Alvin at the Holy Days–Indian Freedom of Religion

I had a phone call the other day, from a retired pipe fitter in Seattle who discovered Cayuse roots years ago, made friends with some Lakota people, and now puts on a Blue Mountain Sun Dance near here each summer.

I met him on Facebook—this might be a first for me—when I saw a post about a coat drive for people on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Turns out that Alan Cliff has been collecting coats and blankets and will make a run to the Pine Ridge after the first of the year. Our Rotary Club here does a “coats for kids” program, and I thought we might be able to help.

At any rate, Alan called me, and in the course of the conversation I mentioned that Alvin Josephy was my mentor and that I am now custodian of the Josephy Library. Alan knows all about Alvin, especially about his 1969 “white paper” for the Nixon Administration advocating Indian self-determination. He said his mom tutored him on that, and on the Indian Freedom of Religion and Child Welfare acts.

A lot of things went into the Nixon pronouncement that there would be “no further termination, but self-determination for Indian peoples.” And into further legislation regarding religion, family, and tribes in that era. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing by the late 1960s and holding on into the 1970s. Indian vets from WW II, Korea, and Vietnam were finding each other and learning that the country they had fought for still considered them second-class citizens. Some Indians, most notably Vine Deloria Jr., were becoming successful in American academic institutions and could work, as Alvin used to say, with “one foot in each world.”

Self determination seems a simple matter—either you have it or you don’t, and once Nixon made that pronouncement from his perch in the White House, one might think it is over and done with. Indians, however, have plenty of reason to distrust the solemn promises of the US Government, so many are working quickly to solidify gains made by the words and legislation of the 1970s. Unfortunately, when legislation affecting tribal matters comes along, it often divides as much as it unifies, and tribes across the country are coming to terms still with what exactly the idea of self-determination means.

There is probably greater agreement on religion. And in this holiday season it seems especially important to remember that Indians got Freedom of Religion in the good old US of A in 1978! The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Public Law No. 95-341, 92 Stat. 469, was passed in August of 1978. Prior to that time, Alvin would say, Indians did not have religion, but “mumbo jumbo.” Great effort had been made for almost 500 years by missionaries and government functionaries to erase traces of the mumbo jumbo—dances, regalia, sacred sites, language, songs, etc.–as American Indians worked desperately to hang onto their religions and cultures.

The US Constitution spoke specifically to religious freedom, and for over 200 years Buddhists have been allowed their bells, Catholics their incense. Jews can have menorahs and Moslems their prayer rugs. But American Indians should, social and political powers had maintained, find a real religion—preferably Christianity—to express and contain religious beliefs.

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act changed all that, gave Indians rights that  “include, but are not limited to, access to sacred sites, freedom to worship through ceremonial and traditional rights, and use and possession of objects considered sacred.”

Drums, bells, feathers, languages, and songs are now legal! And Sun Dances, on the Pine Ridge and in the Blue Mountains, are now celebrated openly.

Happy Holy Days, whenever and wherever they are, to all my Indian friends, and to friends from other faiths celebrating in other sacred spaces!

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