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Tribal identification should accompany eagle feathers, a federal agency says

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DENVER – Powwow season is arriving, replete with fans, bustles and other regalia, but dancers and others may want to carry tribal IDs or Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood to avoid any problems concerning eagle feathers or parts, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

This year, the FWS is advising dancers or those using eagle feathers for other purposes to keep documentation of Native ancestry with them to avoid being questioned about their possession of the eagle material.

At present, eagle carcasses or parts are obtained after a lengthy wait by enrolled members of federally recognized tribes from the National Eagle Repository near Denver or they can be gifted from one Native person to another, but they cannot be from illegal kills and cannot be sold.

Only a handful of permits to kill eagles for cultural/religious purposes have been issued by the FWS, and nearly always to tribal nations.

In addition to tribal ID, Steve Oberholtzer, a FWS special agent, said March 20 that a CDIB, since its issued by the BIA, might also be an acceptable means of proving Native ancestry.

He was asked about the requirement after some visitors to Denver March Powwow were concerned they could be stopped and their eagle regalia seized by federal agents, after a spate of recent arrests elsewhere.

Three Yakama Nation members from Washington and a Kiowa from Oklahoma were arrested recently for killing bald and golden eagles and selling their feathers or parts. Other, unverifiable rumors are that the FBI is conducting searches and seizures in Oklahoma, Arizona and elsewhere.

Generally, it is the FWS, not the FBI, that conducts investigations about the take of eagles for illegal commercialization, Oberholtzer said, and FWS special agents conducted the recent arrests of the four men for violation of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

He stressed that the FWS is “aware that the right to possess eagle feathers is very important for their (Indian) culture and religion” and is “reluctant to take enforcement action” unless there is a clear indication illegal commercialization or non-Native possession of feathers or parts is taking place.

Those with eagle feathers would generally have the benefit of the doubt in terms of having eagle permit papers with them or of having to prove that the specific feathers or parts matched those on the permit issued by the FWS for lawful possession, he said.

But Oberholtzer acknowledged that, at least theoretically, people who may not appear to be of Native descent might be stopped and asked for tribal documentation and paperwork for eagle possession purposes.

“We attempt to ID the person, and take some steps to assess whether they are Native American, and document what is going on,” he said, emphasizing that the key points of agency concern are whether the eagle feathers or parts are legally acquired and if the possessor is Native American.


In the past, even Sun Dance leaders have expressed concern about the possibility of participants being asked for their eagle permits.