack on American Indian spirituality has been going on for centuries. To avoid harassment and arrest in the 1800s, members of federally recognized tribes often had to hide their sacred possessions and practice ceremonies in secret.

More than a century later, members of state-recognized tribes must now hide their eagle feathers or face imprisonment for practicing traditional customs. America rightly celebrates the legacy of the civil rights movement and our country's first black presidential nominee, but it's still a crime to be indigenous.

Many people don't realize how America's other legacy, of racism and colonialist imperialism, remains en force against state-recognized tribes.

In Virginia, for example, the 1924 Racial Integrity Act declared that only ''whites'' and ''colored'' people existed in the state. Native birth records were altered to identify people as ''colored'' rather than indigenous, effectively eliminating all hopes of state tribes to gain the federal recognition needed to obtain eagles. David, a Sun dancer and enrolled member of the state-recognized Monacan Tribe of Virginia, has experienced the repercussions of this ''paper genocide'' firsthand.

''My people met with the whites in 1608 along the James River. Now I am afraid that at any moment my door can be kicked in and my ceremony feathers taken away from me, and I could lose my freedom.''

But it doesn't end there. Several tribes in Georgia, for example, were forcibly removed to Oklahoma in the 1830s and consequently cannot document their uninterrupted history - a requisite for federal recognition.

Other tribes fought American expansionism by refusing to be relocated from their homelands, hiding their heritage from state officials and refusing to sign tribal rolls. Not only did they lose all hopes of federal recognition as a result, but their descendants today are denied their heritage, identities and right to obtain eagles.

For others, the inability to obtain eagle permits may stem from economics. In Connecticut, Virginia and North Carolina, for example, state-recognized tribes face political opposition to federal recognition by interest groups opposed to Indian gaming.

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Legal scholars like Alexa Koenig and Jonathan Stein have even suggested that federally recognized tribes have been given incentive to oppose recognition of state tribes because it would mean splitting up the economic pie that casino gaming offers.

The result: federal tribes, states and local communities may be set against state tribes who are trying to survive an imperialist legacy that robbed them of their homelands, ways of life and access to eagles.

It doesn't have to be this way. According to the Division of Migratory Bird Management, only 1.1 percent of the nearly 2,000,000 members of federally recognized tribes have eagle permits. State-recognized tribes are often very small, numbering only a few hundred in many instances.

If the percentage of eagle permit applications remains constant between state and federally recognized tribes, expanding the eagle permit system to include state tribes would not pose a significant increase in the number of eagle permit applications or significantly decrease the number of eagles available. Also, there is no evidence that expanding the permit system would threaten the eagle population or inhibit the government's trust obligations to federal recognized tribes.

The courts have had much to say about the eagle feather law that supports expansion to include state tribes. In Coyote v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (1994), the court found that requiring eagle permit applicants be members of federally recognized tribes ''is both contrary to the plain reading of that regulation and arbitrary and capricious.'' In Saenz v. Department of Interior (2001), the court also found that ''whether or not a particular tribe has been formally recognized for political purposes bears no relationship whatsoever to whether or not an individual practitioner is of Indian heritage by birth, sincerely holds and practices traditional Indian religious beliefs, is dependent on eagle feathers for the expression of those beliefs, and is substantially burdened when prohibited from possessing eagle parts.''

I for one believe that the government has a compelling interest in protecting the religious freedom of all its citizens, and its trust duty to protect the rights of Native tribes includes those recognized by the states. If the termination era was any indication, federally recognized tribes are not immune to the possibility of again losing their rights to eagles.

But if federal tribes stand together with state tribes in support of a new eagle feather law, we can build a united front in defense of indigenous rights.

For these reasons, Religious Freedom with Raptors, an advocacy group dedicated to improving the eagle feather law, is urging the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to support and sponsor the Religious Freedom for State Recognized Tribes Act.

The bill, authored by RFR, would expand the eagle permit system to include state-recognized tribes, thereby helping to protect their cultural survival and constitutional rights to religious freedom. Most importantly for eagles and current permit holders, the bill would maintain the system's current protections of eagle populations and trust responsibilities to federally recognized tribes.

This fall, let us mark the 30th anniversary of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act with a bold move: Let us not work separately as 562 federal tribes or 62 state tribes, but as a powerful coalition of 624 tribes united in a single voice to create an eagle feather law that protects the religious freedom of all indigenous people.

DaShanne Stokes, M.A., is director of the public interest advocacy group Religious Freedom with Raptors (