Eagle Feathers Returned with Restrictions
by Maxie Elizabeth Ruan, June 22, 2015
Almost three months after the government returned his sacred eagle feathers,
Lipan Apache Vice-Chairman Robert Soto is back in court, fighting for the right
to use them, after filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior.
According to the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act,
a federal law, only members of federally recognized Native American tribes are allowed
to possess eagle feathers. Although historians, the state of Texas, and the Fifth
District Court have acknowledged the Lipan Apache Tribe, Lipan people in Texas
still do not have federal recognition.
Soto’s feathers were confiscated by agents
from the Department of Interior at the Soto family’s bi-yearly Lipan Apache powwow
in 2006. The agents, who dressed as tourists, first took photos of dancers in their
regalia, Soto recalled. Hours later, the powwow was interrupted when the agents
began confiscating feathers.
Soto said the agents asked him if he was a
member of a federally recognized tribe. When he answered that he was not, his
feathers were confiscated.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
permission to possess eagle feathers or parts can be given on the grounds of education,
scientific studies, and federally recognized Native American religious purposes.
“We had no status as an American Indian,” Soto said.
“We weren’t federally recognized as Native American.”
After nine years of legal battles, Soto’s 50
feathers were returned to him on March 10, 2015, along with restrictions.
Because he is not a member of a federally recognized tribe, the feathers cannot be
lent out, they cannot be given away or sold, and upon Soto’s death, no one can inherit
the feathers. Additionally, if he is caught with additional feathers, he will be
“Nothing’s changed,” he said. “No laws have
After Soto received his feathers, the government
submitted a motion to have the case dismissed, arguing that their return should have
ended it. On May 27, Chief Judge Ricardo Hinojosa denied the motion, allowing for the
lawsuit to continue.
Soto disagrees with the government’s argument.
“It’s never been about the feathers,” Soto said. “It’s about religious rights.
We have the right to worship the way we do.”
Hinojosa agreed, saying that the issue
was also about federal recognition.
It is mentioned in the First Amendment
of the Bill of Rights that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Soto hopes that the government will look
back on this piece of foundation that the United States was built on and
apply it to this case.
“What’s the point of having the feathers
if we can’t use them?” Soto said.
The next court appearance,
date pending, will continue efforts to restore tribal member’s
rights. Soto encourages Lipan Apache tribe members to show their
support by being present in court.
“There’s more power in numbers,”