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Feather stings inhibit religion‏

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  • Feather stings inhibit religion‏

    Healer: Feather stings inhibit freedom of religion
    Written by JoKAY DOWELL
    Native American Times - Healer: Feather stings inhibit freedom of religion

    TUBA CITY, Ariz. – A Navajo traditional healer has alleged that eagle feathers belonging to her were wrongly confiscated by federal Fish and Wildlife agents in a raid on a home where she had taken the feathers to be crafted into a beaded fan. She questions their intent and said the agency is violating her freedom of religion.

    The eagle staff is held high by American Indian veterans leading the grand entry at an Oklahoma powwow. Photo By JoKay Dowell

    When Jennifer Williams passed by a relative’s house on her way home from nursing school, she wondered what the “official-looking cars” were doing in his driveway. Once home, she answered her ringing phone and was dismayed by what she heard.

    “He said, ‘I’m sorry, your feathers were just taken by Fish and Wildlife. Everybody’s feathers were taken.’ I was shocked,” Williams said.

    Williams told Native Times that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents served a search warrant on her “Indian relative,” Patrick Scott, a Navajo, to whom she had taken golden eagle feathers to craft into a ceremonial fan she would have used in her traditional Navajo healing practice of hand-trembling, for people who need healing.

    With the loss of those venerated feathers, Williams said she doesn’t understand how the agents chose her community. She thinks they are violating her rights, since she did nothing wrong.

    “The federal Fish and Wildlife has searched and seized [from] several homes within our community. I am unsure what their purpose is for searching these homes within our community,” she said. “I feel that the Fish and Wildlife violated our First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. I did not purchase these feathers from Mr. Scott but did compensate him for his work and labor for putting the feather fan together. I am very upset that what we use to practice our traditional religion is being interrupted and being violated by the Federal Fish and Wildlife.”

    For lay persons, laws and acts used by the agency are confusing at best. According to the USFWS Web site, a law of interest to the agency in this case is the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, including several amendments over the years. That law provides for the protection of the bald eagle and the golden eagle by prohibiting, except under certain specific conditions, the taking, possession and commerce of such birds. Amendments increased penalties and provided reward for information leading to arrest and convictions of violators. A 1994 amendment from Pres. Clinton sets out policy concerning collection and distribution of eagle feathers for American Indian religious purposes. The Migratory Bird Act of 1918 is also used.

    Actually finding the Clinton Amendment proved tedious for NAT. But, whether such perplexing laws actually protect American Indian religious beliefs is always a timely topic in Indian Country. Williams thinks the USFWS doesn’t understand the significance of the feathers and the impact of the raids on Indian communities whose religious beliefs have survived countless assaults and attempts to eradicate it.

    The mother of five said she and her husband attend Native American Church meetings. They carry identification that refers to her use of eagle feathers.

    “We go to NAC meetings and use the feathers in prayer services. We have a Navajo component to the NAC and carry cards saying we can carry feathers from Navajo Nation but Fish and Wildlife doesn’t recognize them,” she said. “There were three raids here: one on a Navajo medicine man whose bundle was taken; those things are very sacred, they don’t know what they are messing with. Hawk feathers, crow feathers are all sacred to area tribes.”

    Williams said her father who lives in Idaho gave her the eagle feathers that Scott said were confiscated in the raid on his home. She said her father contacted USFWS in his region and was told he should write a letter saying his daughter’s feathers were not involved in any illegal transactions.

    Assistant Special Agent Jill Birchell, of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Region 2 office in Albuquerque, New Mexico said, indeed, a letter or phone call to the USFWS would be the correct start in any procedure to try to reclaim what she referred to as “contraband;” feathers that might have been confiscated in the act of serving a search warrant. But she also warned the process of returning feathers believed to be involved in illegal transactions would be a long and perhaps arduous task. Either way, Birchell said, the contraband will either be forfeited or returned to the person from whom it was confiscated.

    “In the end it will be one or the other. The government doesn’t hold on to these items,” the agent said.

    Birchell was firm in explaining that the investigation was thorough and any confiscated items are believed by the agency to have been involved in illegal transactions. She said the USFWS was careful in its investigations and brought in American Indian consultants to educate its officers about Indian culture and beliefs.

    “I can tell you that there was a very concerted effort to educate all the officers about the practices used in the Native community,” she said. “I can tell you that this operation focused on the illegal taking of birds and eagles, the only things that were taken were involved in illegal activities.”

    Reluctantly, Birchell conceded there could have been mistakes. She said there will be an effort to right any errors that might have occurred, but the process could get sticky.

    “If they have ways to show their items were not part of an illegal act. But if it was taken from a defendant’s house, I’m not sure how they will do that,” Birchell said. “But I can tell you it will take time. They have to show it was not the subject of an illegal act. If they don’t feel like they will get the evidence back (from whom it was seized), or if they can show it was not part of an illegal act, we certainly want to know. There was an effort to seize only items of an illegal act. There will be follow up investigations; the items will be forfeited or returned to the owners.”

    Birchell also said informants or undercover officers could have been used in the process of investigation.

    “Sometimes there’s an informant used, sometimes a subject will communicate with an officer not knowing they’re an officer. Generally, undercover agents from the Indian community or an informant is used; evidence was obtained,” she said.

    In March, three men from the Yakama Nation in Washington and a Kiowa from Oklahoma were arrested for killing and selling eagle parts and feathers. Protests and rumors of FBI raids, searches and Indians-turned-informants were posted on Internet social networking sites like YouTube and sent via e-mail.

    “Now if the feds want us to be required to carry documents, what is happening to our religious freedom and our sovereignty? More loss of sacred sites and sacred practices? I really think we should pay mind to things like this because, as one friend said, ‘You would never see them confiscating crosses out of a church,’” Willow Jack, a Lemhi Shoshone-Bannock working on a master degree in social work policy and administration at Kansas University, said.

    Jack said she made the posts and sent out e-mails because she became concerned after hearing of several raids and arrests across the West.

    “Thank God I have papers for my feathers and fans; they all came from the National Eagle Repository. But, what about our old feathers? I know my family carries a war bonnet from a battle in 1867. How do we protect feathers given to us by our elders or feathers we have gotten from family members who have passed? We don’t bury those things, they are sacred and must live on to carry them prayers out,” she said.

    Permits to carry and applications to receive eagle feathers can be obtained from the USFWS. However, the time frame for receiving feathers can be several years depending on what the applicant requests.

    American Indians from across the Nation continue to be concerned about the loss of traditional ways. Williams wonders why the current Navajo Nation administration is silent about the raids on her community and, like Jack, is encouraging Indian Country to be vigilant and ask questions to protect Native religious freedom. Both women say they do not condone the killing of eagles or selling feathers and parts.

    “These are sacred beings used to practice religious ceremonies. The sad thing is the president and vice president and officers (of Navajo Nation) are not raising their voices and that’s pretty sad if they believe in the church. Where are they? When are they going to raise their voices?” she asked.

    In the meantime, Williams said she will do what is needed to get her feathers returned. She has written letters to some Indian rights organizations and President Obama. There has been no response from the White House.

    Like her healing gift, Williams believes the Creator made a way for her feathers to come to her by way of her father. But she also thinks that concept has never been understood by federal bureaucracies or law enforcement.

    “These things are for traditional purposes; not to boast, or for fashion. I wish they could understand what those things mean to me and to other Indian tribes. The law says one thing, the First Amendment, and they do another. What are they going to do with those feathers? If feathers came from Fish and Wildlife, and then they take them back, what are they going to do with them; discard them? That’s not right.”

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