Manataka American Indian Council

 

 

 

 

 

FOCUS ON WARRIORS

 

 

Dear Manataka Friends:

 

My name is Robert Soto.  I am the pastor of McAllen Grace Brethren Church in McAllen Texas and a member of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas. 

 

Along with our church on Sunday, we also pastor three Native ministries: the Native American New Life Center in McAllen, the Chief of Chiefs Christian Church of San Antonio TX and My Rock Native Fellowship of Brownsville TX.  Along with pastoring these four small churches, we also have the Son Tree Native Path ministries, where we do contextual ministry at Native powwows, reservations and through presentations all over the world.  I am one of the founding members of the South Texas Indian Dancers Association and the Vice Chairman of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas. 

 

Robert Soto, Pastor and Vice Chairman of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas

 

As you may have heard, I recently won a lawsuit against the federal government's Department of Interior. Our lawsuit originated about eight years ago when the Department of Interior sent federal officers from the Fish and Wildlife Service into our powwow and took forty-two of my eagle feathers that had been with the family since 1971.

 

 

Robert Soto, Pastor and Vice Chairman of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas

As Natives, we have always seen the circle as a sacred gathering because prayers, ceremonies and other family events happen in the circle.  The circle also happens to be the place where we dance and introduce our children to the ways of our tribe.  The Department of Interior knowing this, came into our powwow circle using at least three laws that we had violated. 

 

According to their laws, if we violate any of these laws it nullifies the sacredness of our Native gatherings, thus giving the government the right to come in and do as they please in our gatherings.  What were the three laws that we violated? 

 

The first law we violated is if a non-status Indian puts on any Native event, ceremony or powwow, it ceases to be sacred. A non-status Indian is one who does not belong to a tribe the United States government recognizes.

 

The second law we violated was that we advertised our gathering in the newspaper. If we advertise any of our Native events, ceremonies or powwows, they cease to be sacred thus giving the government the right to come in and do as they please. 

 

The third law we violated was that there was the exchange of money in our gathering.  Once again, there is a law that states if there is the exchange of money in any of our events or ceremonies or gatherings, the event ceases to be sacred thus giving federal officers the right to come into our gathering to do as they please.  Examples given of this law was that we had vendors selling their goods, cake walks, raffles and even honored a veteran by placing a dollar at his feet. 

 

So on March 11, 2006, several officers came to our gathering harassing men, women and children that were dancing in the powwow circle.  I along with two other Natives were cited for the illegal possession of eagle feathers.  I was facing fifteen years in prison and up to a twenty-five thousand dollar fine.  But the more I thought about it the more I discovered that we as Native people are the only ethnic group in the United States whose spirituality is still governed by the United States government. 

 

For it is the government who determines who is and who is not Native.  It is the United States government who determines who can and cannot worship as a Native person. It is the United States government  who determines who can use certain sacred objects in our powwows, ceremonies, Native events or church services. 

 

It was for this reason that I filed a lawsuit against the Department of Interior soon after the agents came to our family gathering.  After seven and a half years of fighting the case in the lower federal courts, we lost.  I had told my lawyers that I wanted to appeal the case to the 5th District Court of Appeals in New Orleans.  On August 20, 2014, the 5th District Court of Appeals ruled in our favor, using a lot of the ruling that was used to win Hobby Lobby's case against the United States government. 

 

Even though we won the case, the Department of Interior can still take us back to the Southern District of Texas federal court to try and overturn the ruling, or even appeal to the Supreme Court.  As of September 23, 2014, the lawyers for the Department of Interior had requested that we give them a forty-five day extension to help them better prepare for their case. By the way, the end of the forty-five day extension ended November 20, 2014. 

 

From the very beginning, this has not just been about our forty-two feathers that were taken from our family, nor has it been for money. 

 

It is my prayer that when this is all over, the unjust laws that have held our Native people slaves will be overturned. 

 

Can you imagine if the laws they used against us were used to govern the church today?  Can you imagine federal agents coming to your church gathering and stating that because you advertised your church gathering in your local newspaper, or because there was the exchange of money (such as in taking up an offering), your gathering is illegal? What you would do? 

Can you imagine the United States government placing laws to determine who can or cannot have a Bible or wear a cross around your neck? 

 

All I want is our people to be free from the bondage of laws that clearly violate our constitutional rights; rights that do not pertain to Natives because we fall under the laws established by the Department of Interior to govern us as they govern the animal life, the plant life, the bird life, the fish, the earth and the air.  By the way, the reason we fall under the Department of Interior is because the early church determined we did not have a soul worth saving, thus making Native people no better than the creation.  In 1967, it was finally decided that Native people are just as much human as you reading this article and that we are worth saving.  I am so glad God the Creator thinks of us a little better than that. 

 

Keep us in prayer as our church ministry continues to fight for the right of all Natives in the United States to be exactly who God the Creator made us to be - Native people.

 

God bless

Robert Soto, Pastor and Vice Chairman of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas

 

 


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