Each week, for many months, Pastor Robert Soto of the Lipan Apache tribe drove to the house of a terminally ill Pawnee woman. He attended to her at the behest of her daughter who knew her mother was struggling with the prospect of death. As he describes it, he helped her “prepare spiritually to face her Creator.”
In gratitude, after her mother died, the daughter gave Soto ten eagle feathers. Her mother had given her instructions to give them to Soto at the moment of her death to show her gratitude for his kindness. Two of those feathers were among the dozens covert government agents confiscated during a family powwow in 2006 in an operation the Department of Interior called “Operation Powwow.”
The government justified its actions, and the covert operation, by claiming that two laws protecting migratory birds give them the right to enter Native American religious ceremonies and confiscate sacred eagle feathers. The government still insists on enforcing these laws even though eagles are no longer endangered and the Lipan Apache never kill eagles, as the tribe would consider it a form of sacrilege.
Pick Up a Feather, Go to Jail
Soto is an ordained religious leader of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas. His tribe is recognized by historians, sociologists, and the State of Texas—but not by the federal government. Members of federally recognized tribes can possess feathers. But Soto cannot. Ironically, the government issues permits to multiple institutions—including power companies—to kill eagles but it will not allow Soto, or his fellow tribe members, to pick up feathers that fall on the ground as the eagles molt naturally.
Eagle feathers are an essential part of the religion Pastor Soto practices. He has been a feather dancer since he was eight years old, and understands deeply the sacred significance of eagle feathers to his tribe. In his words, “They are a physical manifestation of everything that is holy.” They are so sacred, in fact, that if one falls on the floor while he is dancing, the entire powwow must stop until he has picked it up, blessed it and restored it to its proper place.
Under the federal law used against Soto, it is a crime to possess any part of migratory birds found on an extensive list, including their feathers. The list doesn’t just include bald and golden eagles. It includes over 800 species of birds, including mourning doves, crows, and Canada geese. That means any child who goes to a park and picks up a feather is in violation of federal law if he picks up a common goose or a duck feather and takes it home. However, one does not see covert agents sneaking around neighborhoods in an “Operation Park Patrol” to investigate children collecting feathers, playing with them, or using them in school projects.
Your Tax Dollars at Work
The government has now spent eight years fighting Soto in court. A few months ago, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in favor of Soto, and the government, stung by the court loss, tried to sweep everything under the rug by returning the feathers to Soto on March 10.
Although Soto now possesses the feathers, the government still claims authority to enforce its feather ban against other members of Soto’s tribe. In addition, Soto himself cannot lend the feathers to anyone—not in his tribe and not in his own family. And when he dies, he expects the government will come knocking on the door to collect the feathers.
Covert agent operation? Government agent monitoring powwows? Feathers getting confiscated? Bizarre? Yes. On March 13, a Wall Street Journal editorial asked Secretary Jewell of the Department of Interior: “[C]an’t you find something better for these guys to do?” After all, Soto and his tribe shouldn’t need the government’s permission to practice their religion. That’s something we should all agree on.
The author’s employer, together with Baker Botts LLP and the Civil Rights Legal Defense and Educational Fund, legally represents Soto in this case.