Our View: Native artistry using feathers will not endanger birds

A before photograph of a headdress adorned with flicker feathers by award-winning Tlingit carver Archie Cavanaugh, which ran afoul of federal law.
Photo courtesy Sealaska Heritage Institute
Archie Cavanaugh's headdress after U.S. Fish & Wildlife confiscated the flicker feathers.
Photo courtesy Sealaska Heritage Institute

If a picture is worth a thousand words, try the two shown at the right.

Top, traditional Tlingit headdress with flicker feathers, by award-winning artist Archie Cavanaugh.

Bottom, same headdress with a haircut, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Absurd, isn't it?

We're glad that U.S. Fish and Wildlife aims to protect migratory birds. So, we imagine, are most of the Native artists who use the birds' feathers.

But this is an example of law running counter to both common sense and cultural heritage.

Cavanaugh had no idea he was breaking the law until the service told him he could be subject to fines and jail time for selling or attempting to sell artifacts made with the bird feathers, as he was doing on the Internet.

Stunned, he took the ads off the Net and the flicker feathers off the headdress, along with raven feathers off a hat (the raven had been found dead), only to be to be told he could be in further trouble for destroying evidence.

Ancient art sought help from modern advocacy: Cavanaugh hired a lawyer. And he contacted Rosita Worl of the Sealaska Heritage Foundation.

Cavanaugh settled the case for $2,000 and change and the equivalent of a ticket. Fish and Wildlife kept the feathers. None of that need have happened to protect the birds.

Worl was right when she said she wished Fish and Wildlife had come to the Foundation first, or at least delivered a warning before threats of jail and fines to an established artist who was doing what he has always done and what his people have done for at least hundreds of years. We understand that Fish and Wildlife was enforcing the law and that ignorance is no excuse. But given that Cavanaugh and the service reached a settlement, the service clearly has some discretion in how to proceed.

Further, federal law has made accommodations before for traditional Native uses of wildlife, including sales and trade. The same should happen for artists like Cavanaugh.

That headdress without feathers is like the letter of the law without the spirit.


BOTTOM LINE: Native artistry and livelihoods won't endanger bird populations.