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Justice Light as a Feather

Thursday October 18th, 2012   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 9:16am PDT   •  

Native Americans arise – some of you anyway. The United States Department of Justice has a momentous announcement. If you are a member of one of the more than 500 federally recognized Indian tribes you will be allowed to possess eagle feathers. And get this, the Justice Department is giving you this privilege, even though possession of eagle feathers is a federal crime.

The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and other federal statutes make killing of eagles a crime, but federal actions extend to possession of feathers from birds that die from natural causes, such as collisions with power lines. Currently, the federal government holds the carcasses of those eagles in a depository. Indians may apply to the depository but there is a waiting list. But now members of federally approved tribes can carry or wear eagle feathers and parts. And it gets better.

If federally approved tribal members see fallen eagle feathers in the wild, they can pick them up without fear of prosecution. Likewise, they can trade or lend feathers to other tribe members with impunity, as long as no money is involved. Any buying or selling of feathers or parts, however, and the Justice Department will prosecute.

One should recall that the dealings of the federal government with Indian tribes have hardly been a model of justice. In 2000, the head of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA, which some Indians call the “bureau of ignorance and apathy”) formally apologized for the agency’s participation in the “ethnic cleansing” of Western tribes. To say the least, the federal government’s record of keeping treaties is hardly exemplary. Some Native Americans saw the longstanding eagle feather prohibitions as part of that abuse.

Eagle feathers are not mere decorations. Tribes consider them sacred and use them in religious ceremonies, but the birds they got from the federal depository were rotten and unfit for ceremonial use. “That’s unacceptable,” Nelson P. White of the Northern Arapaho Tribe told an appeals court in 2007. “How would a non-Indian feel if they had to get their Bible from a repository?”

The new Justice Department feather policy could be construed as an improvement but Native Americans may be forgiven for seeing it as tokenism that fails to make up for centuries of mistreatment.

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October 2012