Native Americans’ Traditional Uses of Feathers...


During a visit to eastern Kentucky, a Pima Native American from Arizona accepted a gift of two feathers--one from an owl, one from a vulture, both shed naturally by the birds.

The Pima man put them in his hatband, hoping to gain wisdom and strength from their spirits.

But both the giver and the receiver may have unwittingly committed a federal offense punishable by up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.


Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, it is illegal for most people to possess, trade or sell almost any bird or bird part. The law applies to more than 1,000 species and covers nearly everything except common starlings and pigeons.

“Most people would not think you would be breaking the law if you see a feather on the ground to pick it up,” said Karen Atkinson, a Hidatsa Native American, staff attorney for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes of Montana.

Because of the law, it is difficult for Native Americans to obtain bird feathers and parts for religious purposes. In order to get parts from bald and golden eagles, Native Americans must prove that they are enrolled members of a federally recognized tribe. They then add their names to a waiting list with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Eagle Repository in Ashland, Ore. The wait can last as much as two years.

The Pima man talked of what he thought was an amendment to the Indian Civil Rights Act. He said the amendment, which he called the Indian Religious Freedom Act, loosened restrictions on the transfer and transport of feathers.

“If there’s been a change, then nobody’s told us,” said Monty Halcomb, assistant law enforcement director with the wildlife agency’s regional office in Atlanta.

Carmen Simonton, a legal document examiner for the wildlife agency, said the Pima man might have been thinking of a memo President Clinton issued last year.

In the memo, Clinton instructed all heads of executive departments and agencies to begin making it easier for Native Americans to obtain eagle parts. As a result, the service has suspended the practice of releasing eagle carcasses for use by educational institutions, Simonton said.

“They’re all being sent to Ashland for Native American distribution, until all the Native Americans who have qualified for permits have received their eagle feathers,” she said.

Bernadette Hilbourn, the repository’s supervisor, said the facility does not take many non-eagle parts. Carcasses of other birds generally are handled by local officers in the service’s seven regional offices.

But some government officials are unclear on the procedure.

When asked about the gift of the two feathers, Interior Department spokesman Bob Walker at first said owl and vulture feathers are handled the same as eagle parts. But he changed that explanation after consulting a colleague.

“Provided the person had the proper permit to have the owl in the first place, if the bird then died, there’s nothing that prohibits them giving the feathers to Indians,” he said.

Not so, said Simonton.

“We will have a law enforcement officer of some sort transfer the feathers,” she said.

The reason for the repository and other procedures is to protect the bird population, and to ration the scant supply of bird parts for legitimate uses. Halcomb said he has heard of double-train war bonnets fetching up to $20,000 on the black market.

“We want to stop this commercial trade, regardless of who’s doing it,” he said. “And we want to help preserve and to protect those Native American rights.”

Halcomb said his agency helps take people out of the predicament of separating the recognized Native Americans from what he calls “wannabes.” And he said the repository system helps ensure that everyone has an equal chance of getting the bird parts.

“The majority of the Native Americans--at least the ones I’ve talked with--they don’t like the delays,” he said. “But they’re more willing to live with that than they are with non-Indians getting these feathers.”

Nick Mejia of Guthrie in western Kentucky is a registered Comanche. He agrees with Halcomb to some extent.

“I appreciate it in some manner, because I think there are people who are willing to go out and just harvest eagles and probably for the wrong reasons,” said Mejia, who is vice president for the Alliance for Native American Indian Rights.

But Mejia said there is also an injustice inherent in the system.

Mejia has handled eagle feathers in religious services to rebury Native American dead disturbed by looters. But he acknowledges that he does not have a permit.

“I have to have a permit by federal law even to have a feather,” he said. “Yet I can go dig up a grave, and it’s only a misdemeanor. . . And that bothers me, that our birds require more respect than the human being.”