Environment | Law | National | Federal Recognition

Non-recognized tribe in Texas hails ruling in eagle feather case






Members and representatives of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas attended the Apache Alliance Summit in Arizona in June. Photo from Facebook

The non-federally recognized Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas is welcoming an appeals court decision that clears the way for its members to possess eagle feathers.

In a unanimous decision, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals said the Interior Department failed to explain why Indians who are members of non-recognized tribes can't possess eagle feathers as part of their religious practices. The ruling will help Robert Soto, the tribe's vice chairman, secure the return of eagle feathers that were seized during a powwow on March 11, 2006.

"It’s been a long hard fought battle that we just had to win,” Soto said in a press release. “Our backs were against the wall so we had to say the Lipans are still very much here and will still defend their way of life.”

The ruling said there was no doubt that Soto is an "Indian" even though is tribe isn't on the list of federally recognized entities. Denying him eagle feathers might violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act but the 5th Circuit left that to a lower court to consider in further proceedings.

"The burden on the department is a high one: they must demonstrate that 'no alternative forms of regulation' would maintain this relationship without infringing upon the rights of others," the 5th Circuit stated. "At this stage, the department has not shown that this regulation is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests."

Although the case isn't over yet, the Lipan Apaches appear close to victory. In August 2001, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals held that a member of a non-recognized Apache tribe in New Mexico could possess eagle feathers.

Non-Indians, on the other hand, have not been so successful. In July 2008, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to rehear a case involving two men who said their religious rights were violated when their eagle feathers were confiscated.

Turtle Talk has posted documents from the 5th Circuit case, McAllen Grace Brethren Church v. Interior.

5th Circuit Decision:
McAllen Grace Brethren Church v. Salazar (August 20, 2014)

9th Circuit Decision:
US v. Vasquez-Ramos (June 27, 2008)

10th Circuit Decision:
Saenz v. Interior (August 8, 2001)

Relevant Documents:
Memorandum: Possession or Use of the Feathers or Other Parts of Federally Protected Birds for Tribal Cultural and Religious Purposes (October 12, 2012)

Related Stories:
Opinion: DOJ should make changes to policy on eagle feathers (07/15)
Non-recognized tribes excluded from DOJ eagle feather policy (2/20)
Justice Department announces policy on use of eagle feathers (10/12)