The new eagle feather rule doesn't help the Waccamaw Indian People and what's more, it is racist and a continuation of the government's violation of tribal religious freedoms, said Chief Harold “Buster'' Hatcher.
The Waccamaws, based in the Dog Bluff community of Horry County, are one of seven state-recognized tribes. The new federal rule clarifies that use and possession of eagle feathers by American Indians is permitted, but it does not apply to state-recognized tribes.
“Unfortunately, the law, while good for federally recognized tribes, still leaves most Indians without their First Amendment right to freedom of religion,'' Hatcher said in an email statement.
The only federally recognized tribe in South Carolina is the Catawba Indian Nation based near Rock Hill.
The use of certain feathers has been a long-standing sore point for Indians across the country. In 2008, the state passed a law that Hatcher pushed for years allowing tribal members to use turkey feathers in their ceremonial rites or in arts. But eagles continued to be protected by federal law and use of their feathers strictly regulated.
Hatcher wrote to the U.S. Justice Department last summer when it was taking comment on the proposed changes, saying the eagle feathers are important in their burial ceremonies.
“It is important to note that only molted feathers are acceptable for use in Waccamaw ceremonies and the primary use for the feathers are for the funerals of our loved ones,'' Hatcher wrote the department.
“The placing of a molted eagle feather in the casket is believed to ensure a quick walk to and an eternity with the Creator. Therefore we cannot abandon or ignore their use.''
The new rule specifically allows federal tribes to use naturally molted eagle feathers found in the wild or in zoos.
Hatcher told the government that molted feathers should be available for any American citizen to use if they can demonstrate “a history of the ancient faith but only for the ancient purpose.''
He said he recognizes that it is impossible to tell if a feather is legally found molted or taken by illegal killing of the birds, but that the rule is racist. Religious beliefs are not determined by race or bloodline, or by federal recognition, he wrote.
“I say to you that I am an Indian whether recognized or not, but were I not, I am still a protected entity. I, and every citizen in these United States must be treated equally and fairly, without exception, otherwise the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the very core of our judicial system is but a sham,'' the letter said.
Hatcher says it is particularly galling to him because he is a decorated Vietnam War veteran and “although I bled to defend the rights of Americans, I am denied my own birthright.''
Hatcher said he does not know what comes next except for state-recognized tribes to continue to fight for their rights.