When I had my Vulture’s wings taken by the Forest Service in Woodstock, NY last year, they put them into bags, and I was cited for a federal violation that I was not aware existed before that day. After I proved via writing an extensive letter sanctioned by a Church explaining that I had obtained them in good faith as part of already-extant roadkill, had buried the rest of the body to the best of my ability, and had used them for spiritual worship purposes only (all of which was 100% the case), I was required to pay a $25 fine and a $75 surcharge. There are people that have recieved much worse and completely debilitating penalties. But, until the laws are changed, I or anyone else who practices traditional animal spirit worship can not legally possess raptor feathers…unless you qualify for, and apply for, corrupt and inherently exclusive permits from the US government.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 prohibits anyone except “US Government recognized Native Tribal Members” from possessing raptor feathers. The problem is, the US requiring Tribal registration is ironic at best and corrupt and exclusive in reality. The “requirements” have to do with “blood quantum” (that “I’m 25% this, 50% that” stuff) and imperialist control written into English Language laws, and disregard culture, adoption, and spiritual, personal and tribal sovereignty. Since when does a practitioner of ancient AND human-race-wide rites and worship have to apply to a secular body to behold a feather? Since 1918.
The Wikipedia quotation is as follows. This is the entirety of the first paragraph of the “Blood Quantum Laws” entry as of 1/1/19.
“Blood quantum laws or Indian blood laws are those enacted in the United States and the former Thirteen colonies to define qualification by ancestry as Native American, sometimes in relation to tribal membership. These laws were developed by European Americans and thus did not necessarily reflect how Native Americans had traditionally identified themselves or members of their in-group, and thus ignored the Native American practices of absorbing other peoples by adoption, beginning with other Native Americans, and extending to children and young adults of European and African ancestry. Blood quantum laws also ignored tribal cultural continuity after tribes had absorbed such adoptees and multiracial children. Tribal enrollments were often incomplete or inaccurate for multiple reasons; individuals didn’t trust the government and so they refused to enroll, families relocated before censuses were taken, or individuals were incorrectly identified by white men, whom were the census takers.”
In other words, these laws do not reflect the reality of Native cultural ideas of who and who are not considered tribal members. Often even folks who live on reservations do not qualify, despite tribal inclusion since birth. But that is a story for those people to tell. I won’t discuss the issue of blood quantum here to any further extent besides pointing to you to do your research, quoting wikipedia, and citing a reading list that is geared toward educating the public as to why DNA blood quantum is not an accurate or respectful way of verifying tribal lineage identity or descendancy. I am not a recognized member of any First Nations tribes. I have worked with some privately and publicly, but I have no claims to be able to speak on the issue with any authority. I bring up these issues as they are the seed of a law that I found myself being cited for violation of, and I write about it because I find the law unfair in general, and as well because I can see how the idea of blood quantum is harmful. Please refer to First Nations people about this issue to any more depth. This article working with the assumption that any laws that offer and limit rights based on blood quantum are unjust not only to First Nations people, but those of immigrant lineages as well. I am also aware due to my WordPress stats that I get a lot of NON-USA based readers. So, this article is meant to educate USA-dwellers AND those of other areas and countries what the laws are like here, and encourage you to look into it further if you so choose, but I understand that many will not do this, so I aim to be as thorough as possible without overstepping my boundaries.
SO, what does all of this mean, practically, for any person who practices any form of animism or natural spirituality? It means, straight up, that even if a raptor swoops down to your sitting place and drops a feather right into your hand, you cannot accept them without breaking USA federal law. It means that if you find a feather at random, you cannot touch it. It means that if the animal presents its dead body to you and asks you to harvest it for use in prayer, you cannot.
My wings didn’t even fit in the bags, they were so vast. I asked if they could please dispose of them on the earth or in the fire. I hope and pray that they were released back into the elements, and not left in a trash. I will never know.
The law says that it is there to protect the birds against being disrespected. Initially it was designed to mitigate poachers and trade of murdered birds. Yet, what it also does is prevents humans and birds from participating in the most beautiful relationship that comes so naturally to us. What child has not found and celebrated or admired a feather found outside? What harm could come from this? Perhaps it is about control and spiritual castration. A real-life metaphorical wing-clipping, wing-removal. Where a person must apply for red-tape permission from the government that has self-professed itself to be separate from Church, to behold the most innocent of religious artifacts – a feather.
Most people will know these laws because of the well known Eagle Feather Law, which is actually an exception to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The Eagle Feathers are distributed by the National Eagle Repository, a subsidiary of the National Fish & Wildlife Service. Although the Northern Arapaho were “allowed” in 2014 to kill two eagles for ritual purposes, most eagle feathers come from the Repository, which means that they are not organically found or sacrificed by the people who will be using them, thus creating a disjunct in the spiritual line of connectivity. It is sort of like the difference between buying your meat from a supermarket, and who knows where it comes from, or its history, and raising your own animals or acquiring well-treated meat from a friend in your community, an animal that breathed the same air and drank the same water as you. Whether the Eagle Feather distribution is fair, well, I cannot say. What is NOT fair by any means is that the US government should have the unilateral decisons to prevent people from acquiring their feathers naturally, and instead can abscond, hoard, and redistribute them, but in actuality, they are not being redistributed with any egalitarianism at all.
There is also a repository for non-eagle feathers. Perhaps the wings I had were sent there. A sufficient life for them, considering my fears of them having being discarded, but honestly, considering the corruption I write of, and in the interest of freedom of bird and human, I’d rather have them have been given back to the elements.
SO, which birds are you not allowed to dance with their feathers, or take them home to place on your sacred space? Some of these may shock you. This list was originally longer, including some more notable birds of prey like Hawk and Owl, but have reduced it to the more common ones that you may see in your front or back yard daily to illustrate my point. If you are reading this article, you have interest in this issue, and may find you are probably currently violating severe Federal laws where you never would have expected to.
Yes, the same ones that you see in every major city all over the place.
Yes, the same ones that steal your snacks at the beach. They are everywhere.
Can’t you buy these birds at the pet store? Come on…
A common bird.
I had to include “bird” in the search engine terms because images for goose down jackets came up. Explain this to me, someone? I can buy a coat made in a sweat shop from hostaged birds, but can’t pray with loose feathers offered to me by the bird itself? How does this make any sense at all? I thought it was illegal to have possession of these feathers. Oh wait, but if I pay North Face Coats $200, I am exempt.
I see these birds all the time.
There are many more. Check out the list at the FWS site to see if you are guilty.
It is obviously important to protect these birds against ill-intentioned hunters and tradespeople. But, the current excemptions offered are not enough. They are not available to most people because of laws and restrictions that do not acknowledge the actual nature of how some Native Tribes consider their members. And then, there are waiting lists that can take YEARS. Plus, there are hundreds of tribes that are not federally recognized either because of restrictive laws, or by choice of the tribe themselves. They also exclude anyone who does not participate in or identify with those tribes, for whatever reason whether cultural, religious, ancestral, social, geographic, personal, or otherwise. Basically, unless you meet the US description of “having enough Native American blood,” it’s down pillows for you only.
There is an organization entitled “Religious Freedom with Raptors” that is geared toward changing these laws to allow people to celebrate their practices with feathers and bird parts, but my research found that they are currently inactive. They have a Website but it has not been updated since 2009, when the last outside news article link was made, and the links within the site lead to broken pages. Dr. Dashanne Stokes, the founder of RFR and director until the (assumed) dissolution of the group in 2009, still leads activism for religious and cultural freedoms, but the RFR seems organizationally defunct. Stokes is quoted in an article on Indian Country Today as claiming,
“The eagle law is such a hot button issue, so divisive, and the majority of people who stand to benefit from changing it are geographically dispersed and have little influence, resources, or power on their side,” says Stokes. “In my experience, most people who want to change the law are so afraid that they don’t want to say or do anything out of fear of arrest.”
I have met in the private offices and homes of many shamans, witches, and spiritual practitioners all over the country – respected members of their communities, people who own homes and brick & mortar studios and shops, indigenous and immigrant-descended, and they all have had feathers. And, like I demonstrated earlier, if you are the type to collect a feather, you have a law-breaker in your house as well. It seems to me that it is really a matter of how much or a target you are, and your luck factor, as to whether you can “get away” with it or not. The law needs to be changed. We demand religious freedom with our birds.
All references and links: