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Holt Supreme Court
             A Message from the Executive Director
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
Dear Friends,

As I write this, after many years in court, the U.S. government is finally returning 46 eagle feathers to our client, Pastor Soto. But, I am afraid, Pastor Soto’s struggles are not over.

Let me tell you his story.

To the credit of the educational system in this country, most Americans are aware that Native Americans have often been treated poorly by this country.

But history books did not prepare me for: “Operation Pow Wow.”

This is the name the government gave to an operation that sent covert government agents into Native American religious ceremonies. Their mission? To look for unlicensed eagle feathers, confiscate them, and fine and press charges (carrying prison sentences!) against those possessing them.

The government claims that two laws protecting migratory birds, including bald and golden eagles, give them the right to do this.

The first question that came to my mind when I saw this was: Are eagles endangered? Turns out no. Not anymore. But the government insists on preserving a rigorous system forbidding the possession of eagle feathers. The laws allow the government, however, to grant countless permits exempting museums, scientists, farmers, zoos, power companies, and others for various reasons.

For example: a farmer whose livestock are being disturbed by eagles is permitted to shoot the birds. Shoot them.

But if a certain Native American religious leader picks up a molted eagle feather from the forest floor for use in a powwow, he is criminalized for violating federal law.

Pastor Robert Soto is an ordained Native American religious leader of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas. His tribe is recognized by historians, sociologists, and the State of Texas—but not by the federal government. Federally recognized tribe members can apply for permits to acquire feathers. But Pastor Soto cannot.

Eagle feathers are an essential part of the religion Pastor Soto practices. He has been a feather dancer since he was 8 years old and understands deeply the sacred significance of eagle feathers to his tribe. In his words, they “are a physical manifestation of everything that is holy.” They are so sacred, in fact, that if one falls on the floor while he is dancing, the entire powwow must stop until he has picked it up and restored it to its proper place.

If you have 2 minutes to spare, please allow me to introduce you to Pastor Soto. I promise you will be moved.

                           

It was during one of these religious powwows that Pastor Soto’s feathers were confiscated—and he was threatened with criminal action.

A federal special agent saw a photo advertising the powwow in a local newspaper. Because the picture showed Native Americans wearing feathers, he decided that he had to investigate. He went to the powwow in disguise.

(I can think of many important things for federal agents to investigate. Covertly breaking up a religious Native American powwow is not something I’d expect to see at the top of the list.)

When the agent saw one of Pastor Soto’s family members, he told him he liked his costume and asked him what it was made of. When the family member said that it was made from eagle feathers, the special agent whipped out his badge, removed the family member from the powwow for interrogation, and seized the feathers. He then accosted Pastor Soto, confiscated his feathers, and threatened him with criminal action.

The special agent didn’t stop there. He went right back into the powwow to find more evidence of heinous law-breaking.

And he found it—guess where!—at a craft booth decorated with dream catchers. The dream catchers were made of dove, duck, and goose feathers found during a nature walk. The special agent confiscated these, as well, and later charged the man who made the dream catchers with a federal crime. (He was convicted and forced to pay a fine.)

The facts are bizarre, but true.

Under the federal law used against Pastor Soto, it is a crime to possess any part of migratory birds found on this list—including their feathers.

If you take a quick glance at the list, my guess is that you’ll be dumbfounded. It doesn’t just include bald and golden eagles. It includes over 800 species of birds, including mourning doves, crows, and Canada geese.

That means my children—and possibly yours, if you’ve ever taken them to a park—violate federal law by picking up common goose or duck feathers and taking them home.

But you don’t see covert agents sneaking around my neighborhood to investigate children collecting feathers, playing with them, or using them in school projects.

No. What you do see is “Operation Pow Wow.” What you see is federal agents searching for ways to undermine Native American tribes like the Lipan Apache, Pastor Soto’s tribe. What you see is the federal government limiting the religious exercise of some individuals—while granting others free rein to do the same thing for non-religious reasons.

Today the government agreed to return the feathers it confiscated so many years ago. But the fight is not over. If someone else in Pastor Soto’s tribe decides to use eagle feathers, he may still be charged with fines and possible imprisonment.

Neither Pastor Soto nor anyone from his tribe should need the government’s permission to practice their religion—and that’s something we should all agree on.
Sincerely,
kristina
Kristina Arriaga
Executive Director
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P.S. You may have heard that the week started with a victory for freedom. The Supreme Court sent the Notre Dame case back to a lower court. This is another HHS mandate case. Go Notre Dame! Read more about it here.

 

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