Manataka American Indian Council
An American Indian accuses federal agents
of using wildlife laws to thwart his religious practices
Holy man fights for seized feathers
By JAMES PINKERTON
Copyright November 10, 2006 Houston Chronicle
writing to show you an article that appeared in the Houston Chronicle this past
Saturday. It is a good article but at the same time it reveals what the United
States Government and the US Fish and Wildlife believes about those of us who do
not belong to a federally recognized tribe. There are about 5.5 million people
claiming to be Indians in the United States alone. According to the Federal
Government only 1.7 million deserve to use feathers and other sacred objects.
This article should get us mad enough to at least write and complain to the US
Government. Because according to this article, if you do not belong to a status
tribe, you are not an Indian." ~Robert Soto
MCALLEN — When Apache holy man Robert Soto performs at American Indian powwows,
it is with some indignation: He's been left to dance with turkey feathers.
The revered golden eagle feathers that once topped his colorful headdress have been locked up since March, seized by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent after a traditional powwow in McAllen.
Soto, 54, wants his eagle feathers back. His followers say their seizure amounts to a "war" on American Indians. And they're challenging a federal law restricting possession of eagle feathers to only federally recognized American Indians.
His tribe, the Lipan Apache, is not recognized by the government, so he's not allowed to possess eagle feathers, which Soto considers among the most sacred of all objects.
''They have restricted our religious practices based on a law," said Soto, a holy man who presides over two American Indian congregations. ''If you don't meet the government's definition of a Native American, you can't worship God as a Native American."
Wildlife agents say they're only following the law.
''We're always on the lookout for any federal wildlife violations," Fish and Wildlife agent Alejandro Rodriguez said. "We're not targeting any particular group."
However, Soto's attorney claims agents are singling out American Indians in Texas.
''What is most troubling is they will do this to the Native American population when they practice their religion, but they don't do it to any other religion. They don't go into Catholic churches and take rosaries," said Marisa Salazar of the Civil Rights Legal Defense & Educational Fund in San Antonio.
Soto's case began when a wildlife agent spotted feathers in a newspaper ad for a March 11 powwow and decided to investigate.
''There were various people in Indian costume or regalia, and some ... had large brown-and-white feathers, which led me to believe they might be golden eagle feathers," said Rodriguez.
And an anonymous caller reported that non-American Indians were using eagle feathers in performances at area powwows, the agent said.
At the powwow, Rodriguez cited Soto and his brother-in-law for illegal possession of golden eagle feathers.
''They claim they're Indian, but they're not recognized by the government," Rodriguez said. ''That's like you or I. Just because our great-great-grandmother was Native American, that doesn't give us the right to possess these protected species."
Under federal law, possession of golden-eagle feathers or body parts is punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and as many as 10 years in prison.
Soto was cited for misdemeanor possession of eagle feathers, and wildlife agents say his case remains under investigation. His brother-in-law paid a $500 fine in April for wearing eagle feathers owned by Soto, and an American Indian exhibiting dreamcatchers — hoop-shaped ornaments of beads and migratory-bird feathers — was found guilty Nov. 3 of misdemeanor charges and fined $200.
The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act bans possession of eagle parts.
It was modified in 1962 to allow American Indians to use eagle feathers in religious rites. But later the wildlife agency changed the rules to allow only federally recognized tribes to possess eagle feathers.
Many turned down
The federal government recognizes 562 tribes with 1.7 million members, according to the National Congress of American Indians. Hundreds of other tribes are awaiting recognition by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, and more petitions have been turned down than those granted, said Jacqueline Johnson, the group's executive director.
''I feel strongly that in this country, that was founded on religious freedom, that we as Indians should have the elements that help us practice that religious freedom," said Johnson, a member of the Tlinquit tribe of Alaska.
Soto agrees and has filed a formal request with the wildlife agency for the return of his feathers, the first step in challenging the law in federal court.
''It's an important case because you have a very large portion of our population whose First Amendment rights continue to be oppressed and violated by the government," said Salazar, his lawyer. "Whether you practice Native American religion sincerely does not depend on the American government giving you federal recognition, and an ID card."
Soto said surrendering his eagle feathers was like losing a loved one.
He asked God to protect the seized feathers — and others he voluntarily turned over to the federal government — at a March 24 ceremony in McAllen.
"Our people were crying," Soto wrote later, describing the ceremony.
Wildlife agents say federal laws are essential in protecting endangered species. Agents don't make a priority of seizing feathers from American Indians unless an ''evident violation" of the law occurs, such as the killing of an eagle or the trafficking in of feathers, said Patrick Durham, American Indian liaison at Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters.
''These are some of the most difficult cases we come across, because they are personal and there are no broad regulations that cover the cultural and religious activities of tribal members," Durham said. ''Hopefully, we're doing the best that we can to protect birds and being respectful of tribal rights."
Soto said eagle feathers are as sacred to American Indians as the cross is to Christians.
''If I get my feathers back, I'll be happy," he said. ''But I want the law to change so every Native American has the right to be an Indian — whether we fit the qualifications of the federal government or not."
He has also appealed to President Bush.
"There are far more important matters for federal agents to be involved with than unrightfully interfering with Native-American rights," he wrote in a letter to the president. "We as a country need to put our priorities in the right order."
Submitted by Robert Soto - ROBTSOTO@aol.com
Sign a petition in favor of new laws protecting American Indian Religious Freedom http://sontree.org/fs/AIV.htm
Send a legal defense donation to the law firm representing Robert Soto. http://crldef.org/
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Robert was forced to hire a law firm to protect his religious freedom. Please email him and send a donation for his legal bills. After all, he is fighting for your rights too.]
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