By Robert Soto, Aug 2014
Well, it has been an interesting seven and half year journey. Most of you have no clue as to why we filed the law suit. It started on March 11, 2006 when agents from the Department of Interior of the Fish and Game Department went to our powwow dressed as tourists and filmed and photographed all the dancers at the pow wow. A couple of hours later, an agent from the department came and invaded what we call a sacred gathering, our pow wow. The circle is a special place we not only dance, but it is a place of prayer, a place of ceremonies, a place of traditions and a place where we can just express ourselves as Native People.
While at the pow wow, I went to a booth outside the gym in the hall way and I noticed a man harassing my brother-in-law. As I got closer, he waved his badge and told me he was an agent of the Department of Interior, Fish and Game. Then he said to give him my two eagle feathers that I was wearing on my porcupine roach. The feathers that my brother-in-law had were mine. Before I knew it the federal agent tried to enter our circle in the gym. I stood in front of him to block him from going in. What happened next was the craziest excuse for violation of our circle that I had ever heard.
He said he had the right to enter into the circle because we had violated three federal laws that ceased the sacredness of the circle giving the United States Government the right to enter our circle and harass our dancers. He stated the laws we violated in the form of three questions. He looked at me and said, "Are you a member of a Federally recognized Tribe. I said I was not so he said, "The law states that if you are not a member of a Federally reconized tribe, this is a violation of Federal Law and the circle ceases to be sacred." Then he said, "Did you advertise the event in the newspaper?" as he waved a copy of the article we wrote with a picture and an invitation for the public to attend the pow wow. I said, "Yes." He then said, "Federal laws says that when a Native American advertises his event in the newspaper, the event ceases to be sacred giving us the right to come and do as we please." Then he said, "Was there the exchange of money in the circle, like a raffle, fifty/fifty, cake walks, vendor's selling their crafts and did you honor a veteran by putting a dollar at his feet?" I said, "Yes." Then he said, "Federal law states that if there is the exchange of money in the circle, the circle ceases to be sacred thus giving us the right to come in and do as we please."
While he went to his truck to take away the beautiful traditional bustle my brother-in-law had made, I went in and warned all the Native people in the circle who had eagle feathers that the Feds would soon be in the circle and I would not be able to hold them back. All I could think about was Custer and the 7th Cavalry sneaking in and massacring our Native people all over again. The enemy came and struck our pow wow when we least expected.
An event made to celebrate and enjoy turned to chaos as our children ran with fear in their faces seeking their parents' protection from the Federal Government who, through their unjust laws, had violated a place that had always been sacred to our people, the Circle. What would happen tomorrow if our churches or our civil organizations were closed because they advertised their service in the newspaper or because they took up an offering? I am writing this so that you can understand why I had to start this journey almost eight years ago and why I decided that I would fight this until the day I take my last breath.
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 acknowledged 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 united the Lipan Apache people from throughout Texas and Northern Mexico to work together in defence. 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, the use of eagle feathers in our ceremonial practice.
“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 that the Lipans are still very much here and will still defend our way of life.”