Manataka American Indian Council
EAGLE FEATHER CASE WINS!
Dear Manataka Friends:
I am finding it difficult to write this note as I sit here getting ready to write to you about my feather case. Words cannot express what went through my mind Saturday as one of our lawyers sat at our Native church. I will never forget the expression on his face as I asked him to share with the church attendees about the win. He looked at us with a glowing smile and said, "We Won."
Two words I will never forget: "We Won." For most of you, this is just another case in the courtrooms but for the ones involved, this is far more than a win for us. It is a win for every Native person in the United States of America. What was decided by the three judges of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans LA will be remembered for years to come and will be a referred to from now until the Lord comes back. This was not a victory for our eagle feathers. This was a victory for all Indian people throughout the United States. While the case was about our rights as Native People to use such articles as eagle feathers in our ceremonies and powwows, the case will affect every aspect of our Native lives.
As I look back since the time I wrote that first note on March 12, 2006, I can't help but get a little sick to my stomach. I must confess, I was strong in my faith but at the same time scared. I came home after the event hyperventilating, not being sure how to pray. Words cannot begin to describe the horrible feeling I had in my stomach as I came home with the feeling of being defeated. All I could think of was General George Armstrong Custer as they would blow their bugles and charge at our Indian camps early in the morning while the people slept in the comfort of their own beds. Their invasion could not have come at a worse time, in the middle of our powwow, while people were enjoying themselves in the circle which I was taught all my life is sacred. The circle is more than a place to dance. It is a place of worship. It is a place of prayer. It is a place where families and friends come together. It is a place of joy. It is a place of ceremonies. It is a place of honoring others. I am sure the list could go on. But on March 11, 2006, everything we were taught about the circle was crushed by the Department of Interior when they allowed their agent to come into our circle and violate everything we were told was sacred. It is a day in my life and a day in our history I will never forget.
But at the same time, I have a strong faith in God. I came home feeling defeated, but not defeated. I came home feeling confused, but not confused. I just needed a little time to figure things out. But despite my lack of direction, I decided to contact three close friends and ask them for prayer. They had been praying for me and our Native ministry for years, so why not now, when I needed them the most. I wrote my first letter but what I did not know was that those three notes were then sent throughout the whole world. By the first week, I had over three thousand e-mails. By the second week I had over seven thousand e-mails, not counting the hundreds of letters I received along with the hundreds of phone calls I also received. This was the first time the world, through the immediacy of cyberspace, knew of the horrible thing our government had allowed to happen at our powwow.
Two days after the invasion of our powwow, I got a phone call by from a lawyer who tries federal cases. He gave me his name and then said, "I want to help you. I am a Christian and a youth pastor and I do not want you to go prison for this." It was then that I discovered that I was facing fifteen years in prison with at least a $25,000 fine, so I was told. I don't remember quite how I felt about this, but I remember looking into heaven and saying, "Well, God, it is all in Your hands." They had taken 40 of our Eagle Feathers but I had refused to surrender the last two on my roach. I finally told the office of the Fish and Wildlife that I would turn in my two feathers, but in our way. We would surrender all our feathers with a special ceremony. Why a ceremony? Because I wanted them to know that these feathers were more than feathers; they were part of our lives. I will never forget the ceremony. I can never express the heaviness that I felt that day as I saw the agent of the Department of Interior with that demonic grin on his face as if to tell us, "We Won." They might have won the battle, but the war was about to start.
I could go on with the story. I could probably write a book about this. But for now, I just want you to know what went on that day we will never forget.
So what does the ruling last week mean to all of us? I will share them as points so that you can follow and hopefully understand:
1. First of all, the Department of Interior's lawyer stated that State Recognized Tribes were no less Indian than Federally Recognized Tribes. For me, that was a major victory.
2. The court revealed that the Department of Interior had produced two classes of Indians. Class number one, Federally Acknowledged Tribes, had all the privileges while State Acknowledged Tribes, who were just as much Indians as the first, had no privileges, thus producing two classes of Natives.
3. Since we are governed by the Department of Interior, our religious rights are not defined by the Constitution, but by laws and regulations established by the Department of Interior to lord over our people. They determine who can or who cannot use sacred objects like Eagle Feathers in places we consider sacred.
4. The next thing was that they not only determined who could use these sacred objects, but they also defined who is and who is not Native enough to use these objects. In other words, they violated their own laws of "separation of church and state." By the way, notice I said "their own laws" of separation of church and state, which is not in the Constitution.
There is a lot more I would like to say about the initial victory in the Appeals Court but for now I will stop with this. Some have asked if we have really won or are we going back to court? The Department of Interior has until October 6, 2014 to decide if they want to continue to fight this or not, so yes, this might go back to court. The only thing about this is that they will have to find a new approach since all their previous arguments have been thrown out of court with our ruling. Then they have until November 18, 2014 to appeal to the US Supreme Court where chances are they would decline to hear the case. So as one of our lawyers explained, "If no appeal is filed by the government by November 18th, a hearing will be set with Judge Hinojosa to wrap up the case proceedings by way of a final decision and a request for the return of the feathers."
So no matter what happens between now and November 18, 2014, I will tell you as I told our lawyers at the beginning of this, "I am in it for the long haul." I will not stop the fight until we can no longer fight. Someone asked me, "How will your life change if at the end of all this you lose?" I told them, "Nothing will change. I will continue to wear my feathers with pride and use them as God the Creator intended them to be used." I am Lipan Apache. I am Native by birth. The end result of who I am is not determined by idiotic laws that are placed by our federal government to destroy and redefine who we are. We are the Native people of this land. We were placed on this land by God the Creator. We were the stewards of this land. We are who we are, Natives - and no one, not even the laws established by our country, can ever redefine who we are nor force us to be anyone else. God the Creator created us the way we are. It is up to us to fight for the right to keep that which was determined by God the Creator, not the United States government.
Once again, I want to thank all of you who have supported us the last eight years. I want to thank my Lord and Savior for giving me the privilege to defend the cause of our people through the taking of our Eagle Feathers. I want to thank our lawyers, Milo Colton and Marisa Salazar for their faithful, unfailing commitment. I want to thank my wife and my family for their endless support. I want to thank my Tribal Chairman and the members of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas for their prayers and support. I want to thank all my friends from all over the United States and the world for the endless prayers they have sent our way. Then I want to add one more word of thanks. I want to thank the franchise Hobby Lobby for taking a stand on their Christian convictions, because their recent win in the Supreme Court helped us win our case.
The war continues. The battles have just begun. We still have ground to gain and victories to report. Thank you all for your support and prayers.
Robert Soto, Lipan Apache and Pastor
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