CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A Wyoming inmate is suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming agency officials improperly delayed for years sending him eagle feathers he needed for Native American religious purposes.
Andrew John Yellowbear, Jr., a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, is serving a life sentence in the beating death of his 22-month-old daughter in 2004.
Yellowbear filed a lawsuit this month in federal court in Wyoming charging that the Fish and Wildlife Service gave him three eagle feathers in 2008 and then repeatedly denied his requests before sending him seven more last December. The agency holds carcasses from eagles and other birds at a repository near Denver.
"The damage and religious significance here, would be akin to asking a sincere Christian to pray without using the Holy Bible," Yellowbear wrote. The lawsuit is assigned to U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl of Casper.
Attempts to reach Fish and Wildlife Service officials were unsuccessful on Friday.
The American Civil Liberties Union represented Yellowbear in a 2008 federal lawsuit against the Wyoming Department of Corrections that secured his right to have eagle feathers in prison.
The corrections department entered a settlement agreement with Yellowbear in 2008, agreeing that he and other American Indian inmates could have up to four eagle feathers in their cells and keep up to 10 feathers outside their cells for communal use.
Stephen Pevar, a senior staff lawyer with the ACLU in Connecticut, represented Yellowbear in his earlier lawsuit against the state corrections department. Yellowbear is representing himself in the new lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service and Pevar said Friday he couldn't comment on the new lawsuit.
Pevar said the 2008 settlement agreement with the state didn't require the Fish and Wildlife Service to give feathers to American Indian inmates. Rather, he said it only established that the state would make arrangements for inmates to have access to them in prison if they did acquire some.
Pevar said the ACLU represented Yellowbear in the first lawsuit because of the religious importance of eagle feathers to American Indian inmates.
"Eagle feathers, to most Indians, are as sacred as a cross is to most Christians," Pevar said. "And they use eagle feathers in virtually every ceremony, or every prayer event or activity. It's probably the single most important symbol to traditional Native American religions."
Yellowbear notes in his lawsuit that the Northern Arapaho Tribe has been in court against the Fish and Wildlife Service trying to secure permits from the federal agency that would allow the tribe to kill bald eagles for use in the tribe's annual Sun Dance.
Yellowbear also notes that the federal government in recent years prosecuted Winslow Friday, a young Northern Arapaho man who killed an eagle on the reservation without a permit for use in the Sun Dance. Friday ultimately was sentenced to pay a fine in tribal court.
The Northern Arapaho Tribe sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011 over what the tribe said was the agency's refusal to give it a permit to kill eagles. The Fish and Wildlife Service last year granted the Northern Arapaho Tribe the nation's first-ever permit allowing it to kill up to two bald eagles a year.
However, the permit the Northern Arapaho Tribe received specified that the eagles couldn't be killed on the Wind River Reservation, which the Northern Arapaho Tribe shares with the Eastern Shoshone Tribe because of opposition from the Shoshones. And Wyoming law until recently prohibited anyone from taking eagles off the reservation.
The Wyoming Legislature this year changed state law to allow people holding valid federal permits to take eagles. While sponsors said they intended the law to help falconers collect live, wild birds, it also apparently could allow Northern Arapaho tribal members to kill eagles off the reservation.
Lawyers for the Northern Arapaho Tribe and Fish and Wildlife Service filed notice with U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne on Friday that they've been holding meetings with state game department officials and others to consider how the new state law may affect their lawsuit. They asked the judge to give them until the end of June to file another status report on the case.