Skip to main content

Patty Talahongva
Indian Country Today

In the summer of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country, closing schools, sporting events, restaurants, the cruise industry and even Disneyland. But what impacted Indian Country the most were all the canceled powwows and sacred, traditional Native ceremonies.

No one saw the impact more than Robert Mesta, Yaqui. He is the coordinator of the non-eagle feather program at Liberty Wildlife in Phoenix. Mesta is the person responsible for filling orders from American Indians and Alaska Natives who have requested feathers for religious and ceremonial purposes.

Photo of a bustle made by a person who received feathers from Liberty Wildlife. (Photo by Patty Talahongva, Indian Country Today)

Natives enrolled in federally recognized tribes are eligible to receive the feathers free of charge.

“It was obvious from what we saw around us in the Native American community, powwows were being canceled, gatherings were being canceled and as a result people just weren’t requesting feathers because they weren’t using them,” Mesta said.

It was a long 18 months with few requests, he says. Now, Mesta is seeing the requests ramp up as ceremonies return.

Mesta is retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He’s an ornithologist with an area of expertise in the recovery of endangered birds of prey.

(Related: Bald eagle populations soar)

At Fish and Wildlife, he directed national and international-level programs to recover the California condor, bald eagle, Peregrine falcon and the masked bobwhite quail. Mesta also coordinated the California Condor Recovery Program from 1990 to 2000. And in 1992 he directed the first reintroduction of captive-bred condors back to the wild in southern California. Four years later he did the same at the Grand Canyon.

Robert Mesta holds up the tail feathers of a Red Tail Hawk. (Photo by Patty Talahongva, Indian Country Today)

In 2010 he helped establish the Non-Eagle Feather Repository Program. It’s a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Liberty Wildlife takes in birds that have been injured and need medical care. Some may recover and be released back into the wild while others live out their lives at the center.

He has drawers filled with thousands of feathers from songbirds, hawks, shorebirds and vultures. Each species is carefully cataloged and stored away until he gets a request.

Those requests have come from 210 different tribes in 45 states. Some have come from prison inmates.

“A good source of the feathers we have in our inventory actually come from our own collection,” Mesta said. “We have birds here that we’ve had for many many years and they molt their feathers every year and the keepers are instructed to collect those feathers for us and of course they go straight to our repository.”

(Related: California condor could return to northwest)

Zoos, police agencies, museums and other wildlife sanctuaries across the country also send him feathers to distribute.

The public can also donate birds they may find that have been killed.

And even though there are several eagles living at Liberty Wildlife, the law prevents Mesta from sending out those feathers when the eagles molt or die. Instead, he sends them to the eagle repository in Denver.

“I like to joke that they only have to worry about two species right? The bald and golden eagle.” he chuckles, “and we have to deal with the other 900-plus species that exist in the United States.”

In addition to feathers, Mesta also has whole frozen birds he can send out if one is requested. This allows the person to also use the talons and bones of the bird. For those orders he has six freezers filled with frozen carcasses ready to be shipped out.

Photo of a fan made by a person who received feathers from Liberty Wildlife. (Photo by Patty Talahongva, Indian Country Today)

Now and then people will send him photos of what they made from the feathers they received. He enjoys seeing the fans, bustles and other handmade items because he knows they have made a difference in the life of the person.

“We’ve gotten some really nice notes,” he said. “You know the feathers helped pull a family through a period when there was cancer, an adoption, the loss of a child. It really makes the effort worthwhile. Really makes me believe in what we do.”

Every request he receives is kept on file, both in paper form and digitally. He recalls getting a phone call from one family who had forgotten their tribal enrollment numbers and called him for help. Mesta was able to pull out their paper application and read the numbers back to them. Service comes in many forms.

It’s a mission he proudly serves and encourages American Indians and Alaska Natives to send in requests for feathers.

“I feel fortunate to be here. I think it’s a big responsibility! The repository has the potential to affect thousands of Native Americans in a very very positive way. So, I take the job very very seriously! Both professionally and personally.”

Indian Country Today - bridge logo

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help Indian Country Today carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.