Vandalism, hate crime, theft ... or ignorance?

Local Native Americans are asking for the return of an eagle feather stolen from the "We Are Here" prayer pole in downtown Ashland.

"They were my family's feathers. I've had those for over 30 years almost," said Dan Wahpepah, a member of the Red Earth Descendents. "They were me and my wife's feathers that symbolized our marriage."

The pole, commissioned by Lloyd Haines, was erected in 2006 in honor of First Nations Day in Ashland. Wahpepah took part in the installation, which marked the 150th anniversary of the Trail of Tears, during which Native Americans were forced to leave their homes to be placed in reservations.

Whoever took the feather exchanged it with a marijuana joint and a children's pirate book, according to police. It was reported missing Tuesday evening.

Deputy Chief Rich Walsh said the case is being treated as a theft, although whoever took the feather had to climb over the enclosure would be trespassing, as well.

"The bigger part of it is the missing eagle feather," Walsh said. "It is priceless and it's hard to even put a value to it."

Police are asking if anyone has information or may have seen something suspicious to call officer Lisa Evans at 488-2211 ext. 2837.

Members of R.E.D. will gather Sunday at 11 a.m. at the prayer pole to sing honor songs for the feather and see it on its way.

The group has yet to decide how they will replace the feather.

"We're going to hang a turkey feather or something, perhaps nothing," Wahpepah said. "To the Cherokee the turkey feather is sacred, but to other Native American tribes it's not, so it will be a symbol of an eagle feather."

According to Pepper Trail, an ornithologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife forensics laboratory, possessing an eagle feather or any other bird feather native to North America is illegal.

"For normal citizens it's not legal to possess eagle feathers," Trail said. "In theory, you could get a permit, but it's highly unlikely to get a permit."

A registered tribal member of any tribe can write to the National Eagle Repository outside of Denver, Colo., and request eagle feathers for different kinds of activities, Trail said.

"When the feathers are received they are accompanied by a letter that certifies how you obtained the feathers," he said.

There are two laws that protect eagles feathers: the Bald and Gold Eagle Protected Act; and the Migratory Bird Act, which prohibits anyone from possessing any feathers from birds native to North America. These laws were a reaction to the trade in feathers in the late 19th century where thousands of birds were killed for feathers for ladies' hats and accessories.

"For Native Americans, eagle feathers are extremely sacred things," Trail said. "It's really an affront to the respect for which that object should be held. All kinds of things have been violated by taking that feather. And it was given as a gift of great generosity."

Wahpepah said he just wants the situation to be educational.

"It could almost be equated to a hate crime if it wasn't for sheer ignorance," Wahpepah said.

"We realize where cultures touch there's usually a clashing so it's a part of the bigger picture," he added.

Wahpepah is asking whoever took the feather to drop it in Matthew Lloyd Haines' mailbox to return it.

"They are our most sacred item," Wahpepah said. "...To have it stolen and traded for a joint is really offensive."

The R.E.D. group said in a public statement that their intent is to educate the community on the use of eagle feathers as sacred articles and explain why it is so important to Native peoples to use and treat these items with the utmost respect.

The sculpture itself is now considered sacred, and R.E.D would like to use this as a way to educate the public so that the community can work together to protect and care for this prayer pole, to learn from it as a living memorial to the indigenous peoples of this land, according to Wahpepah.

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