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Feds to broaden Native Americans' right to possess eagle feathers

October 12, 2012|By Danielle Ryan
  • The Department of Justice announced a new policy broadening and clarifying the right of Native Americans to possess eagle feathers and other parts of the birds.
The Department of Justice announced a new policy broadening and clarifying… (Larry Steagall/ The Sun )

WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice announced a new policy broadening and clarifying the right of Native Americans to possess eagle feathers and other parts of the birds that they consider sacred but are protected by U.S. law.

Federal wildlife laws prohibit the killing of eagles and the possession and commercialization of their feathers. While certain members of Indian tribes have been exempted, the wildlife laws have been a source of confusion among some tribes that feared prosecution for carrying out their customs and traditions.

Currently, federal agents “come to powwows and have sting operations and make arrests of Native Americans,” said Wilmer Stampede Mesteth, a Lakota spiritual leader on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. “We’ve got a lot of Native Americans who are in prison that shouldn’t be there.”

The new policy “will help ensure a consistent and uniform approach across the nation to protecting and preserving eagles, and to honoring their cultural and spiritual significance to American Indians,” Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said.

Tribal members will not be prosecuted for picking up naturally molted feathers or sharing feathers with members of other federally recognized tribes, provided that no payment is involved. The policy provides for legal travel within the U.S. with the feathers of the birds, but for travel outside the United States, tribal members must apply for a permit with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Justice Department will continue to prosecute anyone found killing federally protected birds without a permit or buying or selling the feathers of eagles or other migratory birds or attempting to do so. Members of tribes can apply for permits to take and kill eagles for religious purposes.

Robert Holden of the National Congress of American Indians said that the significance of the eagles to Native American culture lies partly with the eagle’s ability to fly higher than other birds, flying “closer to the creator.”

The congress expects the policy to be well-received and viewed as a step in a “positive direction,” Holden said.

Chris Tollefson, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the new policy “more clearly restates what has been a long-standing practice. There has been some concern expressed that the policy wasn’t as clear as it should be. The new policy clearly enunciates the right of Native Americans to use and possess feathers and other body parts.”

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danielle.ryan@latimes.com

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