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Eagle feathers rule widens tribes’ rights

WASHINGTON – The Department of Justice announced a new policy broadening and clarifying the right of Native Americans to possess eagle feathers and other parts of the birds that they consider sacred but are protected by U.S. law.

Federal wildlife laws prohibit the killing of eagles and the possession and commercialization of their feathers. While certain members of Indian tribes have been exempted, the wildlife laws have been a source of confusion among some tribes that feared prosecution for carrying out their customs and traditions.

Currently, federal agents “come to powwows and have sting operations and make arrests of Native Americans,” said Wilmer Stampede Mesteth, a Lakota spiritual leader on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

The new policy “will help ensure a consistent and uniform approach across the nation to protecting and preserving eagles, and to honoring their cultural and spiritual significance to American Indians,” Attorney General Eric Holder said.

Tribal members will not be prosecuted for picking up naturally molted feathers or sharing feathers with members of other federally recognized tribes, provided that no payment is involved. The policy provides for legal travel within the U.S. with the feathers of the birds, but for travel outside the United States, tribal members must apply for a permit with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Justice Department will continue to prosecute anyone found killing federally protected birds without a permit or buying or selling the feathers of eagles or other migratory birds or attempting to do so. Members of tribes can apply for permits to take and kill eagles for religious purposes.