Eagle feathers at center of battle

Court fight: Two non-Indians are challenging policy for their right to possess what only tribal members may have
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Just 8 years old, Lane Neaman already is dancing with an eagle feather entrusted to him by his American Indian elders.

He's young, but Lane says he understands the importance of the feather in indigenous culture and the need to take good care of it.

"Respect it. Don't play with it," the youngster said.

Eagle feathers are the most powerful objects in American Indian ceremonies, and tribal members earn the right to handle them through their knowledge of their people's history and culture.

Today, white Utahns who practice an American Indian religion want to be part of the generations-old customs and are challenging federal regulations that limit the right to possess feathers to American Indians who are members of federally recognized tribes.

Their latest battle has stretched out for almost a decade and they face formidable opponents. Many tribal members, backed up by the federal government, say the use of feathers and other eagle parts should be reserved for American Indians as a way of preserving the culture. Even religious beliefs are insufficient to allow non-Indians this right, they say.

"Some of them may marry into Native American tribes or have a fascination or even a sincere interest to be more knowledgeable, but they shouldn't be able to legally possess the feathers," said Salt Lake City resident Nino Reyos, a Ute and Pueblo.

As part of a historical tradition, elders teach younger tribal members about the meanings behind feathers and how to take care of them, Reyos said, and non-tribal members lack that background.

Lacee Harris agrees.

"We hold eagle feathers themselves very sacred," said Harris, a Northern Ute medicine person and mental health therapist in Weber County. "Anyone outside, even those who join a church, don't appreciate the reverence and sacredness of those feathers."

He compared non-Indians' wanting to possess indigenous sacred objects with an outsider going into a Christian church and trying to put on its sacred robes.

"There would be a huge outcry if we did that," Harris said. "Yet, with Anglo people, they want to [practice our rituals] with us. How have they earned the rights to these things? Where does that show respect for our traditions, our rights?"

But two non-Indian Utahns, Raymond Hardman and Samuel Ray Wilgus Jr., insist they have a religious right to use eagle feathers in sacramental activities, despite two federal statutes - the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act - that prohibit them from having them.

The acts make an exception for enrolled tribal members who practice an American Indian religion, allowing such members to get a permit to possess eagle feathers and parts. The items are either passed down from tribal elders or obtained from the National Eagle Repository, operated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Wilgus, of Davis County, who says he is an adopted member of the Paiute Indian Peak Band, was convicted of possessing 141 eagle feathers without a permit in 1998. Feathers given to Hardman, of Neola, as a gift by a Hopi leader in Arizona were seized in 1996, and he was also found guilty of violating federal law.

Both appealed and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals eventually sent their cases back to federal judges in Utah to determine whether the possession restrictions violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The act mandates that religious practices must be accommodated unless a compelling governmental interest can be demonstrated and accomplished in the least restrictive manner.

Decisions in the cases are pending.

Cindy Barton-Coombs, Hardman's lawyer, said the eagle should be protected, but not by stopping religious activities.

"I don't think government should be the business of telling who can or cannot worship in a particular religion," she said.

But Indians fear an already long wait for feathers could get longer if non-Indians are allowed to use them.

David Redhorse, American Indian liaison for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said applicants to the repository wait three to four years for a whole eagle, which includes beaks and talons. The shortest wait for just a feather is six weeks, he said, acknowledging that granting the right to non-American Indian could hinder tribal rituals.

"Quite a number of ceremonies need a feather," Redhorse said.

Some American Indians favor reserving feather possession to tribal members.

"We can adopt people into the tribe," said Patty Timbimboo-Madsen, of the Northwestern Band of Shoshone. "But they are not allowed the same rights as a tribal member. They cannot share in some things that a tribe has. It is only an honorary status."

Johnathon Hitlall, a 17-year-old Zuni who lives in Salt Lake City, possesses feathers passed down from family members and friends. He also objects to allowing non-American Indians to have eagle parts.

"I don't think that's good," Hitlall said. "We use them for our religious ceremonies."

Harry James Sr., a Navajo, said there are a lot of "wannabe Indians" who want the same rights as tribal members.

"To me, they should have blood," said James, who runs the West Valley Powwow Committee.

"We can adopt [non-Indians], we can have them join the Native American Church, but there still are some privileges for us."