After the federal government returned ceremonial eagle feathers earlier this month to pastor Robert Soto in the wake of a nine-year legal battle, the episode received scant media attention.
But the incident caught the eye of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, which saw fit to run an editorial on the absurdity of persecuting and prosecuting the longstanding spiritual practices of this member of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas and leader of the McAllen Grace Brethren Church.
“In the annals of government abuse, the federal ‘Operation Powwow’ is one for the ages,” states an editorial from the March 12 edition of The Wall Street Journal, recounting the manner in which “gumshoes from the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service” attended a ceremony so as to apprehend the feathers even as they “were being used in the peaceful exercise of religion.”
Never mind that many of the 42 feathers had been given to him, the Journal pointed out. And never mind that Soto hadn’t killed the birds. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes the mere possession of such objects illegal without a permit. And as such it highlights one of the difficulties engendered by a patchwork of tribal recognition rules.
“The problem for Mr. Soto is that he is Native American under federal law but his particular tribe, while recognized by the State of Texas, is not recognized by Washington,” The Wall Street Journal explained. “Under current federal regulations, it is therefore illegal for Mr. Soto to practice his faith.”
The Journal was not the only publication to highlight the laws’ outmoded and outdated nature.
“The government justified its actions, and the covert operation, by claiming that two laws protecting migratory birds give them the right to enter Native American religious ceremonies and confiscate sacred eagle feathers,” wrote Kristina Arriaga at The Federalist on March 16. “The government still insists on enforcing these laws even though eagles are no longer endangered and the Lipan Apache never kill eagles, as the tribe would consider it a form of sacrilege.”