Just off a busy highway in Tempe, the Liberty Wildlife organization has launched a quiet effort to preserve and protect Native American culture through the acquisition of feathers from birds long important to Indigenous people’s religious beliefs.
In order to practice ceremonies and dances, Native American tribes need access to various types of bird feathers to create capes, skirts, bundles, headdresses, prayer fans and healing implements.
Pristina Benally, a member of the Navajo Tribe and student at Arizona State University, explained that the symbol of birds and their feathers hold special meaning to various Native American tribes.
“The feathers that come from birds can be used within traditional clothing and as important cultural symbols. A feather can be a symbol of many things within many tribes, such as trust, honor, strength, and power. Birds are as special as its feathers; they represent the physical form of a spirit and guide,” said Benally.
“The feathers are given to another individual to use in traditional ceremonies, or to protect themselves from harm and to pray in the Navajo tradition. They are considered the first people in our cultures, in most of our teachings.
Located in South Phoenix, Liberty Wildlife rehabilitates wild injured raptors and returns them to the wild if possible.
In 2010, the Liberty Wildlife organization partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created a program called the Liberty Wildlife Non-Eagle Feather Repository Program.
The organization aims to support Native American cultures by providing them with feathers necessary to construct religious and ceremonial regalia.
Obtaining feathers is not always easy and every year thousands of birds are killed and their feathers are sold illegally on the black market.
The Non-Eagle Feather Repository is the only organization in the U.S. permitted to accept, hold and distribute non-eagle feathers to Native Americans for religious and ceremonial purposes.
Part of the organization’s goal is to eliminate illegal harvesting of feathers in the wild by providing a legal source of feathers.
All enrolled members of a federally recognized tribe that are at least 18 can submit an application to receive feathers for ceremonial purposes.
According to Robert Mesta, a member of the Yaqui tribe and the program director of the repository program, Liberty Wildlife’s work is necessary when it comes to supporting Native Americans’ ability to practice their religion.
“Ever since we started in 2010 this [is] actually really the first time Native Americans really had a legal access to feathers which is kind of sad,” said Mesta.
“For a long time when there wasn’t a legal source of non-eagle feathers for Native Americans, they lost a lot of these ceremonies because they didn’t have access to feathers so it really impacted Native American culture for a long a really long time, and that’s why it’s so significant that we exist now.”
The repository sends feathers to tribes and tribe members all around the U.S. The program provides feathers for 209 tribes and to Native Americans in 44 states.
On average, Mesta says he receives about 400 orders a year.
Mesta said the program relies heavily on feather and carcass donations from rehabilitation and wildlife groups, state and federal wildlife agencies, museums, zoos, and falconers.
Because some birds are regional and they receive special requests, having a variety of feathers in their inventory is necessary.
“A lot of the orders that we fill are for Native Americans that need the feathers for a ceremony but it’s not species-specific. By that, I mean any hawk will work but there’s a lot of ceremonies that are species-specific,” said Mesta. “We like to have those in our collection so when we get donations from all over the United States it helps us do that because we get a greater diversity.”
Mesta said one of his goals is to increase awareness about the importance of bird feathers in Native American culture and obtain more support for the feather program, to help protect and preserve Native American culture.
“People need to know and understand the importance of what we do. It’s extremely significant that we make these feathers available because we’re helping to support their ability to practice their religion and when you think about it, that’s pretty heavy stuff,” said Mesta.