The New American Indian Religious Freedom Act

Los Angeles Times

February 18, 1979


By John Dart Times Religion Writer

Research Assistance Michael Wayne “Your Hungry Coyote” – California Mission Indian


Wintu medicine women Flora Jones has been contending for seven years with bears and the U.S. Forest Service in an area south of gleaming Mt. Shasta, where she practices her craft.

Bears have ripped down and destroyed her $400 tents on five separate occasions, she says.

Forest rangers have warned the 72-year-old spiritual healer that she must remove the wooden platform for her tent and an outhouse, both used by patients she has treated over a period of days in Trinity National Forest.

Officials not long ago proposed to allow her to gather her herbs and other plants and animal parts only if she confined herself to one acre.

Miss Jones complained to the 2-year-old California Native American Heritage Commission about the bears as well as the rangers, since she believed some bears were being imported from Yellowstone National Park.

Though the bears remain a marauding threat, Miss Jones has a new special use permit from the Forest Service to roam at will in the traditional Wintu healing area, where her mother and father practiced before her, and to maintain two permanent structures there.

Her case is believed to be the first successful use of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which was passed a joint resolution of Congress last summer.

The act marks a major turning point in governmental attitudes toward Indian religions, which in the past have faced severe obstacles.

In 1887 the General Allotment Act spoke characteristically of the priority of building mission schools on Indian lands “to civilize and Christianize the Indians.”

Indians beliefs and traditions were appreciated more by the mid-1900s. But the First Amendment protection of religious liberty did not often work for citizens whose pews were rock and dirt, whose sanctuary stretched from horizon to horizon, whose sacred objects sometimes included illegal substances and feathers of endangered species and whose spiritual havens sometime sat on top of untapped energy resources.

Compounding these difficulties have been widespread fears that many of the old ways and insights are being lost as the elders die and dispirited or dis­interested young people drift away.

The new act declares it will be U.S. policy within federal agencies to “protect and preserve” the rights of Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts and native Hawaiians to exercise their traditional religions.

Native Americans are to be granted, among other things, access to sacred sites on federal land, use and possession of sacred objects from nature and other freedoms to perform ceremonial rites. President Carter was directed to report this summer on specific problem areas and policy adjustments.

“In itself, the act, Public Law 95-341, doesn’t have a lot of teeth,” attorney Kurt V. Blue Dog, co-director of the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colo., said.

“But it sets the tone for the federal government, and that’s probably the most important thing it does,” the 28-year-old Sioux said.

It remains to be seen whether act can be employed in various areas of conflict or inadvertent abuse. For example:

–Paiute and Shoshone Indians want greater access to Coso Hot Springs on the China Lake Naval Weapons Center in the Mojave Desert. Indian attorney Stephen Stephen Rios, head of the state Native American Heritage Commission, says the area is well documented for more than 100 years as an Indian healing spa and religious site.

Naval officials, relenting somewhat in recent years, now allow escorted daytime visits to the site, but Rios says Indians want to be able to stay over­night on weekends when the weapons range is usually closed down. “The most important spirit for them is one which works at night,” Rios said.

–Three Indian inmates at Lompoc federal prison have filed suit to build! A sweat lodge for ceremonies with the sacred pipe inside prison facilities. At least four states, including California, have allowed the practice.

The case, awaiting trial in Los Angeles federal court, could affect all U.S. prisons with an appreciable Indian population, since the ceremony is a common religious practice of the many Plains tribes.

–The ritual eating of peyote buttons, the tops of a spineless cactus plant, by members of the Native American Church generally have been favored by court decisions. But many states still prohibit possession and use of peyote because it contains a hallucinogenic substance.

A Superior Court judge in the state of Washington ruled last October that three Indians with peyote who were arrested while driving to a spiritual encamp­ment at the Colville Indian Reservation were within their rights to have it.

Though he alluded to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Judge Bill Kohls based his decision on the First Amendment.

Tribes such as the Blackfoot, Cree and Mohawk, who live on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border, hope to make arrangements with customs officials to stop the occasional opening of “medicine bundles” prepared and sealed by medicine men. Tribe members said that such inspection destroys the sacredness of the objects.

Navajo Indians in Arizona are objecting to proposals to build a winter resort area on national forest land in the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff. The “home of the gods” to Navajos and Hopis is said to provide them with strength and must be cared for by them.

The peak area is frequently used for ceremonies and the U.S. Forest Service seems to be at an impasse on what it will do, according to a representative of the American Indian Law Center in Albuquerque, N.M.

These controversies involve governmental agencies for the most part, giving Indians hope for successful use of the American Indians Religious Freedom Act.

The rights fund lawyers, however, also see if the act will apply to issues involving primarily private interests, such as the long battle over whether Point Conception will be used as a liquefied natural gas terminal.

Two dozen Chumash Indians have been camping in the area for months, vowing to oppose any attempts to build on their burial grounds or otherwise desecrate the “western gate” for departing souls. The staff of the U.S. Energy Regulatory Commission has recommended Oxnard as a substitute site, based its concern on the belief that Point Conception is seismically unsafe.

In another private-interest conflict, Indians have been negotiating with the Denver Art Museum for the return of a 2-foot-tall wooden “war god” to the Zuni tribe in New Mexico.

The museum received the figurine as a gift about 25 years ago, but it had disappeared from the tribe around the turn of the century, apparently stolen. “The Zunis believe .that these war gods have vast powers. In order to control these powers they have prayers and supplications. But the war gods have to be in their natural settings,” a staff member with the Native American Rights Fund said.

James Abourezk, former Democratic senator from South Dakota, held hearings a year ago that led to the joint resolution of Congress and the new act. He cited increasing instances of government interference with the rights of Indians to practice their religions, often because of insensitivity, neglect or lack of knowledge of Indian customs.

“This state of affairs is enhanced by the perception of many non-Indian officials that because Indian religious practices are different than their own they somehow do not have the same status as a ‘real* religion,” Abourezk said.

Non-Indians have shown a vague respect for Indian religions in a variety of ways such as through the popularity among non-Indians 6f an Indian prayer—

“Great Spirit, grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.”

Indian mythology and medicine men with a good speaking ability are sought out by many non-Indians interested in Indian mythology or seeking religious truth.

White churchgoers have sentimental Thanksgiving time reminders of Indians celebrating the harvest with Pilgrims in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

But the regard for Indian religion as “real” religion has not been helped by having Indian religious customs described in print primarily by anthropolo­gists, archeologists, folklorists and even- art historians, rather than by theologians.

That is changing. There is a growing esteem in academic religions studies for Indian religion. The American Academy of Religion*s annual conference in 1972 added Native American traditions to its categories of study. Eleven papers were presented on the subject at the academy’s last meeting.

“North American religion cannot be considered a marginal area in religious studies any longer,” said Ake Hultkrantz, a European regarded as one of the foremost authorities in the field.

“Aboriginal North America is and has been the home of hundreds of religions which are interesting in themselves and have importance for the knowledge of religious expression/’ Hultkrantz said.

He claimed a “growing realization among educated people that in many respects these religions attain a loftiness and a dignity that even surpass that of some of the supposed “higher” religions.”

Joseph Epes Brown, dean of U.S. scholars on Indian religion, says Indian beliefs in spirits dwelling in plants, rocks and the forces of nature is often unkindly referred to as “animism” but instead is much more complex.

Indian religions speak with more force to environmental problems than Christianity, many scholars feel.

“It is perhaps the message of the sacred nature of the land, of place that today has been the most responsible for forcing the Native American vision upon the mind and conscience of the non-Indian,” Brown, a University of Montana professor, said.

But over the more than 100 years that Indian religions were not so highly thought of by white men, some traditions may have suffered irreparable damage.

Certain ceremonies, which sometimes included self-torture, were considered debasing by federal Indian bureau officials. They discouraged the Ghost Dance movement, which swept Western reservations in 1889 and 1890. Participants danced through the night until they collapsed from exhaustion. In most versions of the Sun Dance, participants pierced their muscle layers with skewers which were tied to a central pole by long lines. Then they danced until the skewers fell out. That and similar ceremonies were prohibited until 1935.

One answer to Christian missions, government restrictions, and a growing alcohol problem was the peyote-using Native American Church, an Indian religion that uses the Bible and incorporates some Christian imagery.

The Indians of Mexico began using peyote in their ceremonies more than 400 years ago. The practice spread to North American Indians in the early 180.0s and became part of the ritual of the Native American Church which first was in­corporated in 1941 in Oklahoma.

Its prayer meetings, held in teepees, are often done at the request of a “patient” or family, but can also occur on any U.S. holiday, from Christmas to Veteran’s Day. Participants spend most of the night sitting on the hard dirt ground around the fire sharing experiences and prayers.

Basic tenets of the Native American Church are brotherly love, care of family, self-reliance and avoidance of alcohol. Many Indians report they kicked a drinking problem after becoming members.

The chewing of peyote “allows you to increase your feelings beyond an ordinary level,” church member Dean Jackson, who is also president of the All Indian Rodeo Cowboys Assn., said.

President Emerson Jackson of Shiprock, N.M., estimates his church has about 65,000 Navajos, the largest U.S. tribe, as members and tens of thousands of other Indians.

Jackson admits to some internal problems with keeping open supply lines to the U.S.-approved peyote harvesting areas in Texas and policing the use of the drug.

“We have to tighten up the trafficking and control of our sacramental peyote because some of the people don’t know how to use it,” he said. “Sometimes people mix it with other drugs and cause us as a church to have a bad reputation.”

The gradual eroding of Indian custom is a troublesome problem.

Navajo traditional medicine men, in fact, made a concerted effort last year to begin licensing themselves and tightening standards. Drink would be prohibited before or during a ceremony and no one would be allowed to attend who was under alcoholic or narcotic influence.

Although a few medicine men this century have dictated their knowledge to non-Indian authors, oral tradition and ritual have been the usual way to transmit the spiritual lore.

But the plaint of the Northern Cheyenne tribe of Montana is typical:

“We are painfully aware that much has already been lost, and since there are no resources specifically earmarked for purposes of preserving our culture we can further anticipate losing more as each one of our elders leaves us.”

Archie Fire Lame Deer, 43, a Sioux medicine man living in Santa Barbara, says so many tribes have lost their religion that they are looking to the sacred pipe, Sun Dance and other traditions of the influential Plains Indians.

Lame Deer’s father, who died three years ago, is credited, among others, with keeping the Sun Dance alive for many decades after its ban by the govern­ment. Lame Deer continues the tradition, but now in the face of modern influences.

One of the most authentic Sun Dances today, according to Lame Deer, takes place each summer in Northern California at Deganowidah-Quetzalcoatl University at Davis, a school for Native American and Mexican-American studies.

“But you go to Sun Dances in South Dakota and you see that it’s a charade,” he said. “There are cameras, tape recorders, loudspeakers, electric lights. These are outlawed in the sacred Sun Dance altogether.”

Indian religions make stringent demands in order for individuals to “walk to Good Red Road,” as many put it.

“Our teachings tell us to purify ourselves, and to be strong in body, mind, heart and spirit, to unify our nations and hold to the creation’s natural laws…,” One writer claimed in Akwesasne Notes, a well-known Indian newspaper published in New York State.

“There may be no elders,” continued the writer, Saupaquant. “But there are the teachings of nature, the vision quests, the fasting, the sweats, the observation of the earth, the growing things, the animal creatures, the voice of the winds, the rocks, the thunders—and our own hearts and minds in the quiet hours of the morning. For those who want to listen, the voices still speak.”

Sotsisowah, a Seneca, declares the first duty of Indians is to show appre­ciation and regard for one another. “We can see that it is the natural way, just as the first thing people do upon meeting is to greet one another with a wish of good health.”

Everything in the world needs to know it is appreciated, Sotsisowah said, in advice that would please non-Indians who talk to their house plants.

“It is true that plant beings are nourished by soil and air, but it is known too that their health and well-being is encouraged by our words … For this reason, our grandparents walked among the Corn Sisters and talked to them encouraging them to grow.”

Vine Deloria Jr., author of “God is Red” and “Custer Died for Your Sins,” has been pessimistic about eliciting understanding responses from non-Indians. For one thing, he says, the environmental movement is pragmatic and not prayerful.

“You can clean up the Columbia River or the Hudson River,” Deloria said,

“But unless you understand what that river is and your responsibility to it, you are merely balancing the cost benefits of using the river one way against the cost benefits of using it another.”

Religion for many Indians, of course, is the Christian religion. One of the most comprehensive surveys of Christian missions among Indians, published last month by World Vision International, Monrovia, estimated the Indian Christian population at more than 320,000, about 40% of all American Indians. The hard­core church membership is much lower.

Significantly, for the survival and health of traditional spiritual lore, the “prevailing desire … almost without exception” among mainline Protestant and Catholic Church workers today is to conserve and adapt those elements in Indian church life, R. Pierce Beaver, the survey author, reported.

Beaver said these missionaries, pastors and officials believe that “basic Native American religious concepts are compatible (with Christianity) and that adaption in theology and Christian practice is desirable.”

The researcher, in citing beginnings of adaptations, noted that the Epis­copalians of Navajo land have admitted medicine men into church membership and allowed them to offer prayers.

Native American caucuses and councils within several denominations have shown some clout in arguing for the needs of Indian ministries, Beaver said.

It is only the very conservative, evangelical church groups which are generally opposed to retaining traditional tribal religious ideas or customs in Christian settings, he said.

Pentecostal revivalists have at times persuaded Indians who have “accepted Jesus” to turn over medicine bundles, some of them made a century ago, to be burned, according to Lloyd Thompson of the Navajo Office of Native Healing Sciences.

Many Indian activists now believe the Religious Freedom Act provides an unprecedented positive respect for Indian rights, even if it applies only to religious matters and must have a “federal connection.”

“There*s never been anything like this before,* Blue Dog of the Native American Rights Fund said.

The growing cadre of young, law-trained Indians like Blue Dog hope the new act*s effect will prevent such failures (in the Indian view) as Black Mesa in Arizona.

Hopi traditional leaders opposed strip-mining for coal on Black Mesa in the early 1970s, arguing that the land was part of the heart of Mother Earth and that the Hopi have left religious items, clan markings and the bodies of their deceased there.

“Strip-mining Black Mesa is like ripping apart St. Peter’s in order to sell the marble,” they maintained in a losing cause.

The Cherokees opposed the Tellico Dam project in Tennessee last year because according to one spokesman, Jimmie Durham, flooding would destroy the sites of former Cherokee cities Echota and Tenasi, the latter being the name adopted as the state’s name.

“In our history,” Durham said, “we teach that we were created there, which is truer than anthropological truth because it was there that we were given our vision as the Cherokee people.” Cherokees, driven to Oklahoma in the infamous Trail of Tears by President Andrew Jackson, revere the valley as sacred land where they can go to listen to their ancestors, he said.

The dam project was halted, but the crucial factor that stopped it was the presence of the snail darter fish, an “endangered species.”

There have been occasional victories for Indians in recent years. The Zuni tribe in New Mexico is gradually obtaining ownership rights to the Zuni Salt Lake after missing that chance through bad advice in the last 1940s.

Zuni legends say the lake, about 40 miles south of Gallup in an extinct volcanic crater, was once on Zuni tribal lands: But, the story goes, the Salt Mother became offended when people began polluting the area and she (the lake) moved several miles away. Pilgrimages are made each year to propitiate the Salt Mother.

Any listing of places which tribes claim to be sacred lands prompts the question of whether the successful use of the act would bring Indians to block innumerable construction and energy-development ventures.

Stephen Rios, of the California Native American Heritage Commission, says that in one sense Indians would claim that all land is sacred and should not be desecrated. But, practically speaking, Rios indicated Indian groups would probably not seek to block or modify a development unless an area could be shown to have a history of Indian spiritual use and continuing meaningfulness.

At Coso Hot Springs, where Rios is arguing for more access by Paiute and Shoshone Indians, he is also concerned that geothermal test drilling not far away, also on the Naval preserve, may lead to extensive tapping of the under­ground energy source. Rios believes drilling would eventually dry up the hot springs, but geologists have said that could be averted.

The ideal, of course, would be to satisfy both Indian religious sensiti­vities and commercial interests. Those cases often seem rare, however.

Federal agencies such as the Forest Service and Park Service face similar dual interests.

“There is legislation saying that the land is open to the public, but if you have an Indian religious ceremony that is supposed to be private, it is not clear that you could deny the public (the right) to observe,” Tom Mulhern, of the Park Service’s division of cultural resources management said.

A special Park Service directive issued a year ago covers Indian ceremonial privileges on national park land and encourages Indian participation in advisory roles at parks.

In the case where Indians conduct private ceremonies in an area traditionally available to the public, the directive says, “Equitable arrangements must be negotiated by the park manager.

Mulhern hopes the current studies by federal agencies, which will make their recommendations to the President, can resolve such dilemmas in the light of the new act.

Religious freedom for American Indians, Mulhern said, means a lot more than going to church on Sunday. “It’s an expanded frame of reference,” he said. “Religion is part of their total culture.”

Therein lies the beauty and the complexity involved in honoring an impulse that brought many white immigrants to North America centuries ago.

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