Federal government surrenders sacred feathers; admits undercover powwow raid was illegal
Published June 15, 2016
WASHINGTON – In a historic settlement agreement signed Monday night, the federal government admitted that it was wrong to send an undercover agent to raid a American Indian powwow and seize nearly 50 eagle feathers used for religious worship—a raid the government dubbed “Operation PowWow” (watch video). Called “a victory for religious freedom” by the Wall Street Journal, the historic agreement ends a decade of litigation by recognizing the right of Pastor Robert Soto of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas and 400 other Native Americans to freely use eagle feathers for Native American worship.
Until now, Pastor Soto and other American Indians had been criminally barred from using naturally fallen eagle feathers for religious ceremonies, even though the federal government allows hundreds of eagles to be killed every year by large power companies, farming, and construction interests.
The following statement can be attributed to Pastor Robert Soto of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas:
“Today marks the end of a long journey. A journey that ten years ago seemed full of impossibilities. I have spent countless hours in prayer seeking God the Creator’s help. No one had ever won a case like this and many had even suffered time in prison. … [Yet] tonight, we gather together to celebrate the return of our eagle feathers. First and foremost, I thank my Lord and Savior for the wisdom He gave to people like our lawyers to help us not just win our feathers back, but to restore our culture and faith. Along with our attorneys I thank my wife Iris and the countless individuals whose faith and prayers have led us here today. As of this evening, we are free to dance, to worship, and to honor our God as Native people.” (read the full statement)
“The government has no business sending undercover agents to raid peaceful Native American religious ceremonies,” said LukeGoodrich, deputy general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “Native Americans were caring for eagles before this Nation was a twinkle in the Founding Fathers’ eyes. This historic agreement recognizes that the government violated Mr. Soto’s religious freedom and must respect the rights of all Native Americans in the future.”
Federal law currently restricts the possession of eagle feathers without a permit. Permits are available for museums, scientists, zoos, farmers, and “other interests”—such as power companies, which kill hundreds of eagles every year. Permits are also available for American Indian religious uses—but only if the Indian is a member of a federally recognized tribe. Because the federal government does not recognize Mr. Soto’s tribe, it sent an undercover agent in 2006 to raid his powwow, confiscate 42 of his feathers, and threaten him with prison time. With the help of the Becket Fund, Mr. Soto fought back in court, winning in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—the same law that the Supreme Court used to protect Hobby Lobby just months before. In 2015 the government agreed to return the eagle feathers but still threatened Mr. Soto and his congregation with civil and criminal penalties if they used those feathers in their religious services.
Monday’s settlement agreement recognizes the right of Mr. Soto and over 400 members of his congregations to freely use eagle feathers in observance of their American Indian faith. They are also free to keep, share, loan, and travel with their eagle feathers, and even obtain new ones from the National Eagle Repository. And the government has promised to reconsider its policies for enforcing feather restrictions, meaning that it will likely rethink ill-conceived methods like Operation PowWow in the future.
“This is a victory not just for me and my people, but for all people of faith,” said Pastor Soto. “If the government can take away my freedom, it can take away yours. So we have to stand together.”
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is co-counsel in the case, together with the international law firm of Baker Botts LLP, and the Civil Rights Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Mr. Soto was joined by 15 other plaintiffs and ministries in the case.