Spiritual leader of Lipan Apache Tribe back in court over feathers

Robert Soto blesses eagle feathers that were returned to him after being seized by federal agents. Photo from Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

A federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit that could determine whether a spiritual leader of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas has a right to his eagle feathers.

Federal agents seized Robert Soto's regalia at a powwow in March 2006. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals eventually determined the raid was improper because the Interior Department failed to show why Indians who are from non-recognized tribes can't possess eagle feathers as part of their religious practices.

The government returned the feathers to Soto in March of this year and sought to dismiss the case. But Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa said it will continue with the hopes of addressing an underlying issue.

YouTube: Government infiltrates native pow wow, takes eagle feathers

“It seems like a big issue here was whether this is a tribe that is federally recognized,” Hinojosa said in court on Wednesday, The McAllen Monitor reported.

Even though Soto's feathers were returned, he was told he could not loan them or give them to anyone. He feels he is unable to even bring them out in public.

“The government has no business sending undercover agents to raid peaceful Native American religious ceremonies,” Luke Goodrich, the deputy general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is handling the case, said in a press release. “It’s time for an overbearing bureaucracy to face the music.”

Federal law makes it illegal to possess, distribute or sell eagle feathers and parts. An exception for Native Americans applies only to those are members of federally recognized tribes, according to Department of Justice policy.

Get the Story:
Tribe’s court battle for eagle feathers continues (The McAllen Monitor 5/28)
Texas Tribe Wants Religious Equality (KRGV 5/27)
Why eagle feathers could land this Native American pastor in prison (The Washington Post 5/27)

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

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

Related Stories
Religious leader of non-recognized tribe reclaims eagle feathers (03/10)
Non-recognized tribe in Texas hails ruling in eagle feather case (8/26)

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