“The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 protects the rights of Native Americans to exercise their traditional religions by ensuring access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.”
Alvin Josephy explained that in America, prior to this act, one could be a Buddhist, Methodist, Catholic, Hasid, Hindu, or Sikh, and your right to practice your religion was protected. But in the eyes of the government–and most Euro-Americans–what Indians had was not religion, but “mumbo jumbo.”
Alvin further said that the “Peace Policy” of President Grant was the biggest abrogation of the Constitutionally protected freedom of religion in the country’s history. Here is an explanation from the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian:
“During the 1870s, in what was seen as a progressive decision, the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant assigned 13 Protestant denominations to take responsibility for managing more than 70 Indian agencies on or near reservations (leading the Catholic Church quickly to establish the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions). In 1887, the Dawes Act dividing tribal lands into individual allotments included a provision allowing religious organizations working among Indians to keep up to 160 acres of federal land to support their missions.”
Christianity was a major tool in the government’s assimilation arsenal, missionaries their weapons. In the 1880s, the Code of Indian Offenses gave reservation authorities authority to punish Indians–by withholding rations or on-reservation imprisonment, for practicing religion with dances and regalia, and especially for being religious leaders, so called “medicine men.”
In the 1880s also, the system of boarding schools became another tool in the battle of assimilation. Hair was cut, languages banned, and church attendance required. But the darkest part of the boarding school era was the breaking up of Indian families. Parents were cajoled, threatened, and bribed to give their young children over to the boarding schools.
It all makes for several bleak chapters in our past. But it is also a story of Indian resilience in the face of it all. That the Freedom of Religion Act was passed is one sign. That dances and powwows are held throughout the country, and that there is a new longhouse–an Indian Church–on the Nez Perce Homeland grounds right here in Wallowa County, Oregon are other signs.
In troubling times, we can all take heart from American Indians, who have endured and accommodated, learned to live in the 21st century while holding to traditional values–and religion–in spite of all efforts to erase them.
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