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Interior To Pay $50,000

By Scott Sandlin
Journal Staff Writer
    An eight-year legal odyssey launched by the seizure of eagle feathers from a Silver City man has ended with an order for a federal agency to pony up almost $50,000.
    U.S. District Judge M. Christina Armijo recently ordered the U.S. Interior Department to pay $48,818 in legal fees and costs in the case of Joseluis Saenz.
    The Chiricahua Apache, who uses the feathers in religious ceremonials, had his feathers seized in 1996 by the Fish and Wildlife Service, a branch of Interior.
    The federal agency took the feathers claiming Saenz wasn't a member of a federally recognized tribe and needed a permit under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
    However, Fish and Wildlife did not pursue criminal charges because of Saenz's "unique circumstances" of tribal affiliation.
    Chiricahua Apaches, involved in border skirmishes with the U.S. Cavalry in the 1880s, fled south to a mountain stronghold when other Apache bands surrendered in 1886. The groups that surrendered were relocated and eventually recognized by the government. The Southern Chiricahua were not.
    Saenz sued the government under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when wildlife officials refused to return the religious items with feather adornment, including a shield, staff, quiver, fan and dream-catcher.
    In 2000, the late U.S. District Judge Edwin L. Mechem ruled in Saenz's favor, finding him to be both a sincere practitioner and a "genuine Indian."
    "Imposition of the government's single and strictly legal definition of 'Indian tribe' for all purposes— historical, social, ethnic, religious, political and jurisdictional— conflicts with the reality of human experience," Mechem wrote.
    Saenz got the ceremonial items back.
    But the government immediately appealed to the 10th Circuit. When Saenz won again, he asked to be reimbursed for legal expenses.
    The award, reduced from the $74,800 requested, will be shared with the Indian Law Clinic at the University of Colorado for work done by directors and students.