Sunday, August 31, 2014

Native American Tribe Wins Victory in Fight over Religious Freedom

WESLACO - Members a Native American tribe with deep roots in South Texas are cautiously rejoicing. A federal court of appeals reversed a decision in a 7-year legal battle over eagle feathers.

The McAllen-based tribe is working to figure out what's next. The federal government seized feathers used in their religious ceremonies eight years ago. The tribe says their religious freedom was violated. That sparked the long legal battle.

Lipan Apache leaders say feathers are a vital part of their culture and religion.

Robert Soto said his people's right to religious freedom was taken, along with 42 golden eagle feathers.

"Because we were not natives registered by the federal government, they said we were violating federal law by illegally possessing the eagle feathers," Soto said.

The Lipan Apaches have a long history in south Texas.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent took the feathers during a sacred powwow in 2006.

The feds said the tribe was in violation of a federal law meant to protect bald and golden eagles.

"We don't go around killing eagles. We recycle eagle feathers," Soto said.

The tribe filed a lawsuit in 2006. A district judge ruled against them last year.

An appeal reversed that ruling, giving Soto hope his tribe's traditions can continue.

"Since the eagle flew so high in the sky, it could actually carry our prayers up to the god above. That's what some people believe. But it was a sacred bird. We didn't worship the animal, but we wore the feathers with pride and honor of the creator who gave this powerful creation," Soto said.

Soto said the case will go back to district court. If he wins this time, he said it will be a win for all Native American people.

Neither the golden or bald eagles are endangered anymore.

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