Feathers

Eskimo yo-yos are two small soft balls on connecting strings. With skill these can be made to spin like helicopter rotors. In 1975, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife (F&W) agent bought some Eskimo yo-yos in the Alaska Native Arts and Crafts Coop (ANAC) in Anchorage and promptly issued a summons to ANAC for the illegal sale of bird feathers(*). ANAC paid a small fine and was issued a warning.

In February 1981, two F&W agents entered the same coop and confiscated ten pieces of art by Alaska Native artists; on the grounds again, of illegal use of feathers. Introducing themselves as Larry Hood and Mr. Combs, the agents offered no official identification. A young woman assistant in the store remembered their behavior as "patronizing and smug."

A Native cooperative (seeded with a since repaid Bureau of Indian Affairs loan), ANAC exists to sell Native Alaskan arts and crafts and pays its artists in cash. The nine masks and one hair piece seized by F&W were valued at $4055.

Only after repeated inquiry did the staff learn that the objects had been forwarded for identification to a feather expert at the Smithsonian Institute.

Eventually four masks were returned to the coop. F&W took no legal action in the matter.

However, the regional solicitor for the Department of the Interior, F&W's parent agency, told ANAC's manager that many Native artists were using illegal feathers in their work. Because the department found it impossible to communicate with artists, who generally live in bush villages, agents were concentrating on retail outlets. The solicitor said that ANAC must warn artists about illegal use. The manager's protest that specific feathers are part of traditional use had no effect.

Some of the illegal feathers were from ducks. While it is legal in Alaska for Native people to hunt ducks for eating any time during the year, it is illegal to use duck feathers on any objects that will be sold to non-Natives.

A U.S. expert on feather identification, Roxie C. Laybourne, a zoologist with F&W and research associate at the Smithsonian Institute, examined the ANAC objects. Some masks had only one illegal feather; several had none. Furthermore, the objects had arrived mis-addressed and carelessly packaged; she restored them and returned them to the sender. She does not know what became of them.

Feather identification, she said, is a matter of minute detail. A whole feather, is easily identifiable, but when feathers have been broken, trimmed, dyed, are old, or have no down (which indicates family), microscopic analysis is required. She makes no positive identification without comparison.

Feather identification by sight is a difficult skill. Ability varies greatly among F&W agents. "I wouldn't want to be in their shoes when they walk into a store" to examine objects," she stated. In her own work, she emphasized, "every piece of material has to fit together," or she will not verify an identification.

The Official Stance

Fish and Wildlife explains their policy in a fact sheet, "Feather and Federal Law." The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, signed in 1918 by the U.S., Great Britain (for Canada), and Japan, and the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 were intended to protect nearly all migratory species; individual states are responsible for a few other species.

These laws prevent commerce in wild birds, parts of birds, nests, and eggs, and in objects which use any part of these birds. According to the Fact Sheet,

Any Indian curios [sic] or artifacts that are made of or decorated with migratory bird feathers are included within these prohibitions. Among the most common articles decorated with feathers or parts of birds...are: headdresses, bonnets, hats, fans, pipes, necklaces, Kachina dolls, lances, bustles, musical instruments and various articles of clothing.

There are no exceptions to these prohibitions of sale, not even for the use of dead birds found in the wilderness, for

The Department of the Interior firmly believes that to carry out the objectives of the law, it must totally deny a marketplace for migratory birds, including eagles...The sale, purchase or barter of any protected bird, or article made from the feathers or parts of protected birds, is prohibited no matter when the bird was killed or possessed. Thus, even genuine antique Indian art objects, even if they are made with feathers or parts of protected birds, may not be sold or purchased. (F&W emphasis.)

Federal law acknowledged traditional uses of feathers and parts of birds. F&W issues permits which make feathers and parts available to Native religious persons. Gust Nun, an F&W agent in Albuquerque, stated that F&W has no interest in interfering with ceremonial practice or bartering among local Native people; the restrictions are on sale to non-Natives. According to department rules, agents must receive permission in writing from Washington even to begin an investigation of Native persons suspected of dealing illegally in feathers. The slow process has allowed some suspected dealers to escape, Nun said.

According to Frank Jojoba, Governor of Isleta Pueblo, there is a long permit process which religious leaders must follow. Mr. Jojoba must verify all applications from his pueblo: "you never know which part (of a bird) you'll get," nor do parts always arrive in time. Religious leaders sometimes come across the parts they need on the reservation; more often, they must trade as far away as Montana and Washington reservations.

Mr. Jojoba emphasizes that no one should sell feathers. Isleta people, he says are taught to respect animals and to give them to religious leaders. Among religious leaders, sharing often occurs, as one clan might need only certain parts, the rest can be shared.

The pueblo tries to insure proper use through its own enforcement system; however, the market for illegal feathers is very large. "So many feathers are used for different purposes nowadays," Mr. Jojoba remarked, "like those cowboy hats with the feather bands."

The one Federal depository for confiscated bird and animal parts is in Pocatello, Idaho; Gust Nun says that Federal budget cuts have greatly trimmed its efficiency. F&W has requested an additional depository, to save what is now generally destroyed. Agents also find the waste repugnant.

The trade will continue as long as the demand exists. A war bonnet on the illegal market can bring $1000; or buyers may collect the feathers themselves. It takes about 30 tailfeathers from scissor-tailed flycatchers to make one peyote fan used by the Native American Church. These birds are killed for their tailfeathers although they are an endangered species hard to find on reservations and now nearly extinct in Oklahoma.

According to agent Nun, F&W agents are working to help Native people understand the department's policy of non-interference in traditional and religious use. During a recent raid in the Southwest two homes on the Navajo reservation were entered. When a woman, whose son was being arrested, explained to translators that she wished to rescue family religious objects from the confiscated goods, agents allowed her to do so.

Fish and Wildlife agents have emphasized their policy of non-interference with individual artists, to concentrate instead on wholesale and retail outlets.

Although both Natives and non-Natives engage in wholesale trade, few of the retail shops raided have been owned or operated by Natives. The market share controlled by Native organizations is very small, according to Geoffrey Stamm of the American Indian Arts and Crafts Board, Washington, D.C. The major trade organization is the Indian Arts and Crafts Association, whose president, Dave Lewis, said that his organization has disseminated F&W information to its members and invited F&W agents to address a recent trade convention.

The situation is much more ambiguous for Native artists, even though they are not being prosecuted. Anxiety among Native artists is high, according to Stamm, because they often do not really understand the distinction made by the Federal government between legal and illegal use. "The concept of waste is so foreign to them, "he noted, "that, while F&W sees itself as calm and rational, artists see [agents] as irrational, harassing, threatening." Enforcement has varied in such a way to make some Native people afraid to take valuable works to powwows, for fear F&W agents will steal them, he said.

Younger artists using feathers may face problems if they use feathers for traditional themes executed in contemporary styles. For many, the dichotomy between religious use and commercial production is less clear than it was decades ago, when Federal policy was set. For such artists, restriction to traditional use means no access to commercial outlets, such as galleries. One Alaskan painter, working on a contemporary rendition of an eagle mainstream fine-arts gallery, decided to abandon using eagle feathers handed down to him by his grandfather, even though he felt that, because of the relation of his art to his childhood experiences, the painting lost an essential quality he had hoped it would carry. This cross-over into contemporary art is a complicated matter, and it seems likely to grow more so as younger artists working from traditional values sell their work in the non-Native economy.

* A similar illegal trade exists in walrus ivory. It is illegal for non-Natives to possess raw ivory; in 1981 a large cache was seized in Anchorage. The Institute of Alaska Native Arts [IANA], Fairbanks, has expressed interest in becoming a repository of seized ivory, for redistribution to artists.

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