After a respected Tlingit artist was fined for the way he was selling artwork adorned with bird feathers, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young have introduced bills to make such sales legal for Alaska Natives.
Last September, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials told the artist, Archie Cavanaugh, that he had violated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by advertising online some artwork that had feathers from two birds, a raven and a flicker, which Cavanaugh said had been found dead. He eventually paid a $2,200 fine.
Murkowski and Young want to change the law, saying it should be clearer to Alaska Native artists what is allowed and what is not.
A spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service said there is concern that giving a financial incentive to harvesting bird feathers through the sale of art could lead to illegal bird hunting.
Native artists can use feathers in traditional handicrafts as long as they are not hunting the birds to get them. Some sales are allowed of their work. Murkowski said in a recent phone interview that, at best, the law is unclear about what Native artists can do. She said the Fish and Wildlife Service's enforcement has been heavy-handed. Cavanaugh's case discouraged other Alaska Native artists from creating culturally relevant art their people have made for centuries, the senator said.
The legislation Murkowski and Young are proposing makes it explicit in the law that Alaska Native artists will not be prosecuted if they create and sell artwork with bird feathers, much like how the Marine Mammal Protection Act allows the sale of certain artistically altered animal parts, like scrimshawed walrus ivory.
"I think it's understood we want to give our Alaska Native artists some clarity that they're not going to be subject to some enforcement action as they create and sell their art and traditional regalia," Murkowski said.
"Tell me where the harm is in selling this artifact, this mask, this headdress, this regalia." Murkowski said. "They're using it for art, to create something that symbolizes a culture, something that can tell a story, and how you're able then to share it."
Making some money also gives artists like Cavanaugh the means to support themselves while continuing those traditional practices, Murkowski said.
"It's wonderful if it's there for your own personal use, but is there harm to the raven population if Archie Cavanaugh is allowed to profit from the sale of a headdress or a mask?" she asked.
Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Andrea Medeiros said the law's intent was to take away any commercial incentive to kill protected birds.
"If you look at the history of the act, migratory birds were being harvested for commercial use, in some cases nearly to extinction. Women were buying these hats with beautiful plumes," Medeiros said. "You can't have all out sales of these bird parts in artwork and open up a big commercial market and then ensure the conservation."
Plus, it can be difficult after the art is created to know whether a particular piece contains feathers from a bird the artist or someone the artist knew found dead, or whether the bird was killed illegally, Medeiros said.
"This presents a law enforcement challenge and potential for abuse," she said.
Even so, Murkowski said the risks do not outweigh the potential cultural benefits. She does not expect much opposition from senators or representatives.
"It's really honoring the birds themselves and their spirits in the work," Murkowski said. "It's designed to celebrate that part of this Native culture."