A battle is brewing over the rights of white people who practice American Indian religion to use federally restricted eagle feathers in ceremonies. Two federal statutes...

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SALT LAKE CITY — A battle is brewing over the rights of white people who practice American Indian religion to use federally restricted eagle feathers in ceremonies.

Two federal statutes — the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act — limit the right to have the feathers to members of federally recognized tribes. The feathers are the most powerful objects in the culture’s ceremonies, and tribal members are required to earn the right to handle them.

Many tribal members, backed up by the federal government, say feathers and other eagle parts should be reserved for American Indians as a way of preserving the culture.

“Some [white people] may marry into Native American tribes or have a fascination or even a sincere interest to be more knowledgeable, but they shouldn’t be able to legally possess the feathers,” said Nino Reyos, a Ute and Pueblo who lives in Salt Lake City.

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But two non-Indian Utah residents, Raymond Hardman and Samuel Ray Wilgus Jr., claim they have a religious right to use the feathers in sacramental activities. The federal laws allow enrolled tribal members to get a permit to possess eagle feathers and parts.

The items are either passed down from tribal elders or obtained from the National Eagle Repository, operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wilgus, who said he is an adopted member of the Paiute Indian Peak Band, was convicted of possessing 141 eagle feathers without a permit in 1998. Feathers given to Hardman as a gift by a Hopi leader in Arizona were seized in 1996, and he was found guilty of violating federal law.

Both appealed, and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver eventually sent their cases back to Utah to determine whether the restrictions violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The act holds that religious practices must be accommodated unless a compelling governmental interest can be demonstrated. Decisions in the cases are pending.

“I don’t think government should be in the business of telling who can or cannot worship in a particular religion,” said Cindy Barton-Coombs, Hardman’s lawyer.

Indians fear an already long wait for feathers could get longer if non-Indians are allowed to use them. Applicants routinely wait three to four years for a whole eagle, including beaks and talons.