[Updated] State Agents Investigate Yoga Instructor Because She Was Accused of Giving Bird Feathers to Kids

Cultural appropriation: a crime against nature.


Renee Bierbaum
Renee Bierbaum / Facebook

The trouble isn't quite over for Renee Bierbaum—the widow, mother, and martial artist whose home-based yoga studio was threatened by her county government and a Native-American activist accusing her of cultural appropriation. Two officers from Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) recently visited Bierbaum at her house to investigate whether she was illegally selling migratory bird feathers.

The FWC received an anonymous tip—it's not clear who sent it—that Bierbaum was "dealing in illegal bird feathers" by giving them to children during her yoga and art workshops for kids. She was also accused of possessing headdresses with wrongfully-acquired feathers in them.

"I don't own those hats," Bierbaum says. "I just model them."

State and federal laws prohibit people from, possessing, trading, or selling migratory bird feathers. Native Americans, however, can apply for special permits to sell feathers from hawks and eagles.

Bierbaum told Reason—and the officers who questioned her—that she wasn't peddling feathers.

"I said, 'You're welcome to search my house,'" Bierbaum says. "[The officer] goes, 'No, that's not necessary. It is illegal to deal, sell, or give away migratory bird feathers.' I already knew that, but thank you so much. They were nice gentleman."

The anonymous nature of the accusation makes it impossible to know for sure who sicced the authorities on Bierbaum. But a thread at newagefraud.org—a website for Native Americans to call out people who sell Native American ceremonies and memorabilia, in violation of their spiritual beliefs—provides a clue. One of the posts speculates that Bierbaum is "providing kids with illegal feathers." Other posts in the same thread were written by user "White Horse," whose real name is Sal Serbin.

Serbin is in fact the very same Native American activist who alerted county officials to the fact that Bierbaum's at-home yoga studio was in violation of a zoning ordinance. He did so because he resented the fact that she planned to host a sweat lodge retreat. Sweat lodges are a part of Native American culture, and Serbin objects to anyone using them to turn a profit.

"I'm over this guy," says Bierbaum. "This is war."

Serbin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As for Bierbaum's yoga studio, she has already raised the money necessary to apply for a permit—thanks to a wealth of donations from sympathetic people all over the world. She also obtained legal assistance to help her finally get it up and running.

In the meantime, Bierbaum is allowed to teach yoga—on her own property—but only if she doesn't try to make any money from it.

Updated on January 28 at 12:30 p.m.: In a statement to Reason, Serbin confirmed that he contacted the authorities about Bierbaum. He said he sent the FWC the following message: "Renee Bierbaum is in possession of and has distributed feathers in violation of the Migratory Bird Act. The distribution occurred within a classroom setting where fees were paid in part for the feathers."

He also told me, "if Renee still wants to push this issue I do still have more information that could impact Renee Bierbaum's reputation and business."