American Indian Religious Freedom: First People and the First Amendment


Modern Native American activism in defense of sacred sites and the quest for religious freedom owes its inspiration to the long but ultimately successful battle of the Toas Pueblo people of New Mexico to regain their sacred Blue Lake watershed on the mountain just to the north of the Pueblo. The Blue Lake, which they believe to be the primordial home from which their ancestors emerged onto this world, and to which their spirits return after death, was annexed to the nearby Carson National Forest by executive order of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Almost immediately there-after, the Taos people began their long struggle to have their most holy shrine returned to them. This struggle culminated successfully 65 years latter when the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly in early December 1970 to make the return, and President Nixon signed the legislation to make that return complete in the following month.

The return of Blue Lake and the 48,000-acre tract in which it is set is of unique historical significance because it marked the first time that the federal government returned a significant parcel of land to its original owner in the name of indigenous religious freedom. The quotation which opens this introduction is excerpted from a latter of appeal the Taos people mailed out nationally in the spring of 1968 to plea for support for their cause, and it very well sets the tone for other on-going struggles to protect and/or restore other sites sacred to Indian peoples in the U.S. The people of Zuni Pueblo, nearly 300 miles from Taos, also fought successfully in the early 1980s to have their own sacred lake and surrounding area set aside for their exclusive use. Thanks to the Taos precedent and example, their own fight was not as protracted as that of Taos.

Activism on other religious fronts began to accelerate almost at the very moment of the Taos people's triumph. Repeated acts of harassment on the part of law enforcement officials of peyotists and other Indian people in possession of eagle feathers in the early 1970s gave rise to the anger and unity which resulted in the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (AIRFA). However, AIRFA lacked specifics both as the kinds of religious sites and practices to be protected, and as to specific penalties for transgressions and other enforcement provisions. Consequently, it has not been very helpful in protecting and the very things it presumably was designed to protect. Among the kinder epithets used by activists to describe AIRFA after only a few years of court tests were "a toothless tiger," "a statement of good intentions," and "a pious wish."

There were concerted efforts between 1990 and 1994 to amend AIRFA by giving it some "teeth" and, later, to substitute another bill altogether. But those efforts were stalled by the Republican Congressional landslide of November 1994. These efforts will undoubtedly be revived when and of the political climate changes in Washington. Jack Trope's essay, next following, provides a splendidly succinct overview of other relevant federal legislation bearing on issues of American Indian religious freedom, while the remaining authors provide case studies in which the available legal remedies are tested and applied.

Other efforts to protect sacred sites elsewhere in the U.S. have so far met with mixed results. Despite a struggle that is much older than that of Toas, the various Lakota/Dakota nations have not yet succeeded in having the Black Hills of South Dakota (including Bear Butte) either returned to them, or at least protected from further from further despoliation and desecration. The story of this long-standing effort and of its current status is the burden of the essay here included by Mario Gonzalez. Another sacred site in the northern Plains, the Bighorn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming, is protected by the U.S. Forest Service, but it is not in Indian hands. Jacks Trope calls our attention to the positive results that might be attained if Indian people are united and dedicated to protecting a particular site, and if they have strong and sympathetic allies.

Another sacred place in Wyoming, to which Mario Gonzalez calls our attention, is the so-called Devil's Tower. It, too, is protected and set aside, but as a national monument rather than as a sacred shrine. It is known as "Bear's Tipi" in Oglala Lakota, and is sacred to several tribes in the area. The Western Apaches' struggle to protect on of their most sacred high places, Mr. Graham in southeastern Arizona, from the siting to telescopes on and near its summit has not been its successful. But, the Apache people and their environmentalist allies have had arrayed against them a formidable group of opponents, including the Vatican, the Max Planck Institute of Germany and the University of Arizona. Here, a clear choice of science over religion is being made, as Betsy Brandt reminds us, even though one of the parties making this choice is a church.

The fact that so many sacred sites are located on heights or consist of sacred mountains themselves begs the question, "Why?" In point of fact, sacred mountains and other high holy places represent the largest single category of sacred sites that Indian people wish to protect. These actively used, high places number in the hundreds, and they range from Mount Ketahdin in Maine to Avikame on the border between California and southern Nevada, and everywhere in between. Mountains have a unique place in Native American spirituality for quite several reasons. In the first place, people go there to find the peace and solitude to induce spiritual reflection, and even to induce spiritual encounters. Many mountains are regarded as so holy that they are places of ultimate sanctuary as well. No blood may be spilled there, nor other acts of violence perpetrated. Even peoples with a long-standing enmity existing between them may not fight if they encounter one another there. This is necessary because sometimes several tribes share sacred mountains.

Mountains are also teachers, and places from which necessary things places from which study the cloud patterns around the summit of a mountain for portents of the weather to come, even weather that is a full season away. Moisture, rain as well as snow, many originate on mountain summits, and it is always welcome - it is also regarded as sacred. Pilgrimages are often conducted to obtain wide variety of medicines and tobacco at various levels along the way to a summit. The fact that mountains also contains game and eagle nesting sites just enhances there sacredness. Indeed, Native American religions embody a lot of practical knowledge, teaching which serve to put believers in rapport with their environments in a very deep and abiding way. This practical dimension of Native American religions has never been seriously studied, as the romantic tradition surrounding them in American scholarship has always drawn attention to their musical and spiritual dimensions, and away from the practical tasks that they also perform.

In any case, particular Indian tribes have special relationships with particular mountains in the respective worlds they inhabit. It is to those places, unique and special to them, that they look for guidance in both the spiritual and practical affairs of life. It is not only the Taos Pueblo people who cannot be thought of apart from their high holy place. Dozens of places across the U.S. are still imbued with mystery and transcendence as well as practical significance by the native peoples who have long lived nearby. The unfortunate fact, that so many of these places (i.e., Devil's Tower, Mt. Diablo, Superstition Mountains) are associated with the Christian devil and superstition by whites, reflects nothing more than their own fears and the long equation by Euro-Americans of Indian religions with devil-worship. hence, to these fear-ridden pioneers of the 18th and 19th centuries, if a site is sacred to Indian people, it must be inhabited by the devil, the antithesis of the Christian God. The intolerance reflected in these attitudes have always added to the difficulty of understanding and respecting, let alone protecting, Indian sacred places. These places and their associated beliefs and practices have always been regarded as beyond the pale of acceptable religion in American society.

Even those essays to follow which deal with sacred sites other than mountains, the sites they do deal with still exist in nature and are still embodied in their respective environments. Peter Whiteley deals with the endangered springs of the Hopi world. Perhaps nowhere in the U.S. other than the Southwest deserts is water so precious and sacred a resource. Indeed, as Whiteley points with both eloquence and passion, not only the expression of Hopi religion but Hopi life itself may be endangered if the area's water table continues to drop to the extent that the sacred springs cease to exist.

Jenkins, Dongoske and Ferguson focus on other kinds of Hopi sacred sites, ones endangered by other kinds of developments as well as by inter-tribal tensions (which currently exist between the Hopi people and their Navajo neighbors). Shrines and other sites which exist at some distance removed from the Hopi villages are most endangered, and some have already been destroyed, a sad commentary on the fact that a very fragile landscape is being abused by those who do not understand it. Roger Anyon, in his turn, discusses Zuni efforts to protect sacred sites utilizing existing federal statutes. This they have done with such impressive success that other tribes which consider themselves the Zuni people's experience to guide their own future efforts. Zuni, in particular, has been long successful in repatriating its Twin War God fetishes from museums all over the U.S., and Zuni officials have recently expanded their efforts to include European museums as well.

Last but certainly not least, Walter Echo-Hawk deals not with particular tribes or their sacred places, but with the poignant issue surrounding the absence of religious rights for Native American prisoners in both state and federal prisons across the nation. Efforts to secure even minimal access to spiritual advisors and to the things which can make some kind of spiritual life possible have long been denied Indian prisoners. Wardens have routinely denied request for sweat loges, the sacred pipe and permission for the wearing of long hair. Charges that prisoners might bang one another over the head with the sacred pipe - hence banning it as a potentially lethal weapon - are as absurd and groundless as would be a charge that devout Catholics would band one another over the head with a chalice. The sacred pipe may no more be used to perpetrate violence than the chalice.

It remains only to sketch in some of the more general and enduring characteristics of Native American religions, and to note those points at which they differ most sharply with historic or mainstream religions of America. Perhaps most importantly, they are religions of personal experience, rather than religions of scripture and revelation. One believes only what one knows for sure; only what one has directly experienced. And the proof of a particular native religious proposition is rights here on the American landscape, not in scriptures or in events which took place in a distant land 2,000 or 4,000 years ago. Native genesis traditions deal with events which took place right here. People can point out the truth of their traditions by pointing to ruins and other cultural remains where their ancestors stopped on their long migrations long ago. Hence, Native American genesis and migration traditions are very much living traditions of the American landscape in a way that similar traditions of the Near East can never be.

While a particular native culture channels and directs in a general way the kinds of spiritual experience one may have, there is very little institutionalization to be found in native religions. Indeed, they might better, more accurately be termed traditions of spirituality be termed traditions of spirituality rather than religions in the conventional sense. Similarly, they must be regarded as religions which exist principally in space rather than in time; in place rather than in history. The places where they initially arose. Their site-specificity also permits us to characterize them as natural rather than as supernatural in focus. Spiritual entities in these religions are of the order of nature, embodied in nature, rather than above it. Hence, tribal religions permit a given people to extend their experience of the landscape, of their homeland, into a spiritual dimension.

Native religious traditions also present a view of nature as a great mystery. They also extended kinship to all of nature, to all creation. To native peoples who still live their traditions, their sacred mountains and the whole earth are living, breathing entities. This is why they could never relate fully to Christian notions of hell, the devil and, especially, the concept of original sin. These ideas run counter to their teaching of the purity and sanctity of all life.

In regarding the earth as alive, they also think of her as mother Earth and humans began a common consciousness together long ago, and they have a mutual responsibility to care for one another. A Tewa prayer from my boyhood begins, "As it has been left among us from the time of the earth's dawn, when all was young and green...." Another contains the phrase, " mountain's breath we know this." Both phrases are intended to anchor the speaker's word onto the beginning and onto the ultimate grounds of human existence as they understand it.

Native American religions also tend to be religions of denial, even hardship. As elders have stated through the centuries, one must be poor in the things of this world in order to have access to the things of the next world, that is to say, to spiritual fulfillment. This is why fasting, arduous pilgrimages, dancing under the blazing sun of summer, lonely vision quests and numerous other examples of self-imposed hardship are part and parcel of these experiences. And vision of time reflected and valued most in these experiences is a cyclical and repetitive one. They care most about those phenomena in nature which recur, repeat and come back, like the cycle of the season. Life, in good part, represents and effort to put the tribal existence in rapport with nature's rhythms and cycles.

To summarize, Betsy Brandt's observation about Mt. Graham in particular can be extended to include all Indian sacred sites: "There has been a bias too the built environment. Telescope proponents want to see a temple or perhaps a burning bush." Native American sacred sites are so regarded precisely because there are no temples or burning bushes on them. Members of the American judiciary, the federal government and even leaders of historic religions will just have to develop more tolerance and expand their definitions of what constitutes a proper sacred place. In the end, how free are we, really, if the first religions of America under the provisions of the First Amendment to the Constitution? This is the question all of the contributors to this journal address, both explicitly and implicitly. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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