Robert Soto, the Grace Brethren pastor who has sought to have Eagle feathers returned to him by the U.S. Department of Interior, is scheduled to be part of a Fox News program tonight (Friday, April 10) on religious rights. According to Soto, he will be part of a 10-minute segment that airs toward the end of the 9 p.m. show, Stossel with John Stossel. Soto, who leads the Grace Brethren Church in McAllen, Tex., is also vice chairman of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas. In a Facebook post yesterday, he shared some of the story, which appears below.
As you probably already know, on March 10, 2015 one day short of nine years, the Department of Interior consented to return all of the original fifty feathers they took away from my family at our pow wow on March 11, 2006. We all agreed to receive our eagle feathers where the battle all began back on March 23, 2006, when we consented to relinquish the last two feathers that the government demanded of us. Back when this happened I was at a loss as to what to do. To say I was not worried much would be to lie to you. I also must confess that from the first time I was given two feathers for my porcupine roach, I knew I was breaking the law. The agents coming into our pow wow to take our feathers from us was nothing new. I had been in a couple of other raids before where government agents raided family pow wows and started to arrest dancers and take their feathers away. Most of you reading this note need to understand that this has never stopped. You need to realize that the government can come to your pow wow and other religious gatherings and interrupt your service or pow wow at any time and take any feathers that have not been obtained from the eagle feather repository. You need to understand that unless you have a permit obtained from the federal government given to you, with your name on it, you cannot legally possess, obtain or use a single feather. So being at a loss of what to do, knowing I was facing criminal charges, a large fine and possible prison time, I did what I knew best, prayed and asked God to give me the wisdom and send someone my way to help me. That was about the time I got a call from Art Cisneros, a criminal defense lawyer. He was a youth pastor at his church and when he had heard of my plight called me and said, “I do not want you to to go to prison nor pay a large fine, so I would like to help you find a way out of this mess.” I gladly accepted his offer and he became my first lawyer. It was then that I found out that we were facing up to fifteen years in prison and a fine of about $250,000, or five thousand dollars for each feather taken.
After Attorney Art Cisneros got us out the mess, reducing my fine to nothing and $400 for my brother-in-law, I decided I could not stand still. The more I heard of why they came and the madder I got, the more convinced I became that my religious rights had been violated. I was getting phone calls from large law firms all over the United States and was not sure who to accept. Then one day I got a call from my friend Mike Gonzales who gave me several reasons why I should pick Milo Colton and Marisa Salazar of the Civil Rights Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He gave me three reasons why I should ask them to help me in my endeavor to make this right. First of all, they are local and will not drop you when things get hot. Secondly, they are Native and understand our plight. Thirdly, we need to set precedence in the state of Texas. So I chose Milo and Marisa and asked them to be my second set of lawyers. I had a lot of people who did not agree with me suing the government. Most were calling me a law breaker and telling me I deserved what I got. I did not disagree with either, but deep down inside of me I felt the Spirit of God within me was telling me to fight for what I felt was right and so I pursued the lawsuit.
I wish I could tell you that the last nine years have been smooth sailing. We spent eight and a half years in court getting our hopes up only to be dropped flat on our faces. This is where I commend Milo and Marisa and their persistence to keep fighting on our behalf. For when we got our final judgment from the lower court in October of 2013, they looked at me and said, “What do you want to do?” I said to them, “I told you I was in it for the long haul. I want to keep on fighting.” So we submitted our petition to the Fifth District Court of Appeals in New Orleans LA. In January of 2014 Milo and Marisa called me and said they had been summoned to a hearing. I committed the whole day to prayer. I asked several thousand of you to pray that day. When I got a call from Marisa she said, “I think we won. The government had nothing on their side and the three judges seemed to understand our side.” The next eight month were stressful. I contacted Milo and Marisa several times wondering if they had heard anything but no news. Finally on August 20, 2014 I got a call from Marisa with two of the most beautiful words I have ever heard: “We won!” We still had to give the government time to respond and decide what they wanted to do, though. After their time was up they asked for an extension which we granted. Finally on November 18, 2014 they decided they would not appeal this case back to the 5th District Court of Appeals and they would not seek to fight this in the Supreme Court, but wanted to settle. What that meant we did not know so we had to wait one more time as we went back to the lower court to try and settle this issue.
Sounding like a an old western but I must say, “Meanwhile back at the ranch,” Milo and Marisa had been contacted by the Beckett Fund For Religious Liberty and the international law firm of Baker Botts LLP to join forces to help us in the settlement part of the lawsuit. The reason the Beckett Fund was so important was that they are the law firm that had defended Hobby Lobby in their lawsuit against the federal government claiming that their religious rights had been violated and they had won in the Supreme Court. The reason this was so important to us was that in the Fifth District Court of Appeals’ decision on our behalf, they quoted Hobby Lobby’s decision seventeen times. So because of Hobby Lobby’s win, we won since the Fifth District Courts of Appeals saw the similarities and ruled on our behalf based on those similarities. So on January 29, 2015 I was joined by Attorneys Luke Goodrich and Gabriela Vega of the Beckett Fund, Michael Bennett of Baker Botts and our good friend Milo Colton of the Civil Rights Legal Defense and Education Fund. As we entered the courtroom the lawyer for the Department of Interior said, “Well, you win the case and the cavalry come joins you.” Milo responded, “Well, better late than never.” Milo and the cavalry made it clear that this was a clear example that our religious rights as American Indians had been violated. The next court appearance was set for March 17th then moved to April 28 which is where we now stand.
But the exciting news was that on March 5th I received a call from Attorney Luke Goodrich telling me the government wanted to return our eagle feathers. The return of our eagle feathers came with five restrictions and at first I wanted to say no. But after talking to both Luke and Milo, I decided to take the feathers back with all their restrictions. By the way, the restrictions are that I could never give them away, lend them to anyone; no one could ever borrow them, when I die, I could not pass them on to anyone and if I was ever caught with any other eagle feather than the fifty they returned, I was subject to being arrested. Not much of religious liberty because I got the feathers and nothing has changed except I, a member of a state acknowledged tribe, for the first time in history, had gotten all our feather back. That was a great victory. Now we continue to fight for the rights of all Indian people. As I stated from the beginning of this lawsuit, this is not about the feathers but the rights of our Indian people. I will continue to fight until our rights are restored and the federal government will never interfere in our religious rights as Native people. So us going back to court is our continual fight to restore what little we have left as Native People. So with this, please keep us in prayer especially on April 28, 2015 as we go back to court and we continue to fight for what is right.