EAGLE FEATHER LAW
There are a number of federal wildlife laws pertaining to eagles and their feathers (e.g. The Lacey Act, The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act), however the "eagle feather law" in its most common usage refers to Title 50 Part 22 of the United States Code of Federal Regulations (50 CFR 22), the federal law governing the use and possession of eagle (and other migratory bird species) feathers as religious objects.
The eagle feather law provides certain exceptions to federal wildlife laws regarding eagles and other migratory birds to enable Native Americans to continue to practice traditional indigenous religious and spiritual customs, of which the use and possession of eagle feathers is central. The eagle feather may play a comparable role to Native American religions as the crucifix plays to the Christian religion or the Koran to the Islamic religion.
Under the current language of the eagle feather law, only individuals of certifiable Native American ancestry enrolled in a federally recognized tribe are legally authorized to obtain eagle feathers and eagle feather permits. Those caught with eagle feathers for religious use without permits can be arrested and face fines up to $25,000 and imprisonment.
Obtaining an eagle permit under the eagle feather law can be complicated. To legally possess eagle feathers for use in Native American spiritual practices, citizens must first be able to legally prove their ethnicity. This is generally accomplished by providing documentation of Native American ancestry officially recorded in the original Dawes Rolls (or Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, or the Dawes Commission of Final Rolls) and documentation of current membership in a federally recognized tribe.
Tribal membership often requires a minimum blood quantum of ¼ Native American ancestry (having at least one grandparent who was full blood Native American), although blood quantum requirements for tribal membership vary widely.
While the eagle feather law allows for individuals who are adopted members of federally recognized tribes to obtain eagle feathers and eagle feather permits, all applicants for eagle permits must submit an application to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for religious use of eagle feathers.
Eagle Feather Controversy
The eagle feather controversy is an ongoing debate over the criteria of ownership and possession of eagle feathers and parts based on race or ethnicity and Native American tribal membership.
There have been several legal challenges to the eagle feather law in which the law’s constitutionality and effects of racial segregation and racial preferences have been called into question.
Presently there are a number of Native and non-Native American individuals and organizations dedicated to amending the language of the law to allow Native American tribes and tribal members greater opportunity to include select non-Native Americans as acceptable owners of eagles feathers for religious and spiritual use.
Typical reasons given for contesting changes to the eagle feather law include:
- The eagle feather law is the only legal protection of Native American spirituality;
- Eagle supplies are limited. Increasing number of people who can have them may make feathers more scarce;
- Non-Native American people have not earned the right to have eagle feathers.
Typical reasons given in support of amending the eagle feather law include:
- Eagle feather laws impose racial preferences & segregation not traditionally found amongst Native American societies;
- The race requirement of tribal enrollment to possess eagles undermines tribal sovereignty rights to fully welcome and include others in tribal customs involving eagle feathers, and in so doing harms the preservation of traditional values and practices woven into indigenous societies that have welcomed non-Native Americans for centuries;
- Restricting access to religious objects on the basis of ethnicity promotes the belief that unequal protection of civil rights is acceptable--that laws do not have to be applied equally to all races;
- Eagle permit certification restrictions based on race impede the ability of people with Native American ancestry, but who may be unable to prove their ancestry, from exploring their heritage;
- Many Native American people have given feathers to non-Native Americans who have been deemed to have earned the feathers;
- Forbidding religious participation on the basis of race encourages those who are approved to participate in Native American customs, but who are unable to obtain an eagle feathers through existing federal channels, to break the law in order to follow their beliefs;
- Eagle laws promote unequal access to eagle feathers as religious objects;
- The law may encourage eagle poaching by not providing a legally protected avenue of acquiring eagles to those who are approved to participate in Native American customs but who are not able to become enrolled in a federally recognized tribe;
- Eagle laws forbid people from fully participating in bona fide Native American religions;
- The eagle feather law instills artificial values on race, blood quantum and certifiable ancestry;
- The law harms Native American families and individuals who have adopted or wish to adopt or welcome non-Native Americans into their families and spiritual practices;
- Granting access to eagle feathers for approved participants of bona fide Native American customs may actually help in raptor conservation as this may translate into more people who revere raptors and who will want to protect them;
- Removing racial requirements from 50 CFR 22 will enable all U.S. citizen to apply for feathers to the National Eagle Repository, overseen by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. This would extend the ability of government-regulated programs and agencies to better protect raptors by decreasing the appeal and profitability of raptor poaching and trafficking.