Aztec Dancers File Lawsuit Against U.S. Department of Interior for Confiscating Traditional Feathers

It’s frustrating but hardly surprising when Indigenous practices around the world aren’t honored or respected, especially in Latin America and the U

Aztec Dancer

Photo: Unsplash/ Daniel Lloyd Blunk-Fernández

It’s frustrating but hardly surprising when Indigenous practices around the world aren’t honored or respected, especially in Latin America and the U.S. Despite the region’s rich Indigenous history and the presence of thousands of Indigenous groups still living today, they continue to face persecution and injustices. That became clear this past March when Danza Azteca Tenochtitlán, an L.A.-based family group of Aztec dancers, were crossing the U.S.-Mexico border at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego with their traditional wear. They were planning to perform at a Mexica New Year celebration in San Jose, California when they had 1,500 traditional feathers, many of which had been passed down through generations, confiscated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and were fined. The four dancers involved have now filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior, demanding $1 million per person in compensation and for the feathers to be returned, NBC Latino reported.

“Some of the things the community enjoys are our feathers and traditional wear,” dancer Ruby Marek told Noticias Telemundo Los Angeles. “It’s a way for us to build recognition that we’re proud and that this is a land of immigrants, but they want to clip our wings.”

During the alleged incident, the dancers were told that they had violated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is meant to protect wild and endangered birds against hunting and commercial trading. To be able to own such feathers requires a permit except if you’re from a Native American tribe. While the law is good in theory, it fails to protect other Indigenous groups that fall outside of federal recognition, especially those who come from Mexico. By confiscating traditional feathers that are worn for dances, as well as cultural and religious practices, the agency fundamentally violated their right to practice their religion.

Additionally, the dancers believed that the feathers had been taken from non-exotic and non-endangered birds. In fact, many of them were decades old and had only been taken from birds that had already died naturally or were molting. According to the L.A. Times, the agency stated on documentation that the feathers had come from “parrots, pheasants, ducks, doves, macaws, ravens, turkeys, emus and hawks,” none of which are exotic or endangered.

“All we do is share our customs in an artistic and creative way,” said Marek. “I’d love to demonstrate my culture and religion without being treated like a criminal.”

This incident is eerily similar to when a Native American teen was traumatized after a sacred eagle feather was removed from her graduation cap by school officials  earlier this year. These are just some examples that changes need to be made to protect Indigenous groups to practice their religious and cultural practices without fear of persecution or confiscation. Especially when it comes to feathers that carry sacred, religious, and emotional value for so many.

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