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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Killing Bald Eagles: Native Americans Can, The Rest of Us Can't

The Illegal Possession of Feathers

     Because, in the early 20 century, birds were slaughtered to feather women's hats, congress, in 1918, passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) to protect every bird in America except the house sparrow, feral pigeon, common starling, and non-migratory game birds such as pheasants, gray partridges, and the sage grouse. The MBTA prohibits the hunting, capture or killing of the protected birds. Moreover, one cannot legally purchase, sell, or even possess any feather, body part, nest, or egg of any bird covered by the act. (The  MBTA covers 83 percent of all birds that live in the United States.)

Chuck Smith and the Federal Bird Cops

     Chuck Smith (not his real name), is a friend who, in the early 1990s, innocently got caught up in a petty MBTA case that scared the hell out of him. Chuck, a respected and popular high school anthropology teacher specializing in the history of the American Indian, answered a bargain bulletin ad placed by a man selling Indian relics. From this seller, a man named Phil (not really), Chuck purchased a 1920s era white, buckskin outfit that had been worn ceremonially by members of the Blackfoot tribe. He paid $1,500 for the full-dress, beaded, Indian outfit. Two days after the sale, Phil called and offered to give Chuck the headdress that went with the buckskin apparel. The war bonnet contained 25 white, dark-tipped feathers from a bald eagle. Chuck accepted the offer. He planned to exhibit these items as teaching aids, and had no idea that by accepting the eagle-feathered Blackfoot headdress, he had broken a federal law. Had Chuck known it was against the law to possess bald eagle feathers, he would not have taken the bonnet home. (A vast majority of Americans have no idea that most bird feathers are federal contraband.)

     Not long after Chuck made the Blackfoot buckskin purchase, and accepted the bonnet as a gift, a pair of undercover agents with the Department of Interior visited the seller, Phil. The agents said they were responding to Phil's Indian relics ad. After buying an Indian neckless made of eagle claws, the feds flashed their badges and arrested Phil for violation of the MBTA. When the agents asked Phil if he had sold items containing feathers to anyone else, he told them about Chuck's Blackfoot headdress.

     Phil's information brought the federal agents, unannounced, to Chuck's house. They identified themselves, then asked if he still possessed the eagle feathered bonnet. Chuck said yes, it had been a gift from Phil. The agents informed Chuck that he had committed a federal crime under the MBTA, an offense that could cost him ten of thousands of dollars in fines, and even some time in prison. Terrified, and worried that the fines and a prison stretch would bankrupt him, and ruin his career as a high school teacher, Chuck volunteered the information that he possessed other Indian artifacts that contained bird feathers.

     The shaken school teacher led the federal agents to an upstairs bedroom where they seized a rawhide Indian shield bearing a clump of crow feathers, and a shaman's rattle with screech owl feathers. In his garage, Chuck turned over two owl feathers he had found along a road after the bird had been hit by a car. In addition to the general MBTA fine, Chuck could be fined an extra $500 for each feather type he had possessed. The additional fines would add up to $2,000. Before leaving Chuck's house that day, the agents said they would tell the assistant United States attorney (AUSA) handling the case that he had been very cooperative. This did not ease Chuck's anxiety. He envisioned himself in prison stripes.

     The next several weeks Chuck went through hell as he waited to find out what would happen to him. Finally, one of the agents called him with the news that the AUSA was so thrilled to be handling a case that did not involve drugs, she was giving him a huge break. If he paid a fine of just $500, the case would be history. Chuck mailed in the money, and went on with his life. But memories of his ordeal lingered for years.

Bald Eagles: A License to Kill

     In 1995, the federal government classified the bald eagle an endangered species. Twelve years later, the bird was re-classified as a threatened species. Even so, the bald eagle has remained under the protection of the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Under this law it is a crime, without a government permit, to capture, kill, and/or possess a bald or golden eagle, or any part of the bird. Violators face a maximum fine of $100,000, and two years in prison.

     In 2011, the 9,600-member Arapaho tribe on the Wind River Indian reservation in west-central Wyoming, after being refused a permit to kill two bald eagles for religious purposes, filed a federal lawsuit. (Native Americans can legally acquire eagle feathers and carcasses from a federal repository of such items.) On March 9, 2012, the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service granted the permit.

     The reaction to the permit decision from the National Audobon Society, conservation groups, and animal rights activists, has been muted. Because they are afraid to criticize Native Americans, politicians have also been quiet. Over the years, dozens of non-Native Americans have gone to prison for killing bald and golden eagles. My friend Chuck could have gone to prison for merely possessing eagle feathers. He's not happy with the decision to allow members of the Arapaho tribe to kill a pair of these protected birds. But like most people, he would prefer to keep this opinion to himself. Perhaps Chuck is worried that criticizing Native Americans might be a federal crime. The retired high school teacher is not taking any chances when it comes to Native Americans, and eagles.  

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