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.
She and other members of the Lumbee Tribe, the largest in North Carolina, say they’re feeling like second-class citizens these days because of 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 Air Force and is a gambling company 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 to address.
“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.
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,” Locklear said.
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 tribes 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 H. Holder Jr. 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 long-standing 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.