The Right of Religious Freedom

During our class on Federal Policy we have been discussing the idea of the rights of Native Americans. While doing me research I came across on the underlining freedoms that everyone should process, the freedom of Religion. This freedom is so important in regards to Native Americans because it not only allows them to worship but defines their culture as well. I have decided to focus on just the American Indian Freedom Act of 1978 and it progression through time.

Religious freedom is an autonomy that most people living in the present take for granted. For most it is a right that they have never had to question. For example, if an Anglo-American wants to practice Catholicism, study the “Koran“, or even the art of Zen Buddhism he or she is free to do so without suffering any consequences. We are given this right by the United States constitution (Freedom of Religion).

This is not the case for Native Americans. Religious freedom has become more of a gift then a right that is given to Native Americans from the United States government rather than from a birthright. In the last two hundred years, the Anglo-Americans desire to make the Native Americans assimilate to their own culture by enforcing religious persecution on the Native Americans. This is evident from the times of the early Spanish settlements all the way through the arrival of the French, English, and ultimately the colonization of the Anglo-Americans. All four groups had their own religious beliefs and felt it was their “divine” duty to the Native Americans to educate them. They used the “divine right” as a reasonable rationalization to explain and make right the taking the Native Americans land, and leading Native Americans into the dominating cultures (forced assimilation). Because of the dominant attitudes of the European settlers, the Native Americans religions were forced into partial extinction by federal law. This was enforced by the Agents on the Reservations and followed by the children who attended the Boarding schools.

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (A.I.R.F.A.) was created to protect the religious rights of Native Americans living under the oppression forced on them by western society. It is not a practice seen as a duty they must fulfill to get into a “heaven”. Religion is their way of life and without it they loose their heritage and ultimately their true identity as a unique and individualistic culture. The United States historical suppression upon the traditional “pagan” religious ways of Native Americans can be traced back to the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Although the immigrants came to this land in search of religious freedom and base their government upon it, they were still willing to oppress the Native Americans religious practices much the same way as England had done to them.

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution clearly states that, “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and should have ruled out the need for the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (Vecsey, 28). At the end of the 1800’s, government representatives promulgated policies that would decline indigenous religions.

In 1882 Interior Secretary Henry M. Teller demanded the end of all ceremonial dances due to their hamper on the United States civilization. As a result of this the Bureau of Indian Affairs enforced laws that would imprison any Indian found practicing their traditional rituals, for as long as thirty days. Among these laws passed was one that would oppress Indians for wearing their hair in braids and another outlawing the sacred sun dance. The government’s determination to further oppress Indian religions, provoked action to put an end to the Ghost Dance religion in fear that it may actually help the Indians to a rebirth of their culture and to be given back the land that was rightfully theirs. The Ghost Dance religion spread to tribes all over the West, especially Arapahos, Shoshones, and Sioux. Some of the Sioux medicine men called for violence against the whites, claiming that magical Ghost Dance Shirts could protect the Indians from the soldiers’ bullets. This new found faith and militancy led up to the massacre of Indians by whites at