By LORI ANN EDMO
FORT HALL — Eagle feathers were the focus of an August 9 meeting of Large Treaty Tribes in Fort Hall on August 9.
Of concern is a petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering amending regulations governing the religious purposes of Indian tribes exception in the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act to allow access to eagle feathers for all “sincere religious believers who exercise their faith using eagle feathers.”
Jeremy Patterson, an attorney from Fredericks Peebles and Patterson LLP who represents the Ute Tribe explained how the petition evolved.
It started with a group claiming to be Lipan Apaches in Texas that are not federally recognized. However the Texas State Legislature afforded them limited state recognition. The group had an event they were advertising as a powwow in the local media saying they had Native artifacts and natural resource objects for sale (feathers.) It brought the attention of the USFWS, agents attended the powwow where there were vendors selling different types of artifacts, ceremonial objects, feathers including migratory bird parts. The agents raided it and arrested the leader of the group Pastor Robert Soto of the McAllen Grace Brethren Church for trafficking in migratory bird parts. All of the group’s feathers were confiscated. The incident got a lot of media attention so it caught the attention of the Becket Fund that works on a lot of religious freedom cases including the Dollar General case where the owners believed it was okay to discriminate against employees that didn’t believe in their Christian values.
Becket Fund is affiliated with the Koch brothers and other conservative groups. The attorney explained basically it’s a free pass to violate federal law. The Becket Fund offered to represent Soto pro bono.
He noted the existing policies are clear only federally recognized tribal members can possess eagle feathers. It exists because of treaty rights and it’s not true of state groups.
If Soto chose to file a lawsuit it would eventually be heard in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. USFWS chose to enter into a settlement with Soto and his group so they gave the eagle feathers back – the only group of people who are not from a federally recognized tribe. The group didn’t have to pay any fines, criminal charges were dropped and they continue to possess eagle feathers however they can’t pass them down to any other family members. Then Soto did a petition to change the regulations and USFWS agreed to hear it. There was no consultation done with tribes.
On April 30, USFWS published the 44-page petition from Soto so comment could be obtained through July 1 then the deadline was extended to July 16. Comments can still be submitted despite the deadline being closed. To submit through mail: Attn.: FWS-HQ-LE-2018-0078, Division of Policy, Performance and Management Programs, USFWS, 5275 Leesburg Pike, MS: BPHC, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803.
It was noted a resolution was presented at the 2018 annual National Congress of American Indians convention to support Soto and his petition. The resolution was tabled and not passed.
At the mid year NCAI conference, the Ute Tribe presented a resolution for NCAI to call on the USFWS to fully and conclusively deny Soto’s petition for rulemaking. In addition, a group of state recognized tribes presented a resolution calling on NCAI to support the Soto petition. Both resolutions were tabled and didn’t pass.
USFWS will have to evaluate all of the comments that could take a few months upwards of a year then will need to schedule consultation in Indian Country.
The attorney noted it has created a problem with NCAI because they’ve allowed state recognized groups to be full-fledged members. NCAI hasn’t taken an official position opposing the petition and the efforts to undermine tribal sovereignty.