Even sincere religious practices are not an excuse for a non-Native tribal member to possess bald eagle feathers, the U.S. Court of Appeals 10th Circuit ruled on Tuesday, the Denver Post reports.
The ruling overturned a U.S. District Court decision holding that freedom of religion and the practice of authentic Native religious ceremonies was enough to justify the ownership of the feathers by non-Tribal members.
The ruling is foremost a victory for the U.S. government’s efforts to protect eagles, but it’s also a positive result for Indian tribes, said Richard Guest of the Native American Rights Fund.
The case required the court, “to navigate the dangerous terrain at the intersection of the federal government’s obligations … to refrain from imposing burdens on the individual’s practice of religion and, on the other (hand), to protect key aspects of our natural heritage and preserve the culture of Native American tribes,” the ruling said.
Samuel Ray Wilgus, a non-Indian resident of Utah, was arrested in June 1998 for possessing 141 feathers of bald and golden eagles.
The Eagle Act of 1940 (amended in 1962) bans the possession of eagle feathers or parts except for certain uses, including scientific studies and “the religious purposes of Indian tribes.”
Tribal members must go through an application process to obtain and own bald eagle feathers.
Wilgus’ used the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 as his main defense. The appeals court found that “one can reliably estimate how many non—Indian adherents of Native American religions are out there or how many would apply for the limited supply of repository feathers,,” the Post reported. This could jeopardize the Native populations access to the feathers.