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Freedom of religion is enjoying the right to choose faith without the government’s interference with the rules, practices, and beliefs of that doctrine. In the United States, this liberty is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Over the years, the freedom of religion has been questioned by Native Americans who still feel that their autonomy is always suppressed. Reports of various forms of suppression continue even after the Indian American Religious Freedoms Act was enacted in Congress after decades in late 1978 (Zaretsky and Leone 45). According to these reports, Native Americans have always been marginalized by federal and community groups when it comes to religious practice. This report investigates the development of religious freedom in the United States by focusing on Native Indian American religious practices. The paper will also provide insight into their struggle against religious suppression and forced assimilation into protestant beliefs.
Native Indian Fight for Religious Freedom
In 1978, the United States Congress enacted the Indian American Religious Freedom Act that supported the protection and preservation of the freedom to believe and practice customary religions amongst Indian American s, Eskimos, Aleuts, and Native Hawaiians (Wald and Calhoun-Brown 14). The law meant that Native Indian American s would be allowed to retain religious sites, exercise their right to possession of sacred objects, and have the freedom to worship through traditional rites and other ceremonials (Wiedman 215).
This act was well received by the Indian communities in the United States as it appeared that they would be protected from government and other controllers of the country’s economy intruding on their religious practices. However, as it came to be realized, later on, the law did not mention how the doctrine was going to be enforced (Dussias 347). This situation took the country back to the suppression of religious freedom. According to the Supreme Court, the enactment was only going to act as a requirement which the government would use to negotiate on religious practices of Native Indian Americans and other minority groups (Nord 23; Fraser 78). The act, thus, remained pointless if it was not going to be enforced.
The suppression of religious freedom has also seen Native Indian Americans taken to prison for fighting back the federal government and other investors who interfere with their religious practices and sacred areas (Suhr-Sytsma 62). In most cases, the religion of Native Americans is usually taken as being universal. However, there is diversity among different Native Americans, especially when it comes to religious beliefs. According to Sperry, there are more than 500 tribes living in the United States, all of whom speak more than 200 different languages and are associated with more than 400 treaties that were drafted by missionaries in each sector of the Christian religion (54). However, the issue of religion becomes a problem when looking at their traditional practices.
Over the years, there has been a lot of activism in support of the protection of Indian American sacred sites and calling for the practice of religious freedom. Some actions have been able to produce results like the successful quest for the Taos Pueblo people in New Mexico to take back the sacred Blue Lake watershed, which is located on the mountain to the North of Pueblo (Sperry 56). Most Native Indian Americans attached their religious practices to nature and other forms of life. For example, Blue Lake is believed to be a home where their ancestors came from to find a place on earth. This means that Blue Lake is regarded as a place where they were all born. In addition, Blue Lake is also where all their spirits return when they die.
The Tao people have been fighting for the holy shrine since it was annexed to the nearby national forest following an executive order by the then American president Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 (Dussias 347). It was only 65 years later that the US Senate voted highly for the return of the shrine, and in 1970 president Nixon signed a law that ensured the return was enforced (Fraser 79). This success activism for religious practice and freedom continued in the country among the Indian American s where they protest against acts of physical and verbal abuse from the law enforcement and native Christians in the country. Most of this practice of suppression is due to the performance of religious rituals like dancing in the streets and wearing leather and feather regalia during religious occasions. The anger was too much that in 1978 the Congress enacted the Indian American Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (Nord 24).
Ancestral Graves Protection and Repatriation
As part of the religious practices, the Native Indian Americans hold their ancestors with a lot of respect. Thus, lobbying to regain their original ancestral land, worship areas, burial rights, and other spiritual practices continued following the enactment of the 1978 law. In this manner, it is believed that their ancestors are shown respect.
In 1990, this was realized when the United States Congress also passed the Native American Protection and Repatriation Act. This Act meant that all the ancestral remains, including those held by the American national or private museum would be returned to their tribesmen. The skeletal remains hold a deep American history and attachment Indians have with their motherland. Some of the issue raised is that institutions and governments that hold them did not do it with respect or standard of decency required (Suhr-Sytsma 64). For example, most of the institutions holding these remains have come out to deny the Indian culture as part of the American living cultures. For the Indian American however, this is a violation of their religious beliefs were disturbing the dead will derail their spiritual journey. The saddest part is that some of these groupings still possess religious artifacts that have a vast amount of knowledge that is important in the perpetuation of their beliefs to future generations.
The Current Position of Indian American Religion
Looking at the events of the struggle for freedom of religion, the Native Indian Americans still have a long way to go. In reference to the current trends, the dominating Christian religion has grown to overwhelm the Indian cultural practices as Christianity is incorporated into the Indian culture. The Native American church is one of the most widespread indigenous religious movements in the United States north. The church which was enacted during the spread of missionaries in 1885 has continued to grow to have a membership of over 1 million to date. This church combines some traditional Indian and Christian concepts of religion. The big losers here are the native Indian Americans since their traditional practices are incorporated to Christianity (Wiedman 220). Some of the practices that the church incorporated included the suppression of Indian traditional healing practices; however, such styles have been fought by the American government as it is seen as risking the lives of citizens. The action against Indian healing practices can actually be traced back to 1919 in Montana’s northern Cheyenne reservation after an Indian agent revealed that their healing ceremonies where very risky.
As the protests and lobbying continues on the practice or religious freedom and regaining of Native Indian American s ancestral land, sacred areas including trees, mountains and rivers, one aspect or native religious freedom in the United States need to be discussed due to the ever-growing need for the enforcement of Native American religious freedom Act of 1978. In this regard, the act needs to be seen to protect Indian traditional practices, customs, religion, and spirituality despite the fact that some critics question it as not being purely American. It should be known that the act was enacted in reference to the protection of the first amendment act of the American constitution (Zaretsky and Leone 46). In the past decades, there has been a lot of disturbing evidence on the suppression of native Indian Americans freedom for religion. This is because all Native Americans are a religious group and they have been disoriented with the constant interruption of their religious practices and places. In the end, they are slowing recruited to Christianity which is widely accepted as the American religion where non-Indians find other religion as nonexistent and there to misdirect citizens.
This calls for a change of attitude meaning that the enacted laws need to be enforced by the federal government in consideration of the native religions to reduce the restrictions this group has on the practice. As much as the laws protecting religious freedom have been enacted as discussed, there is a need to come up with worthy objectives like the preservation of sacred areas, protection of spiritual rivers and mountains and respect for select animals which are believed by the red Indians to hold spiritual powers (Suhr-Sytsma 63).
In conclusion, the practice of religion in the United States is still dominated by the practices of Christianity and suppressed by the federal laws. It is important that law enacted giving Indian American right to religion and traditional religious practices mean that their government will guarantee safety, security and surety of the protection of religious artifacts and spiritual places in the United States. The Indian religion needs to be taught in all schools as an option in the curricular as this one of the ways that will ensure the practice does not end. It is a general belief among Native Indian American s and the congressional supporters and sponsors of the religious resolutions that the freedom to practice any kind of religion should be allowed. This should also include the protection of other aspects of the practices so long as it does not interfere or suppress other religions in the country. It is also important that federal governance ensure they are compatible with the religious beliefs of Native Indians. Lastly, continuous lobby and de-stigmatization of these practices need to work in the country for other communities to embrace them.
Dussias, Allison M. “Friend, Foe, Frenemy: The United States and Indian American Religious Freedom.” Denver University Law Review, vol. 90, no. 2, 2012, pp. 347.
Fraser, James W. Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America. JHU Press, 2016
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Nord, Warren A. Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma. UNC Press Books, 2014.
Sperry, Willard L. Religion in America. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Suhr-Sytsma, Mandy. “In the Light of Reverence and the Rhetoric of Indian American Religious Freedom: Negotiating Rights and Responsibilities in the Struggle to Protect Sacred Lands.” Wicazo Sa Review, vol. 28, no. 2, 2013, pp. 60-86.
Wald, Kenneth, and Allison Calhoun-Brown. Religion and Politics in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.
Wiedman, Dennis. “Upholding Indigenous Freedoms of Religion and Medicine: Peyotists at the 1906–1908 Oklahoma Constitutional Convention and First Legislature.” The Indian American Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 2, 2012, pp. 215-246.
Zaretsky, Irving, and Mark Leone. Religious Movements in Contemporary America. Princeton University Press, 2015.