Marine Sisk-Franco has been a Winnemem Wintu Indian for all of her years, and the Northern California tribe’s way of life is all she knows. She’s the daughter of the tribe’s chief and their headman, she’s danced and sung at their ceremonies, and, in 2006, she bravely endured racial taunts and threats from drunken power boaters who cruelly marred her coming of age ceremony, known as a Balas Chonas, as it took place on the banks of the McCloud River.
That ceremony was the tribe’s first Bałas Chonas in 85 years, and the courage and commitment Marine showed as a young teenager during those trying four days was something I admired deeplyœ.
But this past week she received a letter from U.S. Fish and Wildlife that refused to acknowledge her identity as an American Indian.
Marine had recently applied for an eagle feather permit, and the letter was a rejection notice, something she compared “to having someone tell me I was adopted and that the family I’d known my entire life wasn’t my family.”
Imagine requiring Catholics to apply for a permit to have communion or requiring Jewish people to apply to the Fire Department to light a Menorah. It would never be tolerated.
Yet this federal regulation of American Indian religious practices has persisted. And the policy guiding it discloses how little the government understands (or maybe cares) about the complexity of American Indian identity.
Under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, eagle feathers are illegal to possess, with an exception for American Indians belonging to federally recognized tribes.
On the surface, it make sense: protect eagles, which were once endangered, but ensure American Indians maintain access eagle feathers because of their religious significance. But Marine’s case highlights a serious flaw.
Marine wanted the permit to add eagle feathers to her powwow regalia and to have an eagle fan for her Tribe’s Eagle Dance, which depicts the courting of the eagles. Because it takes three to four years to get an eagle carcass and Marine’s mother is the only Winnemem with a permit, many of the women have to dance without a fan.
Women traditionally each had an eagle fan for Winnemem's Eagle Dance. In this photo, many hold only a single feather because they're ineligible for eagle feather permits. Courtesy Christopher McLeod, www.sacredland.org
Clearly, Marine is an American Indian who needs eagle feathers for religious reasons. So why can’t she get them?
The catch is the “federally recognized tribe” bit in the Act.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs recognition system is hopelessly inadequate and plagued by politics and red tape, as the GAO has chronicled. The Winnemem were dropped from the list of recognized tribes in the mid 80s, and have never received an explanation of why.
Unfortunately, most government agencies strictly adhere to the BIA’s list when it comes to defining who’s indigenous. They do this even though recognition is not a law but a BIA policy originally created by bureaucrats without the input of tribes.
My guess is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife official rejected Marine’s application simply by looking at her tribal affiliation and checking it against the BIA list.
Eagle feather permits have been in the news recently because of the federal case of a white man from Utah, Samuel Wilgus, who was born a Baptist but started practicing American Indian religion later in life.
When he was arrested for possessing 141 eagle feathers, he claimed he had been adopted by the Southern Paiute Nation, but tribal authorities said their laws require tribal members to be American Indians.
Wilgus’ story sounds dubious to me, but a district judge saw no reason for his access to feathers to be denied since eagles are no longer endangered and the government could find less restrictive ways to regulate the permits.
The appeals court, in overruling the case, argued that the district judge had opened the floodgates and applications from people with tenuous ties to Indian spirituality could bog down the process.
I don’t necessarily disagree with that; there are a lot of charlatans out there peddling indigenous spirituality to gullible acolytes.
However, the appeals court seemed to think they were preserving the right to eagle feathers for all the real American Indians, and even the New York Times headline parroted the notion “Only Indians Can Use Eagle Feathers for Religious Practices.”
It’d be difficult to convince Marine this headline was accurate as she and all the other unrecognized Indians, including some 300,000 in California, have now now shuffled under the same broad non-Indian category as Wilgus.
Until it’s reformed, the eagle permit policy will continue to discriminate and inhibit the religious rights of thousands of Indians.
But, to be fair, it would be difficult and time-consuming for U.S. Fish and Wildlife employees fully research every application that comes across their desk as I suspect few could be considered experts on Indian culture and religion.
So what’s the answer? I think control of the eagle feathers should be in the hands of the indigenous and out of the hands of the government, but the particulars would have to be figured out by people much smarter than me.
What I do know is that U.S. Fish and Wildlife has no requirement to follow the BIA’s inaccurate list of tribes, the Winnemem deserve to perform the Eagle Dance as it’s meant to be and Marine Sisk-Franco, the young Winnemem woman, deserves her eagle feathers.
There was no reason for the government to tell Marine she’s not who she says she is.
Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.
Marc Dadigan is an immersion journalist who lives with the Winnemem Wintu and is writing a book about their spiritually guided salmon restoration project. Follow the project at www.salmoncomehome.com and Facebook.
Image of Marine Sisk-Franco courtesy the author.