When the letter arrived at our village, I wasn’t around, but my mom and dad told me they picked it up like it weighed a thousand pounds. They held it up to the light and joked about trying to figure out what it said before I could see it.
They were worried I’d be upset when I read it, and they were right. The letter felt like a slap in the face; it felt like it was declaring I’m not who I say I am.
About a week earlier, I had filled out a U.S. Fish and Wildlife application to receive a permit for eagle feathers that I wanted to use for my pow wow regalia.
I also wanted an eagle fan for the eagle dance my tribe, the Winnemem Wintu, performs at ceremonies every summer. The dance is about the courtship of the eagles, and every woman is supposed to have a fan.
But because we’re federally unrecognized, we don’t have enough fans. My mom, the Winnemem’s chief and spiritual leader, is the only one who has a permit, and it can take three to four years for her to get an eagle.
She got the permit in the 1980s before the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) took our tribe off the list of federally recognized tribes. They still haven’t told us why.
The letter was from Fish and Wildlife, and, after I opened it, I only read the words “We’re sorry” before I threw it away. I knew they were rejecting my permit application because I’m unrecognized. They rejected me even though my mom has a permit, even though we have a tribal number from the California claims case and even though the Winnemem way is all I’ve known my entire life.
My dad told me that back in the 1960s to protect the eagles, the federal government made it illegal to possess eagle parts. But because eagle feathers are sacred to Indians, they said we could have feathers as long as we had a permit. But to get a permit we had to be recognized.
So I guess I knew I wouldn’t get the permit, but it still hurt to see it in writing. It felt like someone was telling me I was adopted, like the family I had known for so long wasn’t really mine.
I want Fish and Wildlife to know that federal recognition is the BIA’s rule. It’s not an actual law. There’s no reason they have to follow it.
There are a lot of unrecognized Indians, like my tribe and me, who need those permits so we can have the eagle feathers we require for ceremonies and regalia-making.
Unfortunately, right around the time I got my rejection letter, a federal appeals court overturned a ruling that could have made the eagle permit process fairer. They disagreed with another judge who said limiting eagle permits only to recognized tribal members was too restrictive and not necessary since the eagles aren’t endangered anymore.
The appeals court overruled that decision because they think there are a lot of Indian wannabes who’ll apply for eagle-feather permits and make the demand too great.
They were talking about the case of a white man from Utah named Samuel Wilgus, who was born a Baptist. He said he was adopted by the Southern Paiute Nation and was arrested in 1998 for carrying 141 eagle feathers without a permit.
I don’t really know how close he is with that tribe. He said he was blood brothers with the spiritual leader (whatever that means), but the Paiutes bylaws say people without Indian blood can’t become tribal members.
Whatever the case, I think the judges and Fish and Wildlife need to understand there is a difference between someone like Wilgus and someone like me.
The appeals court thinks it was restricting permits only to Indians. But unrecognized Indians are also excluded.
There are hundreds of thousands of unrecognized Indians in the U.S., and a lot of them, like me, have probably been practicing traditional tribal culture for most of their lives—unlike Wilgus who came to it later.
Like my mom says, some people pick religion like they shop for cereal. They think they can pick a box of Wintu one day if it looks good or a box of Paiute the next.
For us, it’s different. We have only one way of life, only one religion.
Denying us permits for eagle feathers makes it harder for us to practice our ceremonies the right way.
It’s an abuse of our rights, and it needs to change.
Winnemem Wintu tribal member Marine Sisk-Franco is the daughter of Winnemem Wintu Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk-Franco.