Feds explain feather, peyote rules to NAC assemblage

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, June 25, 2009

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

Patricia Anne Davis, of Seattle, Wash., explains the history of the Native American Church June 18 at the 60th Annual Native American Church of North America Convention in Window Rock.

Federal fish and wildlife officials told members of the Native American Church meeting here last weekend that the feds are not targeting them for possession of illegal eagle feathers.

The officials spoke during the 60th annual convention of the Native American Church of North America, held in Nakai Hall on the Window Rock fairgrounds.

More than 150 people, some from as far away as South America and Canada, attended the event, which also included talks on subjects ranging from border crossing problems to protection of the religious rights of Natives locked up in state and federal prisons.

"Everything went well," said Emerson Jackson, who served as the organization's president for 12 years and is now president of the Arizona Chapter, which hosted this event.

"We received a lot of compliments about how well organized the events were," he said, adding that the tribe's fair office went out of its way to accommodate the crowd.

Earl Arkinson, a member of the Rocky Boy Chippewa Tribe, was elected to his third term as president of the organization and President Joe Shirley Jr. gave the welcoming address, urging NAC members to work with their tribes to help preserve heritage and culture.

Bennie Perez, director of law enforcement for the U.S. Department of the Interior, told members that the recent raids by federal officials were targeting people who sell eagle feathers for profit at shows or on the Internet.

When one NAC member said it looked to him that the federal government was targeting Indians since the arrests seem to be Natives, Perez said that some non-Indians have been arrested as well during the three-year crackdown.

The focus of the investigation is wholesalers who have been making money illegally selling feathers and eagle parts.

"We have not arrested anyone for possession," Perez said, adding that federal laws allow Native Americans to possess these items for use in ceremonies and for their own personal use. The law also allows Natives to give and trade these items as long as no money is exchanged.

"As long as it is for personal use, it's allowed," he said.

One NAC member wondered what happened to the feathers and eagle parts after a seller is arrested and tried.

Perez said the laws allows for the forfeiture of the items, either by criminal forfeiture or by civil proceedings. When that happens, the items are turned over to the federal depository in Denver where they are made available to Natives who can apply for them.

Some people voiced concern about what becomes of items confiscated during an arrest that do not belong to the person arrested.

Jackson pointed out that there are times when people turn over items containing feathers to another individual for repair or restoration. If the person is later arrested on suspicion of illegal feather traffic, federal authorities collect all the feathers they can find on the premises and refuse to return those that have a rightful owner.

He suggested that a notation on the membership cards of NAC members who do restoration could correct this problem. That way, federal authorities would know that some items in their possession may belong to someone else and they could take appropriate action.

Perez assured listeners that the Interior Department tries to take this in consideration when items are confiscated.

Law enforcement officials are instructed to be careful about what they confiscate during raids and if the suspect is a Native and signifies that the item in question is only for personal use, it is not confiscated, he said.

As for items that may have another rightful owner, authorities do have a process of returning them. However, NAC members said the process is slow and very cumbersome.

Perez listened but did not indicate changes are forthcoming to streamline the return process.

Several officials from the U.S. Border Patrol were also on hand to answer questions about the procedure for bringing peyote from Mexico for use in NAC ceremonies stateside.

Jackson said buying peyote buttons in Mexico is increasingly popular since the prices are so much lower there and the supply seems to be dwindling from the few ranches in Texas that have a federal permit to grow peyote.

Border officials said NAC members who go into Mexico to buy the buttons for religious ceremonies shouldn't have a problem. The only ones who may have problems are those who buy the buttons and then come back to sell them at prices as much as four times what they paid for them in Mexico.

Jackson pointed out, however, that some NAC members buy in volume in order to stock up for their own use, yet risk being mistaken for a trafficker. For example, he has purchased as many as 1,000 buttons so that he would have enough to last for a year or more.

Many buttons are consumed at large ceremonies - and it's not unusual to see a prayer meeting attended by 50 people use 200 or more buttons, he said.

Jackson also pointed out that small tribes have what is known as "peyote custodians" who go to Mexico and buy for all the NAC members in their community.

"They do this to save costs because gasoline is so expensive and it's cheaper to have one person go rather than a lot of people," Jackson said.

But the big hauls make it very difficult for border officials to separate the honest people from the profiteers.

Jackson said some NAC members lack the proper documents to bring back peyote legally from Mexico.

"They get real nervous and scared in trying to deal with border crossing officials and that's one of the reasons why I invited the border people here so that they could explain their position," he said.

Lenny Foster, who has run the Navajo Nation's program to help Natives in prison since its formation in 1983, was on hand to present a resolution to the NAC asking for their continued support in preserving the right of Native prisoners to worship in traditional ways.

The resolution was approved and Foster said this was the first time since 1994 he has come back to the NAC for a vote of support.

Back in 1994, the Navajo Nation and the Native American Church both were fighting to get state and federal prisons to honor traditional ways of worship.

The focus was to enable inmates to build sweat lodges, which the prisons were reluctant to allow, fearing they would encourage insurrection or illegal activities.

Many prisons at that time also outlawed long hair and even non-narcotic items used in Native ceremonies, such as sage, cedar, mountain tobacco, corn husks and sweet grass.

Things began changing with the passage by Congress of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1994 and slowly - at least at first - the thinking of most prison officials began to change.

Texas prison officials still put up barriers to sweat lodges and religious ceremonies because they feel it is a security issue. They claim that fire rocks can be used as a weapon, for example.

 But Foster pointed out that in all other state and federal prisons, Natives are allowed regular use of sweat lodges and to practice their religious ceremonies and not one person has used this to escape or cause any trouble.

In fact, Foster and others maintain that allowing Natives to practice their traditional ceremonies gives them peace and make them less of a risk to cause trouble in prison.

Many inmates are NAC members and are allowed to do modified services that do not include peyote.

Foster said his office and others promoting religious freedom for Natives have not asked to have peyote permitted in these services.

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