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Aztec dancers accuse U.S. agency of confiscating their traditional feathers

More than 1,500 feathers were seized by officials while the group crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. They're now seeking $1 million in compensation per person.
Image: Aztec dancers file lawsuit following federal agency's confiscation of custom feathers

A group of Indigenous Aztec dancers has filed a claim against a U.S. federal agency for confiscating hundreds of traditional Indigenous feathers as the group was crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents seized more than 1,500 feathers typically worn during performances and for cultural and religious practices in March at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego, according to Ruby Marek, one of the Aztec dancers involved.

“Some of the things the community enjoys are our feathers and traditional wear,” 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.” 

Marek claimed that the members of the group were treated like criminals in their encounter with officials. Marek's family and Danza Azteca Tenochtitlán said in a claim filed against the U.S. Department of Interior that the incident was a violation of their constitutional right to practice religion. They are seeking $1 million in compensation per person and for their feathers to be returned.

Danza Azteca Tenochtitlán, a Los Angeles-based group of Aztec dancers, is made up mostly of Marek's family and her kids. Marek picked up her brother-in-law, who lives in Mexico, from the Tijuana airport and headed back to Los Angeles. They were invited to perform at the annual Mexica New Year celebration where Aztec dancers from across the nation gather in San Jose, California, Marek told The Los Angeles Times.

The family was given documents after the incident that stated the feathers were from “parrots, pheasants, ducks, doves, macaws, ravens, turkeys, emus and hawks,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects wild birds and their killing by collectors and the commercial trade in their feathers. A permit must be obtained to be in possession of feathers with exemptions for Native Americans, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website.

According to the agency, possessing the feathers violates laws that protect endangered birds. Marek told the Los Angeles Times she was unaware of the provisions and believed that because their feathers were mostly from animals that were neither exotic nor endangered they would be fine to cross legally.

Marek told Noticias Telemundo Los Angeles that the feathers had been passed down from older generations and collected from birds that were already deceased or had molted.

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

Some of the Indigenous dancers live in Mexico and some in the U.S., Jaime Gutiérrez, the group's counsel, said. He expects the family to file a lawsuit if the claim is denied, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The Department of Interior declined NBC News' request for comment due to "ongoing enforcement and litigative matter."