Feds finalize tribal eagle feather policy

Bald eagle, Colorado. Bob Berwyn photo.

Clarity, transparency to help Native Americans and resource agencies

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Federal officials say that, after consultation with Indian tribes, they’ve clarified a  national policy addressing the right of Native Americans to possess or use eagle feathers for cultural and religious expression.

The policy covers all federally protected birds, bird feathers and bird parts and should help address tribal concerns and uncertainties about how and when eagle feathers can be transported and used. It will also help provide clarity for wildlife officials responsible for enforcing the protective laws.

“This policy will help ensure a consistent and uniform approach across the nation to protecting and preserving eagles, and to honoring their cultural and spiritual significance to American Indians,” said Attorney General Holder. “The Department of Justice is committed to striking the right balance in enforcing our nation’s wildlife laws by respecting the cultural and religious practices of federally recognized Indian tribes with whom the United States shares a unique government-to-government relationship.”

Federal wildlife laws such as the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act generally criminalize the killing of eagles and other migratory birds and the possession or commercialization of the feathers and other parts of such birds to help ensure that eagle and other bird populations remain healthy and sustainable.

At the same time, the Department of Justice recognizes that eagles play a unique and important role in the religious and cultural life of many Indian tribes. Many Indian tribes and tribal members have historically used, and today continue to use federally protected birds, bird feathers or other bird parts for their tribal cultural and religious expression.

“The Justice Department’s policy balances the needs of the federally recognized tribes and their members to be able to obtain, possess and use eagle feathers for their religious and cultural practices with the need to protect and preserve these magnificent birds,” said Donald E. “Del” Laverdure, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.

“Its reasoned approach reflects a greater understanding and respect for cultural beliefs and spiritual practices of Indian people while also providing much-needed clarity for those responsible for enforcing federal migratory bird protection laws.”

The policy provides that, consistent with the Department of Justice’s traditional exercise of its discretion, a member of a federally recognized tribe engaged only in the following types of conduct will not be subject to prosecution:

  • Possessing, using, wearing or carrying federally protected birds, bird feathers or other bird parts (federally protected bird parts);
  • Traveling domestically with federally protected bird parts or, if tribal members obtain and comply with necessary permits, traveling internationally with such items;
  • Picking up naturally molted or fallen feathers found in the wild, without molesting or disturbing federally protected birds or their nests;
  • Giving or loaning federally protected bird parts to other members of federally recognized tribes, without compensation of any kind;
  • Exchanging federally protected bird parts for federally protected bird parts with other members of federally recognized tribes, without compensation of any kind;
  • Providing the feathers or other parts of federally protected birds to craftspersons who are members of federally recognized tribes to be fashioned into objects for eventual use in tribal religious or cultural activities

The Department of Justice will continue to prosecute tribal members and non-members alike for violating federal laws that prohibit the killing of eagles and other migratory birds or the buying or selling of the feathers or other parts of such birds.

The policy expands upon longstanding Department of Justice practice and Department of the Interior policy. It was developed in close coordination with the Department of the Interior. The Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) and United States Attorneys’ Offices work closely with the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs on enforcement of federal laws protecting birds.

The view the policy and a fact sheet on the policy, visit: www.justice.gov/tribal.


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