Angelica Chavis, a third-year law student in North Carolina, 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.
Chavis and other members of the Lumbee Tribe, the largest in North Carolina, say they’re feeling 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, and 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, which 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, who served two years as a nuclear weapons specialist with the U.S. Air Force and now is a gaming executive in Philadelphia, has no plans to stop wearing his feathers in public. He owned 150 feathers but gave most of them away, keeping one for his car and two that he puts on his head when he attends powwows.
“They can arrest me all they want,” said Jacobs, 37, a former youth coordinator for the tribe. “I don’t mind standing up for what’s right.”
He said that while federal authorities could make arrests at Lumbee powwows, he 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, said she gave away many eagle feathers during her reign as Miss Indian World in 1998. She gave one to her husband when they married, and her family still has 15 feathers. She’s less certain about wearing them in public now, saying she’d just as soon avoid having federal officers knock on her door with a search warrant.
“If it gets that bad, then I just won’t wear them,” Locklear said, but she added that it makes little sense to have federal officials 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 federal government’s division of Indians into two camps has long been a source of frustration for the Lumbees, who have lobbied Congress hard to join the ranks of the federally recognized.
So far, it has been a losing battle. The local congressman, Democratic Rep. Mike McIntyre of Lumberton, N.C., has promoted bills in recent years to recognize the Lumbee Tribe, getting nowhere.
At a hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in July, Lumbee Tribal Chairman Paul Brooks said Congress’ refusal to grant federal recognition makes the tribe ineligible for all federal benefits given to other Indians. Lumbees have fought in every U.S. conflict since the Revolutionary War, he said, adding that the Constitution includes “no delineation or classification” of tribes and that all of them 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 have complained that the system of granting federal recognition has been corrupted by money.
Many smaller unrecognized tribes, such as the Duwamish in Washington state, say they’ve been denied recognition because they can’t match campaign contributions from neighboring tribes that want to limit gambling competition. Under the federal government’s rules, only federally recognized tribes can open casinos.
“They’re worried about their money being taken – I’ll call it like it is,” said Locklear.
Cheryl Schmit, founder and director of Stand Up For California, a statewide organization that has been leading the fight against more casinos in the Golden State, said it would be wrong to allow members of non-recognized “tribal groups” to own feathers because it 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.
Federally recognized tribes are allowed to have feathers only because they have special status as sovereign governments, she said. Allowing “unacknowledged tribal groups” to have the same rights would violate both state and federal discrimination laws dealing with race, religion and ethnicity, she said.
Attorney General Eric Holder took note of the distinction when he announced the new policy nearly four months ago, saying 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, the first formal statement on the issue, sought to clarify and expand the longstanding practice of not prosecuting tribal members who possess or use eagle feathers. But the department said it would continue to prosecute tribal members and non-members alike if they violate federal laws by killing eagles or buying or selling feathers.
Under the department’s policy, members of federally recognized tribes can possess or wear feathers, travel with them domestically or pick them up if they’re found in the wild. They also can give them to other members of federally recognized tribes or trade them.
To aid those who can legally own feathers, the federal government runs the National Eagle Repository in Colorado. It’s a collection point for eagles that have died as a result of electrocution, car accidents, illegal hunting or natural causes. Qualified tribal members can apply for permits, and then their names are placed on a long waiting list.
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. He said it happened most recently when he came to Washington to attend an Indian ball on Inauguration Day and he got held up at the door, where he had to explain that 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.’”