Native American Religious Freedom
For millennia ceremonies, rituals, and native practices have played an important role to the Native Americans and their culture. Even though these ceremonies are often referred to as "religion", it is different from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or any so called "Civilized" or "White Man" religions. The Native Americans do not dictate an official religious dogma, but allow each other the privilege to worship according to the dictates of their own hearts.
The Native American Religion allows for quick change and adaptation to the current lifestyle needs of the individual or group and it therefore plays an integral part of their life. Due to the complex nature and variety of the indigenous beliefs, the Native Americans have often been at odds with the conquering government's agenda.
With the arrival of the European settlers, the Native American Religious Culture underwent some major changes. Often their Spiritual Practices were looked upon with superstitious judgment. The conquering governments introduced policies to either force then indigenous population into their culture, isolate their practices, or to outright prorogate genocide. In 1882 the U.S. Federal Government continued to work towards destroying all Native American Religious Freedoms by ordering an end to all "heathenish dances and ceremonies" on reservations due to their "great hindrance to civilization."
Because of the prejudice and ignorance of the conquering society, these attempts to suppress the Native Americans' exercise of their religion eventually led to the Massacre at Wounded Knee. On December 29, 1890 the U.S. Government sent the Seventh U.S. Calvary into the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian Reservations to stop the practice of the Ghost Dance which was a movement that was about the peaceful end to the White Man's expansion into Native American lands, as well as the preaching of living with goals of clean living, a honest life, and cross-cultural cooperation by the Native Americans. The Seventh Calvary slaughtered approximately 150 Native American men, women, and children.
Over the next hundred years many of the traditions were suppressed while many others survived and even new traditions were formed. Though many Native Americans have been a part of other religions for generations, the majority being Christian, their indigenous practices have grown to their life and adapted to their surroundings. Finally in 1978, the United States Government acknowledged its prior infringement on the Native Americans' freedom of religion and their First Amendment right of the free exercise of that religion by passing the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Speaking about this act, President Jimmy Carter said the following:
'In the past, Government agencies and departments have on occasion denied Native Americans access to particular sites and interfered with religious practices and customs where such use conflicted with Federal regulations. In many instances, the Federal officials responsible for the enforcement of these regulations were unaware of the nature of traditional native religious practices and, consequently, of the degree to which their agencies interfered with such practices. This legislation seeks to remedy this situation.'
Even though this act was a great first step to resolve the conflict between cultures, it did not clarify some conditions. This lack of clarity for the Native American Religion lead to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and the amendments to this law.
Although having taken another step forward, still the 1993 law needed further clarity to correct problems. In 2000 the United States Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
These three laws have assisted in the freedom to practice the Native American Religion and resolve the injustices of the past. We are sure further laws will be forthcoming to clarify the United States stand on the people's rights to practice the Native American Religion.
Through recent court cases, the Native American Religion has been upheld by the Supreme Court. Read more about these cases in the article "Issues of Law".