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Point of View: Religious freedom for all Native Americans

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It was a beautiful morning for worship. As a spiritual leader for my tribe, the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, I wore my traditional clothing and eagle feathers and we led the procession into the sacred circle, as my people have worshiped for generations. Like other Native Americans, we believe that eagles have a special connection to the Creator and so we use feathers in our religious worship.

Without warning, our pow-wow was raided by an undercover federal agent. He stopped our ceremony and violated our sacred circle. Children were crying and running to hide. He confiscated my feathers, which had been handed down over generations, and threatened me with criminal prosecution, fines, and imprisonment.

That day violated everything we are as Native people.

The reason for this violation is federal law run amok. Many decades ago, Congress passed the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which makes it a crime to possess eagle feathers even if the feathers are obtained without harming or disturbing a single eagle.

The Department of Interior has a policy of not enforcing this law against members of federally recognized tribes, but this policy is not legal protection. It could be changed tomorrow without warning. And it doesn’t provide any protection to members of state-recognized tribes like me.

As an American Indian, I believe eagles are sacred and should be protected from harm. But the current law is deeply unfair. Big businesses like power companies and wind farms have broad exemptions for killing thousands of eagle every year. But many Native Americans face jail time for picking up even a single feather. And if a grandmother who is a member of a federally recognized tribe gifts an unregistered grandchild with a feather, they are both criminals.

This law harms members of federally recognized tribes and state recognized tribes alike. And it forces too many Native Americans to either abandon parts of their heritage or face criminal prosecution.

The good news is that I spent over 10 years fighting in court to get my feathers back, and I won. A federal appeals court agreed that the government’s criminal ban on the religious use of eagle feathers violates the law.

The bad news is that the victory protects only me and some members of my tribe. Our victory doesn't protect most members of our tribe and members of other state recognized tribes. And it doesn’t create any long-term certainty for federally recognized tribes who currently have nothing more than a handshake from the federal government. That handshake could be revoked tomorrow.

That’s why I’m asking the Department of Interior to protect all Native Americans. As part of my legal victory, I won the opportunity to ask the department to change their unjust policy. The department is considering my proposal.

My request for change is simple: All Native Americans should be free to practice their religion using feathers without the threat of criminal prosecution, and the Department should pass a final regulation recognizing this right.

Such a change would be good news for everyone. Members of federally recognized tribes would have real and lasting legal protection for the religious use of eagle feathers, rather than relying on the government’s current (and easily revocable) agreement to look the other way. Members of state recognized tribes will have the clear protection that the court has already said we legally deserve. And the federal government could focus its resources on catching criminals who harm eagles or commercialize Native American religious practices, rather than sending undercover agents to raid peaceful Native American religious ceremonies.

Killing eagles or commercializing eagle parts will remain just as illegal as before. And the unique relationship between federally recognized tribes and the federal government would remain undisturbed. Most importantly, the federal government would recognize the religious freedom and dignity of all Native Americans.

Soto is an award-winning feather dancer and Lipan Apache religious leader.

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