Native Resistance to U.S. Religious Repression

Pawnee Ghost Dance Drum with Thunderbird, 1891-92, by George Beaver.

A great masterpiece of world art, one with tremendous spiritual significance, amidst the resistance to the U.S. Army's seizure of lands and driving First Nations onto reservations. Think about how all these spiritual treasures wound up in museums and "private collections": military conquest, genocide, confinement, destitution. Settlers confiscated many drums, medicine bundles, and regalia, and burned them.

"Freedom, law, and prophecy: A brief history of Native American religious resistance." Lee Irwin, American Indian Quarterly, 1997.

He details the openly racist language (such as "barbarous rites") and policies of repression of First Nations spiritual culture and practices, including attempts to starve people into submission by withholding rations (remember, people were confined to reservations and preventing from getting food in their historic ways) and by imprisonment.

"Perhaps the most suppressive laws regarding religious freedom were those promulgated by the Bureau of IndianAffairs for the Indian Courts, known as the Indian Religious Crimes Code. These lawswere first developed in 1883 by Secretary of the Interior Henry Teller as a means to prohibit Native American ceremonial activity under pain of imprisonment. Teller’s general guidelines to all Indian agents ordered them to discontinue dances and feasts as well as instructing them to take steps with regard to all medicine men, “who are always in the anti-progressive party... to compel these impostors to abandon this deception and discontinue their practices, which are not only without benefit to them but positively injurious [sic] to them.”

"Religious offenses [sic: read, traditional spiritual life] on the reservations were later codified by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Thomas J. Morgan, in 1892 in his “Rules for Indian Courts,” whereby he established a series of criminal offenses aimed at Native American religious practices.He wrote:

'Dances—Any Indian who shall engage in the sun dance, scalp dance, or wardance, or any similar feast, so called, shall be guilty of an offense, and upon conviction thereof shall be punished for the first offense by withholding of his rations for not exceeding ten days or by imprisonment for not exceeding ten days; for any subsequent offense under this clause he shall be punished bywithholding his rations for not less than ten days nor more than thirty days, or by imprisonment for not less than ten days nor more than thirty days.

'Medicine men [and women] —Any Indian who shall engage in the practices of so-called medicine men, or who shall resort to any artifice or device to keep the Indians of the reservation from adopting and following civilized habits and pursuits, or shall use any arts of conjurer to prevent Indians from abandoning their barbarous rites and customs, shall be deemed guilty of an offense, and upon conviction thereof, for the first offense shall be imprisoned for not less than ten days and notmore than thirty days: Provided that, for subsequent conviction for such offense the maximum term or imprisonment shall not exceed six months.'

"These laws not only abrogate First Amendment rights in a conscious and well-documented policy of religious oppression, they also reveal a systematic attempt on the part of highly placed government officials to stamp out Native American religiouspractices. They also represent a determined policy to reconstruct Native religions inconformity with dominant Protestant majority values in a myopic vision of whatconstitutes “civilized” religious behavior. Such policy is found consistently in the Annual Reports of many commissioners of Indian Affairs from the creation of the office in 1832 through the appointment of John Collier in 1934.

"These oppressive policies can be traced through the writings of not only the Indian commissioners and other heads of state who managed Indian affairs such as various secretaries of state (after 1849) as well as various secretaries of war (1824—48), to an even earlier policy, that of the 1819 Indian Civilization Fund Act, the primary intent of which was to create a fund to reform and “civilize” Indian peoples inaccordance with alien cultural norms imposed on them by a conquering majority."

" Over against the strategy of accommodation is the resistance or revivalist movements that increasingly emphasized the importance of traditional Native values, indigenous religious orientations, and the need to abandon all dependency on non-Native goods or ideas. Often, the origins of this resistance came from a variety of Native religious leaders who emphatically called for an assertion of Native beliefs and practices as an affirmation of intrinsic, inherited spiritual values and as a rallying cry for the preservation of the many diverse paths found in Native religious life.

"At the extreme pole of this response, “nativistic” came to mean not a return to the past in an ideal or artificial, Utopian sense, but a preservation of core indigenous values and beliefs as a basis for cultural survival, a survival that might include a diverse synthesis of alternative religious ideas or practices. This affirmation was strengthened by the emergence of a significant number of prophetic spiritual leaders whose visionary experiences confirmed and celebrated Native religious orientation as a primary source of empowerment for resisting colonial advancement. ...

" The darkest and most difficult times for the practice of Native religions and ways of life was the post-Civil War period up to the mid-twentieth century. During this period Sun Dancing and other such rites were made illegal, suppressed by government Indian agents as “barbaric and uncivilized.” In accordance with the Grant Peace Policy, the Board of Indian Commissioners was formed in 1869. Their first report noted that the duties of the board were “to educate the Indians in industry, the arts of civilization, and the principles of Christianity.”

"This board was given joint control with the secretary of the interior over congressional funds appropriated for dealing with the Indian agencies.Christian missionaries of all denominations were given government support for the founding of missions on Indian reservation land on seventy-three agencies. In 1872, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Walker reported that agents from the most Protestant denominations were appointed “to assume charge of the intellectual and moral education of the Indians thus brought within the reach of their influence.”

"During this time [and over a century], Native children were forcibly shipped to Christian missionary schools where they were denied the rights to speak Native languages, to wear Native clothing, or to practice any form of Native religion.

"Missionary zeal specifically targeted Native religions as the bane of all civilized Christian ideology. Subsequent missionary activities caused “fractions, feuds and schisms, discredited popular leaders and imposed new ones on the Indians and in scores of ways undermined and weakened the unity of the tribes.

"During the early twentieth century, however, Native religious reaffirmation movements tended to decline as indigenous peoples struggled to survive under the appalling and oppressive political circumstances. In 1906, the Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities (APAA), while making it a criminal offense to appropriate, excavate, injure, or destroy historic or prehistoric ruins or monuments or objects of antiquity located on lands owned or controlled by the U.S. government, *also defined dead Indians or Indian artifacts as “archaeological resources”* and converted these persons and objects into federal “property,” thereby further depriving Native peoples of the right to dispose of their dead or to maintain possession of sacred objects as reservation lands were under federal jurisdiction."

"Indian ceremonies were banned, religious practices disrupted, and sacred objects destroyed or confiscated. Some renewal movements did continue, such as the turn of the century Four Mothers Society of the Natchez-Creek based on a return to the old Southeast ceremonial tradition. Membership in the Four Mothers Society linked traditional full-bloods from the Natchez, Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole in Oklahoma."

This Lakota drum was among many that were confiscated—stolen—and either taken to museums, to settler family "collections", or burned.

" In 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act assured that there will be no more governmentally enforced education or the “forcible and systematic transferring of care of Indian children to non-Natives through compulsory boarding schools and adoption to non-Natives.”

"And in 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) was passed. In 1979, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) attempted to redress the 1906 Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities by ruling that permits must be obtained for excavations of sites more than one hundred years old, that consent must be obtained for any work on tribal Indian lands by tribal landowners, and that work on public lands held to be sacred by any tribes requires those tribes to be notified before any permits are granted. However, human remains on federal lands are still“archaeological resources” and “property of the United States” which, if excavated under federal permit, can be “preserved by a suitable university, museum or other scientific or educational institution.”

"This act still undercuts the rights of Native peoples to claim legitimate control over ancestral dead territorially identified as under federal jurisdiction [or on settler-held property!] and inhibits religious claims about how those ancestral dead (now or previously unearthed) should be treated.

"In 1987, the National Park Service issued a policy statement in response to AIRFA, to explore means for integrating the needs of Native religious practitioners into park resource management. The statement clearly says that Native religious claims“must be within the bounds of existing legislation as well as NFS rules and policies” thereby subordinating Native religious needs and practices to pre-existing government regulations."

"In1989, the National Museum of the American Indian Act provided for the repatriation of Native human remains collected by the Smithsonian Institution toAmerican Indian tribes upon tribal request. The Smithsonian must inventory and,where possible, identify its collection of remains (18,000), notify appropriate tribal groups, and return them if the tribes requests — Blackfeet reburial of 16 ancestral remains occurred in 1989; and 700 remains presently are being returned to Kodiak Island cemetery.

"Previous to this, in the 1980s, the Denver Art Museum returned WarGods to the Zuni; the Heard Museum in Phoenix returned Kiva masks to Hopi elders;the Wheelwright Museum returned 11 medicine bundles to Navajo; the State Museumof New York in Albany returned 12 wampum belts to Six Nation Confederacy and aclan bundle to the Hidatsa; the Boston Peabody Museum returned the sacred pole (plus270 other artifacts) to the Omaha; and many others have made nominal returns as well.But many museums and institutions have ignored requests. For example, the Iroquoisrequest for return of all their sacred masks has not been met.

"In 1990, Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed. This act protects Indian gravesites from looting and requires repatriation of allculturally identifiable tribal artifacts. According to the act, museums must inventory collections and notify tribes of their holdings. Legal procedures are established for reclaiming artifacts, though claimants must meet strict legal tests.

"However, NAGPRA does not apply to state land or private property. [And this is crucial.] By 1991, thirty-two states had laws that dealt with reburial and repatriation of ancestral prehistoric remains; but there is little consistency among the laws passed and many do not involve goods found on private property.

"As Walter and Roger Echo-Hawk have written, “criminal statues in all fifty states very strictly prohibit grave desecration, grave robbing, and mutilation of the dead—yet they are not applied to protect Indian dead . . . [Native dead are still] ‘federal property’ to be used as chattels in the academic marketplace.”

"In 1993, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was passed and signed into law, thereby compelling the government not to “substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification” and to “provide a claim or defense to personswhose religious exercise is substantially burdened by government.” While this act may help to redress future infringement of Native American religious rights, it does not mention those rights specifically.

"This brings us fully into the present with the 1994 Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act. NAFERA is a bill amending the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) and includes, among other things, specific protections for the use of peyote by Native American Church members as well as protecting the religious rights of Native American prisoners who wish to practice traditional Native religions.

"The NAFERA bill was proposed as a means to put teeth into the policy statement of the 1978 act which has been largely perceived as ineffectual in court cases involving Native American religious freedom.

"As of 1995, no government agency has developed actual regulations based on AIRFA; further, the U.S.Forest Service has been one of the most aggressive antagonists of AIRFA in the courts (particularly in Lyng v. Northwest). As Sharon O’Brien writes concerning AIRFA, 'Testimony by American Indian witnesses and government officials clearly attest to the lack of federal administrative compliance with the law and congressional failure to rectify religious infringements through legislative reform'."

Native Perspectives on the 40th Anniversary of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act

"The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Forty years ago, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act finally finally extended that right to the country’s Native citizens. Here Native Americans who observe traditional ways talk about religious freedom. ...

Casey Camp-Horinek, Ponca Scalp Dance Society leader: “AIRFA is an oxymoron. How can a law be made around a religion and then be called 'freedom'? Are we free to care for our own Eagle feathers without a permit from the U.S. government? No. Do we still need to prove who we are with a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood (C.D.I.B.)? Yes. Can we live freely within the Natural Laws and honor our one true Mother, the Earth? No, not when laws created by man are defining our relationship with Her. Balance must be restored through prayer and ceremony, not by written words in man's attempt to override the Great Mystery's original instructions."

Katsi Cook, Mohawk elder and midwife: “I can't help but think about our many elders who made this protection of our Indigenous and human right to Indigenous spiritual expression real and protected. The act codified the religious freedom of Indigenous peoples, including my Mohawk people. My ancestor Col. Louis Cook fought in George Washington's army to ensure our Indigenous right to our ways of being and knowing. AIRFA is the historical antidote to the U.S. government's civilization regulations of the 1880s, which wrote into law the deprivation of Indigenous people and nations of our religious freedom.” ...

Shirod Younker, Coquille ceremonial woodcarver: “In 1954, Congress terminated the Coquille as a federally recognized tribe. In 1989, the Coquille Indian Tribe was reinstated as a newly ‘restored’ federally recognized tribe. Prior to this, our religion and language had been stripped from us. So at this time, we are trying to replicate what was taken away from us by government policies. We are indebted to our cousin tribes the Tolowa and Siletz who have shared ceremonies with us.”

“The American Indian Religious Freedom Act may not have affected my tribe directly, but it has had an impact on that door of reaffirming our shared ceremonial practices in the open again. It has been 40 years since this act was passed. The practices to remove and destroy our culture started more than 150 years ago, in the 1840s and ‘50s. It will take at least that amount of time to come close to restoring what we lost. These ceremonies and practices reinforce the need to bring back our many distinct languages from the Oregon Coast. Our ceremonial ways all come from the earth. We cannot effectively understand their importance or details until we restore the environment that helps sustain us physically and spiritually.”

Niuam (Comanche) peyote fan, ca. 1890. Oklahoma. (Ernest Amoroso, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian)                 

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