Feds Crack Down on Native Alaskan Artist for Using Bird Feathers in Artwork

Published November 26, 2012

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials threatened a Native Alaskan artist with felony violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Lacey Act for adorning a hat and headdress with feathers from a raven and a flicker. The Native artist used the feathers in his artwork after finding them on the ground.

Traditional Artwork Targeted

Archie Cavanaugh, a member of the Tlingit people, posted for sale online a traditional headdress decorated with flicker feathers and a hat that had raven feathers on it. Soon thereafter, Fish and Wildlife Officials threatened Cavanaugh with up to $100,000 in fines and 10 years in prison.

Cavanaugh struck a deal with prosecutors, paying a $2,000 fine but avoiding formal charges or jail time.
Alaska natives have been adorning traditional art work with feathers for thousands of years. Cavanaugh said he did not know using the flicker and raven feathers was illegal. 

“It was devastating, it was depressive. It was hurtful, painful, for a carver—a Tlingit—to go through what I did, not knowing it was a law,” said Cavanaugh in a press release. 

Native Groups Rally Support

The Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI), a regional native nonprofit organization representing the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska, rallied in support of Cavanaugh, stating they too were not aware the use and sale of feathers was illegal. 

“The mission of the Sealaska Heritage Institute is to perpetuate and enhance our native cultures, including the arts,” said Rosita Worl, president of SHI. “Additionally, we have been promoting ‘sustainable arts’ as a means to securing an income for our impoverished tribal members and economically depressed villages.” 

SHI teamed with the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), the largest statewide native organization, to support an exemption from federal laws to allow Alaska Natives to use bird feathers in traditional art and handicrafts.  

Traditional Use Avoids Waste

Ben Mallott, spokesperson for AFN, says 3,500 delegates at the 2012 AFN annual convention in Anchorage passed a resolution supporting the exemption. 

“Bird feathers have historically been used in the making of traditional handicrafts, tools, clothing, and ceremonial items, such as masks, rattles, and hats,” said Mallot. “These items have been used, bartered, and sold by Alaska’s native people historically. One need only look at the various collections of native art in our nation’s museums to see that feathers were a prominent feature of many of the masks, headdresses, and clothing.

“Today, Alaska natives are allowed to harvest migratory birds for food, but are prohibited from using any part of these same birds for any other purpose, including the creating of traditional handicrafts, tools, or clothing. Rather than requiring our people to waste the nonedible parts of birds taken for food, they should be allowed to use those parts as they have historically,” Mallott added.    

He continued, “We would like to see an exemption, modeled after the one contained in the Marine Mammal Protection Act, that would allow Alaska Natives to take migratory birds for subsistence purposes and to create and sell authentic native articles of handicrafts and clothing, so long as the taking for either purpose is not accomplished in a wasteful manner.” 

State’s Leaders Support Natives

Worl says Alaska’s elected leaders support an exemption for native artists. 

“Alaska’s congressional delegation expressed immediate concern and vowed to initiate action to amend this regulation, which may mean a change to the bird treaties. We will continue to pursue changes with our congressional delegation and invite others who are concerned about this issue to join us,” Worl said. 

“It is clearly not right that indigenous artisans are forbidden to use feathers, but migratory bird feathers can be used in the sale of fly fishing ties and in pillows and mattresses,” Worl explained.

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.