This month, after eight years in court, my tribe has achieved a legal victory to defend our religious rights.
In 2006, federal officials violated a sacred powwow circle and confiscated feathers.Thanks to the tireless work of Lipan Apache Vice-chairman Robert Soto (my uncle, pictured above) and lawyers Milo Colton and Marisa Salazar, the feathers will be returned and given the respect they deserve. As a conservationist, I’d like to emphasize that this ruling does not affect the eagle population. Feathers are recycled from birds that die a natural death. Rather, the ruling challenges the federal government’s power to arbitrarily decide which Native Americans have the right to worship. As the Lipan Apache events page explains: The law is not only a win for the Tribe and other State Recognized Tribes but also for those who fit the definition of American Indians as stated in the 1997 “Revisions to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity,” 62 FR 58782-01: “A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America), and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment” and who are within 5th Circuit Court States: Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
In other words, the government has no right to claim that a “select few American Indians” are more equal than others.
You can read the press release below.
Lipan Apaches Win Federal Court Appeal in Defense of Their Religious Freedom
The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas in the case of Grace Brethren Church et al vs. U.S. Attorney General (USDC No.07-CV-60) and U.S. Department of Interior. On Wednesday August 20, the court found that the U.S. Department of Interior does not have authority to prevent members of the Lipan Apache Tribe from using eagle feathers in their religious ceremonies. The tribe had appealed a district court ruling in October 2013 that upheld the Department of Interior’s action to confiscate eagle feathers from tribal members at a tribal gathering in March 2006. At the time, the tribe invoked the 1978 Native American Religious Freedom Act (NARFA) to recover the eagle feathers and to prevent prosecution of its tribal members. The Department of Interior, represented by the U.S. Attorney General, argued that such protection was afforded only in certain circumstances to tribes that the U.S. Government has acknowledge as tribes. The tribe argued that they enjoyed the rights guaranteed to them by NARFA because they were a tribe and because NARFA did not distinguish between state-recognized tribes like the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas and federally recognized tribes.
The Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas is the descendent tribe of confederated Eastern Apache bands that defended a homeland spanning from the Southern Great Plains in the U.S. to the Bolson de Mapimi in northern Mexico. Beginning in the early-1800’s, military pressure from the Spanish, Americans, and the Comanches and their allies forced some of these bands to consolidate under Chief Joseph Castro’s band of Lipans. In 2009, the Texas Senate and House of Representatives formally recognized the tribe as the historic tribe of Lipans of Texas.
The ruling on Wednesday grants members of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas the same rights enjoyed by all Native Americans under NARFA.
“It’s been a long hard fought battle that we just had to win,” said Tribal Council Vice-Chairman, Robert Soto, one of the tribal members whose eagle feathers were confiscated by Department of Interior officials, “Our backs were against the wall so we had to say the Lipans are still very much here and will still defend their way of life.”