Ruffling Feathers: Native American rights to their heritage

(Photo: Darcy J. Azure)

Darcy J. Azure

Feathers are an inherent right to Native Americans, and should be treated as such says Darcy J. Azure

I am currently filling out an application to possess feathers from the Federal Government because a law passed before my lifetime restricts their possession, use, and/or acquisition. When it comes down to it, Native American heritage was not even considered.

While statutes have a say in the acquisition of new feathers, and possession afterwards, it protects or has some ideals to those that were possessed before the laws were enacted, where it can be documented and/or proven they were gifted or hand-me downs. Depending on who is present in the situation at hand, elders or higher authorities of law enforcement, this interaction can be a delicate matter.

While visiting with young native man of Rocky Boy, Montana (name withheld upon request), I noticed an eagle feather in his possession. I asked him some basic questions to which his replies were, “I can’t tell you about it, all I can say is that it protects my family.” He added, “You have to earn feathers is all I can tell you, I don’t want to disrespect my elders.”

Short and to the point, this is a common answer when you ask Native Americans about feathers, and how they got them.

feathers, feather, staff
(Photo: Darcy J. Azure)

Under two laws, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, prohibit the possession, use and sale of eagle feathers as well as eagle parts are prohibited.

Under the Fish & Wildlife service the first law passed was the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, making it illegal to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid Federal permit. 

The second, in 1940 provides the following; the protection of the bald eagle and the golden eagle (as amended in 1962) by prohibiting the take, possession, sale, purchase, barter, offer to sell, purchase or barter, transport, export or import, of any bald or golden eagle, alive or dead, including any part, nest, or egg, unless allowed by permit (16 U.S.C. 668(a); 50 CFR 22). "Take" includes pursue, shoot, shoot at, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, molest or disturb (16 U.S.C. 668c; 50 CFR 22.3).

Both laws were built upon a conservation law that prohibited trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold, The Lacey Act of 1900.

Within all these laws, literature and statistics, lists nowhere, the inherent right of Native Americans to possess, pass down, gift, or even take found feathers of any type, since the inception of the Bald Eagle becoming the national symbol of the United States in 1782.

The greatest barrier to acquiring eagle feathers was the fact that populations were diminishing at an alarming rate to where in 1967 they were considered protected as an endangered species. If that didn’t open eyes, it wasn’t until 6 years later when the Bald Eagle fell under the Endangered Species Act, which wasn’t implemented until 1973.

A few laws passed since include cultures that have been around before the inception of the United States. When it comes to conflict of this law under federal guidelines, we can throw out a very dominant law, that has been around much longer, and that is the Constitution, and the First Amendment, guaranteeing the freedom of religion. In regards of the First Amendment and Native American reparations, came a law after the fact, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.

An elder, as well as an ex-tribal leader from Fort Belknap, Montana did happen to answer a few questions. Donovan Archambault, a known representative of the Fort Belknap Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribe, reflected on the religious aspects of feathers and their use. From the many other aspects viewed, I failed to look at it from a perspective of “white religion”, and the processes therein.

Archambault stated, “does the federal government go into churches, and regulate their sacraments, wines (grapes), and the garments they wear?”

The Native American Religious Freedom Act not only paved the way for Native Americans to express their religion unencumbered by the federal government, it allowed for the separate laws of protection in two areas to contradict themselves in terms of one or the other. Under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, it lists rights to include, but not limited to, access of sacred sites, repatriation of sacred objects held in museums, freedom to worship through ceremonial and traditional rites, including within prisons, and use and possession of: objects considered sacred.

The feather, eagle, owl, falcon, and all those protected under previous laws, is in fact a sacred object. Which law, act, or restriction is being broken or enforced in this situation?

Archambault is an owner of a war bonnet consisting of 13-17 eagle feathers, and various other loose feathers as well as a plume on his hatband, reiterated, “as a sovereign nation, within our boundaries, we should have the rights and regulations built into our constitutions to oversee feather use, independent of federal government regulations.” Archambault believes that spiritual use overrides that of federal law within our boundaries, and the significance of feathers represent the spirituality of our people.

“Feathers today are used as an award or an accomplishment,” Archambault stated, “given to our young people, for accomplishments like graduation, from high school or college.” “They are representative of our healers, through ceremonies and sweats, and as such, we should not need a license to possess them.”

Whether it is for ceremonial purposes, given as gifts, handed down, used in smudging, or created for dancer regalia, there is a common consensus that feathers are an inherent right to Native Americans, and should be treated as such.

Comments (14)
No. 1-5

Which feathers though? Because excuse everyone... Native Americans weren't and aren't the only ones wearing feathers or using feathers for sacred purposes. The owl and the raven/crow are also held sacred to pagans, druids, shamans and those with celt ancestry... and that is just naming the few I know off the top of my head with such history as putting feathers in their hair (mostly for decoration) or using feathers for religious or spiritualism purposes. When one says "white religion" they need to clarify... WHICH "white religion" because there are just as many of those as there were religions within the Native American or American Indian tribes themselves.


No human being has any natural right to the life of any nonhuman being. And it should be noted that Darcy J. Azure nowhere writes of the hunting and killing of birds, whether for the sake of stripping them of feathers or for any other reason, as being a "natural right" of Native Americans. The only acquisitive or extractive action mentioned here is the "taking of a found feather,'" i.e. a feather that has been separated by some natural, nonhuman agency from the body of the bird on which it grew; and that would be morally a quite neutral action. Nevertheless it might be possible for a reader to get the impression that a permission for Native Americans to hunt and kill birds is being promoted here. As I read the statement, it is not at all.

Also, Darcy Azure makes a lot of sense in arguing that the transfer of possession of feathers among Native Americans ought not to be restricted by US laws. By the same token, we should be aware that the great principle spoken by the young man from Rocky Boy, "You have to earn feathers is all I can tell you," might not be regarded by everyone (the loosening of morality being a constant consequence of living in a competitive society), and there might be a temptation to acquire feathers through commercial transactions beginning with the killing of birds. That would be a very regrettable development.


molted feathers: dropped (2times a year/most birds) to the ground can be easily identified/distinguished as molted. Aren't they essentially, gifts back to the earth, or a gift to the individual finding the feather? Is there a way to petition for a re-writing/clarifying the (insanely discriminatory) gov't regulations? Certainly people who are tasked to identify feathers from birds can tell the difference between one that was molted - or not molted but taken/clipped off a bird. I know that this is naive thinking on my part. I just wish Native religious practices could be given the same space and respect as other religious practices.


Moderation in all things I say. An outright prohibition does nothing but help a black market flourish and discourages open discussion. Look at the marijuana industry now versus 40 years ago for a good example. Eagles feathers for Natives is an easy thing to figure out. Has anyone contacted their local State Congressman or woman? What about your State level district reps. I feel like this law could be changed easily. Or could you ask the zoo to donate feathers from their eagles?

Chief White Bear
Chief White Bear

More than just Constitutional law protects our rights to freedom of practice of religion. Look more into your "Rites" (which are more consistent with the laws of nature and heritage.) The Bill of Rights ensured those "Rites" would not be tresspassed upon. Further, the laws (i.e. "Statutes") may effect certain "commercial" aspects of societies that are governed by statute. However the rites to ceremonial processions are protected and guaranteed by International Law and Statutes don't apply under those circumstances.