ANCHORAGE — Two members of Alaska’s congressional delegation have introduced bills that would clarify that it’s OK for Alaska Natives to sell artwork adorned with bird feathers.
Under the legislation introduced by Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, some traditional Alaska Native art and crafts would be exempt from a provision of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act barring the sale of items containing the feathers and non-edible parts of migratory birds.
The issue began receiving attention after Archie Cavanaugh, a well-respected Tlingit artist, was fined $2,200 for trying to sell a headdress adorned with feathers online, the Anchorage Daily News reported. Native artists can use feathers in traditional handicrafts as long as they are not hunting the birds to get them, and some sales are allowed, but Murkowski said the law is unclear at best.
“Tell me where the harm is in selling this artifact, this mask, this headdress, this regalia,” Murkowski said. “They’re using it for art, to create something that symbolizes a culture, something that can tell a story, and how you’re able then to share it.”
Giving a financial incentive to harvesting bird feathers through the sale of art could lead to illegal bird hunting, U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Andrea Medeiros said.
She said migratory birds in the past were harvested for commercial use, in some cases nearly to extinction.
“You can’t have all-out sales of these bird parts in artwork and open up a big commercial market and then ensure the conservation,” Medeiros said.
Plus, it can be difficult after the art is created to know whether feathers in a particular piece were simply found or whether the bird was killed illegally, she said.
“This presents a law enforcement challenge and potential for abuse,” she said.
But Murkowski said the risks do not outweigh the potential cultural benefits. She does not expect much opposition to the legislation.
“It’s really honoring the birds themselves and their spirits in the work,” Murkowski said. “It’s designed to celebrate that part of this Native culture.”