Crime wave advances! More feathers sold!

MIKE ROYKO

August 11, 1993|By MiKE ROYKO

Sharon Skolnick called and expressed alarm.

"Your column today about the artist who was arrested for using feathers on a painting? Can the government really do that?"

Mrs. Skolnick was referring to the column I wrote about a Michigan artist who is in trouble with the federal government for picking up feathers in her yard and near ponds and adding them to a painting she did of a bird.

And the answer is, yes, it is illegal to sell the feathers of migratory birds, even if the birds willingly shed them in your yard and you put them on a painting.

If you are unaware of the law, it is only a misdemeanor, and you might get off with only a fine or a few months in jail.

But if you know the law and sell stray feathers, it is a felony, and you can get up to two years in prison and a maximum fine of a quarter of a million bucks.

"Oh, my goodness," Mrs. Skolnick said, "does that mean that I could be in trouble?"

I told her I didn't know. Does she sell feathers of migratory birds?

"Maybe," she said, "I really can't be sure."

Could you explain?

"Well, I'm a Native American. An Apache."

I interrupted and said that I had not been aware that Skolnick was a traditional Apache name.

"Oh, no, that is my married name. My real name is Okee-Chee. That means 'Little Blue Bird.' "

I was impressed. I had never talked to an Apache before, as there were few in my old neighborhood.

And I asked if she was related to Geronimo. I always admired Geronimo, a spunky sort who always got a bad deal in the movies.

"No, but my great-great-grandfather was Chief Loco. He was a contemporary of Geronimo."

I'm sure that if I knew Chief Loco, I'd have admired him, too. A cool name.

"But about the feathers . . ."

Yes, why are you concerned?

"I have an art gallery. The Okee-Chee Wild Horse Gallery in Chicago. And we specialize in the works of Native Americans."

And they use feathers in their paintings?

"Yes, in paintings and other things. We have sculptures, fetishes, other objects. A combination of just about everything in Native American art."

Where do these artists get the feathers?

"I believe they get them the way that lady you wrote about did. They find them where birds drop them and pick them up."

Then I have bad news.

If they are the feathers of migratory birds, you could be violating the wildlife-protection law.

"But I don't even know what kind of feathers they are and didn't know about the law until I read your column."

In the eyes of the law, that's no excuse.

Judy Enright, the grandmother and artist, didn't know until the federal agents came to an art fair and seized her painting of a big bird that she had covered with stray feathers. Now, she is awaiting a decision by the feds as to whether she will be prosecuted.

"Goodness," said Mrs. Little Blue Bird-Skolnick, "that is alarming."

Have you ever been visited by any federal wildlife agents?

"No, but I've had the animal-rights groups come in. I had a buffalo head here and a buffalo robe. And there are other works that have furs and such. Can I be arrested for that?"

As far as I know, it is not illegal to possess or sell a buffalo head. But you cannot sell the feathers of an owl, a duck, a yellow-shafted flicker, a blue jay, a cardinal or just about any other kind of traveling tweetie.

By the way, what did the animal-rights group say to you about the buffalo head and hide?

"Oh, they told me off. I told them that I understood their position but that it is the right of an artist to do their presentation and that we respect everything in nature."

Well, if animal-rights groups have been to your gallery, that is not a good omen. It is bad sign.

"Why?"

Because federal wildlife agents have told me that the animal-rights groups are among their best sources of tips on illegal feathers. They are believed to have blown the whistle on Mrs. Enright and her feathery painting.

"I wonder what I should do," said Mrs. Little Blue Bird-Skolnick.

I advised her to stash any feather-adorned art until she knew what kind of feathers they were.

If there should be even one feather of a yellow-shafted flicker -- well, life is not at all pleasant in a federal prison.

And I suggested that she consider a different business. Instead of art, she might sell cocaine.

"What?" she asked.

Sure. A lot more money in coke than in feathers, or even buffalo heads. With less risk, too. Tons of it are pushed in this country every day, and the feds and local cops can't keep up with it. I mean, if Mrs. Enright, the grandmother-artist, had been pushing crack instead of a big, feathery bird painting, she'd be driving a Mercedes and collecting Picassos instead of picking up feathers in her back yard.

"No, I will stay with art," Mrs. Little Blue Bird-Skolnick said. And she went off to examine her feathers.

I'm sure Chief Loco never thought it would come to this. First, we kill all the buffalo and steal the land.

Now, his great-great-granddaughter can't sell a stray feather.

Where's Geronimo when we need him?

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