Native American defends sale of animal parts

Thursday, April 2, 1998

The owner of a Native American shop in Virginia is facing large fines and jail time for selling animal parts.

But Native American Cletis Harper, a retired Army major and owner of Two Feathers, says he sells animal parts for use in religious ceremonies and should therefore be exempt from the state's game and wildlife laws.

Harper was charged last month with four felony counts of violating state wildlife laws. Harper ran afoul of state laws that permit people to own animal parts but not sell them. If found guilty, Harper faces up to $2,500 fines and five years in jail.

Harper, however, says his store sells religious supplies and that the animal parts are used by his customers in ceremonies to honor the earth and the great spirit. Harper describes the store, about 19 miles from Washington, D.C., as a supplier of Native American crafts.

“We use animal parts for our regalia during ceremonies in which the spirit of animals are honored,” Harper said. “We also use tobacco in much the same way Catholic priests use incense. Our prayers are in the smoke.”

State wildlife investigators raided Harper's store and removed boxes full of bear claws, hawk feathers, hides, animal skulls, dog teeth, wolf hides and assorted turtle parts. Bill Stump, a spokesman for the state's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said these items are “totally illegal to sell or buy.”

Harper said state officials actions were triggered by a misunderstanding of Native American culture and the use of animal parts in many of its religious ceremonies.

“I'm essentially the sole source for Native American Indians in this area for items they need to make a dance stick or a paho stick—a prayer stick,” Harper said. “We use these parts in our ceremonies to honor spirits. What is wrong with honoring the spirit of a bird, cat, dog, deer, bear or a wolf?

“State officials say that I can hold such items [animal parts] personally but cannot sell them for a profit,” he said. “I'm not selling these things for a profit, but for religious purposes. Why can't I be a bridge between the needs of my Native American brothers. I do their homework to ferret out the things they need that are divine.”

Stump told The Washington Post that Harper had been warned by state officials to stop selling the animal parts and that he “just didn't think he'd get caught.”

Harper said he had difficulty understanding the warnings of state officials.

“I don't have an ax to grind and I don't want to hurt anyone,” Harper said. “I have problems understanding the mindset of those who fail to understand our culture. I, however, have asked the great spirit to look into my eyes and see that my heart is empty of vindictiveness and bigotry and have asked that my heart be filled with the love of the great spirit.”

Shortly after Harper's store was raided by state officials, Harper said he and many of his Native American brothers and sisters performed a “smudging” on the store to rid it of “the negativity that state officials had left behind.” Smudging, Harper explained is a religious ceremony that involves burning of sage, and the playing of drums and lots of prayers.

Harper's trial is scheduled for late April.