They called it "Operation Powwow" — back in 2006, a federal agent went undercover to raid a tribal ceremony. It ended with threats of prison time and fines for tribe members participating in the powwow.
The crime? Using eagle feathers without a permit.
But now the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas has won a decade-long legal battle over use of the feathers, what the tribe considers to be a victory for religious liberty.
Robert Soto, vice chair of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, was among the plaintiffs that challenged the federal feather law. Soto says native tribes, including the Lipan Apache, have used eagle feathers for generations in their religious ceremonies, but the issue arose when the undercover agent claimed "non-Indians" were using golden eagle feathers.
"What they meant by 'non-Indian' was that they don't belong to a tribe that the federal government acknowledges," he says.
Around 290 tribes across the U.S. aren't officially recognized by the federal government, but the eagle feathers they use – including those from both the bald eagle and the golden eagle – are protected by federal law. On the day of the raid, the agent came to the tribe's powwow and interrupted their ceremony by entering the sacred circle.
"Since the gathering is considered a sacred gathering, they had to find just cause as to why they could come into what we call the 'circle' and investigate the report," he says.
Soto, who's also the pastor at McAllen Grace Brethren Church, says it's as if the government required Catholics to apply for a permit to have a rosary or if Christians needed to apply for a permit to have a crucifix.
"Because the bird was under the endangered protection act, they control the eagle feather," he says. "So if an Indian wants an eagle feather, he needs to submit the proper paperwork and it takes anywhere from three to five years to get your feathers."
If by some chance any person finds a fallen eagle feather, they can keep it only if they report it legally, Soto says. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals likened the eagle feather case to the Hobby Lobby case argued at the Supreme Court in 2015, because of the central issue of freedom to practice religion. The court's 28-page opinion for the Lipan Apaches referenced the Hobby Lobby case 18 times.
"They had found just cause that it was a religious violation," he says. "The whole aspect of the Hobby Lobby thing was that the government was dictating their spirituality."
Unfortunately, Soto says, the legal win for the Lipan Apaches doesn't mean the government has officially recognized the tribe. He says the case only extends the use of eagle feathers for religious ceremonies to the 400 or so tribe members who were named in the case.
"The only people that will benefit from this is all the natives who are involved, directly or indirectly, with the church," he says. "(But) now we have a strong test case in the court system so that if this ever happens again, at least they have something to fight with."