At any one time, the NEFR has about 250 different species of birds and feathers in its inventory, ranging from the tiniest of hummingbirds to giant condors, silvery-black anhingas to salmon-pink flamingos, snowy owls to red-tailed hawks. The office even stocks plumage from such exotic birds as the great argus pheasant from southeast Asia and the scarlet macaw, whose brilliant red feathers have been prized for centuries by the Pueblo peoples of northern New Mexico.
“We average about 500 orders a year,” Mesta says. “Those represent literally thousands and thousands of feathers. We put out a lot of feathers to a lot of different tribes. And that’s something we’re really proud of.”
Most of the requests that NEFR receives come from Native Americans who do not live on tribal lands. There are nearly seven million Native Americans in the US today, and the majority live and work in urban areas.
“Arizona has the third largest Native American population in the US — something like 300,000 and more than 22 federally recognized tribes,” Mesta says. According to census data, about 30 percent of the state’s tribal members live in the Phoenix metropolitan area.
“For a lot of different reasons, Native Americans ended up in urban environments that have no connection whatsoever to the tribal lands that provided feathers,” Mesta explains. “But feathers are foundational. They’ve sustained these tribes and their cultures throughout history. Now, the members have lost an important source of support and community. And oftentimes, that resulted in a life that they weren’t ready for.”
Allen King (Zuni Pueblo, Diné) grew up shuttling between the Navajo reservation in New Mexico and the farmlands of Idaho. At just five years old, he was initiated into the powwow circuit, where he learned northern traditional dance. “I lived two different lives, very confused,” he recalls. “I danced and had long hair, but I didn’t know my language or my true culture.”
Living a life stuck between two cultures — and never feeling a true belonging to either one — led to a troubled youth and multiple addictions that would follow King into adulthood and result in two prison convictions. In 1999, his mother took his regalia, and his feathers, away from him.
“Some of those feathers were my father’s, so I have to understand and be respectful of how many hands touched them and prayed over them. There’s an initiation process to get them. And the person who initiated me, who trusted me with these feathers, is now connected to me,” King explains. “She didn’t want me to hurt them, so she had to put the feathers away until I was ready to pick them back up again.”
In 2010, following the birth of his daughter, a life event that finally impelled King to become serious about his sobriety, his mother presented him with a box. “She gave me back my regalia,” he says, his voice cracking with emotion. “I started dancing again that year, and from there, my culture saved me.”
Today, King is the founder and CEO of Whispering Creek Health, a recovery center for Native Americans. Feathers are part of the program’s healing process.
“Like Liberty Wildlife, we re-spark that life of who they are as Native Americans. We utilize feathers, hawk tails, talons and different parts of the bird for ceremonies and as a cultural component for recovery,” King says. Those who complete the program receive a hawk feather. “There’s a spirit that goes on those feathers; it has a lot of meaning,” King adds. “It’s a reminder of where that spirit came from, what it’s seen, what it’s experienced.”
For five-time world champion hoop dancer and flute player Tony Duncan (San Carlos Apache, Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa), birds have always been a valued component of his culture. “The Apache have a lot of stories,” he says. “We believe the eagle, or ‘tsa-cho,’ carries our prayers to the creator. The hawk also is a spiritual messenger. Even the little hummingbird is one of our spiritual birds.”
While his dance regalia is devoid of feathers, the artist uses them during ceremonies, celebrations and for teaching his four children. “You’re often gifted feathers during different transition times in your life: anytime you go through another doorway, whether it’s parenthood, having a child, or even going into the spirit world,” he explains. “When you get a feather, and when you’re wearing a feather, you have respect for it.”
A lifelong resident of greater Phoenix, Duncan was only recently introduced to Liberty Wildlife and the NEFR through his wife, Violet. “To learn about the work that Robert does, and that Liberty Wildlife does, was amazing,” he says. “The repository is a beautiful way to help us maintain our culture in the city, because there are more Natives who live in the city than on reservations now. So having access to it — and to feathers — allows us to still maintain our traditional ways and our culture in an urban setting.”
Back at the repository, Mesta and NEFR coordinator Mare Van Dyke continue to field an ever-growing number of requests. And for every feather, every carcass, every set of wings that goes out, one less bird is taken from the wild.
“I can’t tell you what level of impact we’re having on stopping the black market, but I can say that we’re providing a significant alternative to the purchase of illegal feathers. And every year, more and more Native Americans are taking advantage of it,” Mesta says. “And that’s super healthy and positive for everyone.”