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U.S. Returns Eagle Feathers to Lipan Apache Religious Leader After Court Fight

After nine long years, Linan Apache religious leader Robert Soto got back the 42 eagle feathers that the feds confiscated in 2003.
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Nine years almost to the day after his eagle feathers were seized at a powwow, Robert Soto has gotten them back.

On Tuesday March 10 the U.S. government returned the 42 eagle feathers it had seized from the religious leader and feather dancer of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas on March 11, 2006. The return flowed out of a legal decision last August in which the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the seizure had violated Soto’s rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

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Soto, as part of a tribe that is recognized by the state of Texas but not by the federal government, was accused of unlawful possession of feathers from the endangered birds. Only federally recognized tribes are eligible to receive permits to possess eagle feathers. Feathers are obtained through the National Eagle Repository, the sole legally sanctioned source. Possession of eagle feathers and parts without a permit can bring a prison sentence and fines of as much as $250,000.

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“The government has about a million better things to do with taxpayer money than send undercover agents to raid Native American powwows and confiscate their eagle feathers,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in a statement.

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In 2006, federal agents infiltrated and interrupted a powwow to confiscate the feathers from Soto as he participated in full regalia.

The court victory was only partial, said the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which describes itself as a “non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths” on its website. While Soto and his tribe were deemed eligible to possess the feathers, federal law still prohibits them from using the items in religious ceremonies, leaving open the possibility of prosecution on other fronts, the Becket Fund said.

The Religious Freedom of Restoration Act notoriously served last July as the basis for a U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of the Hobby Lobby craft store in its bid to opt out of covering contraception because of its owners’ belief that conception begins at birth—a case that the Becket Fund also defended.

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Goodrich implied there was hypocrisy in the U.S. government’s tacit permission for eagles to be killed for a host of reasons, while drawing the line at mere possession for American Indians.

“The government allows hundreds of eagles, if not thousands, to be killed every year for non-religious reasons. Yet it won't allow these Native Americans to possess even a single feather,” said Goodrich. "It's time to let Native Americans practice their faith; we're not living in the 1800s anymore."

Photo: Courtesy the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Robert Soto, Linan Apache of Texas, blesses his recently returned eagle feathers.