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The eagle feather law provides many exceptions to federal wildlife laws regarding eagles and other migratory birds to enable American Indians to continue their traditional practices.
Under the current language of the eagle feather law, individuals of certifiable American Indian ancestry enrolled in a federally recognized tribe are legally authorized to obtain eagle feathers. Unauthorized persons found with an eagle or its parts in their possession can be fined up to $25,000. The eagle feather law allows for individuals who are adopted members of federally recognized tribes to obtain eagle feathers and eagle feather permits.
The eagle feather law has incited ongoing debate over the criteria of ownership and possession of eagles and eagle parts based on race or ethnicity and American Indian tribal membership. There have been several legal challenges to the eagle feather law in which the law’s constitutionality and effects of racial segregation and racial preferences have been called into question.
Presently there are a number of Indian and non-Indian individuals and organizations dedicated to amending the language of the law to allow American Indian tribes and tribal members greater opportunity to include select non-American Indians as acceptable owners of eagles feathers for religious and spiritual use.
Defenders of the law have argued it is the only legal protection of American Indian spirituality, and that because eagle supplies are limited, increasing the number of people who can have them may make feathers more scarce. Arguments in favor of amending the law (notably by supporters of Religious Freedom with Raptors, an organization dedicated to changing the eagle law) have been made on the grounds that it imposes racial preferences and segregation not traditionally found amongst American Indian societies, and additionally that the race requirement of tribal enrollment to possess eagles undermines tribal sovereignty rights to fully welcome and include others in tribal customs involving eagle feathers, thus harming the preservation of traditional values and practices of indigenous societies that have welcomed non-Indians for centuries. It is also argued that eagle permit certification restrictions based on race impede people with Indian ancestry, but who may be unable to prove their ancestry, from exploring their heritage.
Supporters in favor of changing the law, such as Religious Freedom with Raptors, advocate removing racial requirements from 50 CFR 22, stating that because such action will enable all U.S. citizens to apply for eagles or parts from the National Eagle Repository (overseen by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service), it would extend the ability of government-regulated programs and agencies to protect raptors by decreasing the profitability of raptor poaching and trafficking.