After nine years of litigation, the federal government has returned 42 sacred eagle feathers it wrongly seized from an American Indian tribe.
In 2006, undercover federal agents broke up a Lipan Apache powwow and seized the feathers, threatening to arrest the tribe’s spiritual leader, Robert Soto, if he got in their way. He faced up to 15 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine for possessing the feathers, and decided to sue.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty took up his case, and announced the outcome in a statement Tuesday.
Possession of eagle feathers is illegal under federal law, unless you are granted a permit. Museums, scientists, zoos and “other interests,” including Native American tribes, are usually granted permits. The Lipan Apache is recognized by the state of Texas, but not by the federal government, so Soto couldn’t get a permit for his feathers, which were given to him in 1971.
“That day when they came to our powwow they basically, they destroyed our innocence,” he said, and added: “They were crying.”
The Fish and Wildlife agents learned about the feathers through an anonymous call and a picture advertising the tribe’s powwow in a local newspaper. “There were various people in Indian costume or regalia, and some … had large brown-and-white feathers, which led me to believe they might be golden eagle feathers,” agent Alejandro Rodriguez told the Houston Chronicle in 2006.
”They claim they’re Indian, but they’re not recognized by the government,” he added. ”That’s like you or I. Just because our great-great-grandmother was Native American, that doesn’t give us the right to possess these protected species.”
Soto challenged the government under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — the same law featured in the Supreme Court decision last year to allow Hobby Lobby not to cover contraception for its employees — and the feathers were returned this week.
“It would be like the United States government coming into your church and disbanding your church and telling you that you couldn’t worship god, using idiotic laws,” he added. “Like ‘there was the exchange of money at your powwow so your powwow ceased to be sacred,’ or ‘you advertised your powwow in the newspaper and that ceased to be sacred.'”
However the government is still threatening to repossess the feathers if Soto uses them in a religious ceremony.
“For the Apache people the eagle was kind of like this symbol of freedom,” he said, noting that the tribe doesn’t kill eagles, but harvests the feathers and recycles them.
“We use them over and over again because we treat them with respect.”
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