Native Village 
Youth and Education News

March 1, 2013

lumbees say they'll keep their eagle feathers, even if it's against the law
Condensed by Native Village

North Carolina: Angelica Chavis is a third-year law student in North Carolina. She received her prized eagle feather from a tribal elder at age 7, when she was crowned Little Miss Lumbee.

And she's planning to keep it, even if it's against federal law.

"It's something I've earned and it was given to me as an honor," said Chavis, 23.

The Lumbee Tribe is the largest in North Carolina, yet Chavis and other members feel like second-class citizens these days, thanks to a new Obama administration policy.

The Justice Department said in October that it would allow Native Americans to possess or use eagle feathers for religious or cultural purposes. But there was a catch: the new rule applies only to members of federally recognized tribes. The Lumbee Tribe is not among them.

Consequently, the Lumbees and members of other non-federally recognized tribes who own feathers are violating the Bald Eagle Protection Act. The Act makes it a crime to possess a feather without a federal permit.

It's another example of the growing disparities among the nation's tribes.

The Lumbees want the feather policy changed to include all Indians. In the meantime, they're trying to decide what to do with their feathers.

Rob Jacobs served two years as a nuclear weapons specialist with the U.S. Air Force. Today, he's a gaming executive with no plans to stop wearing his feathers in public. While Rob has given away most of his eagle feathers, he's kept two to wear when he attends powwows.

"They can arrest me all they want," said Jacobs, 37, a former Lumbee youth coordinator. "I don't mind standing up for what's right."

While federal authorities can make arrests at Lumbee powwows, Jacobs doubts it will happen.

"The publicity and the sacrilege that it would portray would be more bad press than they would like and put other Indians on notice," he said. "I would compare it to the killing of ghost dancers in the middle of prayer."

April Locklear, 38, gave away many eagle feathers during her reign as Miss Indian World in 1998. While her family did keep a few feathers, April is uncertain about wearing them in public. She doesn't want federal officers knocking on her door with a search warrant.

"If it gets that bad, then I just won't wear them," Locklear said.

Locklear added that it makes little sense for federal officials to worry "about feathers sitting quietly in my closet" with school shootings and other big issues facing them.

"With respect, this law kind of reminds me of cutting tags off of mattresses," she said. "I mean, really? It doesn't harm anybody, I don't think. . . . I'm not out shooting eagles or hawks."

The United States has divided Indian tribes into two camps -- federally recognized and non-recognized. This has long frustrated the Lumbees. While they've lobbied Congress for federal recognition, it's been a losing battle.  Even U.S. Congressman Mike McIntyre has promoted bills in recent years to recognize the Lumbee Tribe. He's gotten nowhere.

At a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing in July, Lumbee Tribal Chairman Paul Brooks said without federal recognition, the tribe is ineligible for federal benefits given to other Indians. He said Lumbees have fought in every U.S. conflict since the Revolutionary War, and that the Constitution includes "no delineation or classification" of tribes. All should be treated equally.

"Our elders are dying waiting for health benefits and our children struggle to become educated while waiting for benefits available to other tribes by federal statutes," Brooks said.

Critics complain that the system of granting federal recognition is corrupted by money. Many unrecognized tribes claim they're denied recognition because they can't match campaign contributions from neighboring tribes with casinos. Under the current laws, only federally recognized tribes can open casinos.

Those tribes are "worried about their money being taken I'll call it like it is," said Locklear.

Cheryl Schmit, founder of Stand Up For California, said federally recognized tribes have feathers because they are considered sovereign governments. It would be wrong to allow non-recognized "tribal groups" and members to own feathers. To do so would open the door for them to receive other federal benefits.

"Today it's eagle feathers. What will it be tomorrow, a request for racial preference for a casino?" she asked.

Attorney General Eric Holder mentioned this distinction when he announced the new policy four months ago. He said the Justice Department wanted to respect the cultural and religious practices "of federally recognized Indian tribes with whom the United States shares a unique government-to-government relationship."

The Justice Department said the new policy clarifies and expands the practice of not arresting tribal members who possess or use eagle feathers. But the department will prosecute tribal and non-tribal members who violate federal laws by killing eagles or buying or selling feathers.

Under current policy, members of federally recognized tribes can own or wear feathers, travel with them, or pick them up if they're found in the wild. They may also give or trade them to other members of federally recognized tribes.

Chavis said the only way the federal government will change its policy is if more non-federally recognized tribes join the Lumbees "to make a big fuss about it and oppose it." She said the issue has her contemplating working in federal Native American law after she takes the bar exam in July.

"The way Washington works, it's going to take a push," Chavis said.

Jacobs said he's tired of trying to prove that he's an Indian. Recently, when he traveled to Washington D.C. to attend an Indian ball on Inauguration Day, he got held up at the door because he belonged to an unrecognized tribe.

"You have to justify that you're an Indian," Jacobs said. "You have to keep telling the story, and it's just such a shame that you have to do that in America. I'm very offended. . . . It's like the government is going to tell you who you are as a people. And they're going to say, `These Indians aren't as Indian as other Indians.' It's ludicrous for them to tell me, `Your guys aren't Indian enough to possess feathers.'"

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