0The priest explained the mysteries of the faith 'by signs', for the saving of the savages; thus compensating them with possible possessions in heaven for the certain ones on earth which they had just been robbed of. Nobody smiles at these colossal ironies.
~ Mark Twain - 'Life on the Mississippi' ~.
U.S. Interior Secretary Henry M. Teller holds the distinction of being the first U.S. government representative to order official restrictions on the practice of religious customs. In an 1882 directive Teller ordered an end to all "heathenish dances and ceremonies" on reservations due to their "great hindrance to civilization." In 1883, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price codified the practice of officially restricting Native American religious freedom by creating the Indian Religious Crimes Code. In his 1883 annual report to the secretary of the interior, Price stated...
..."there is no good reason why an Indian should be permitted to indulge in practices which are alike repugnant to common decency and morality; and the preservation of good order on the reservations demands that some active measures should be taken to discourage and, if possible, put a stop to the demoralizing influence of heathenish rites."
In 1892, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas J. Morgan sought to further suppress Native religions by ordering penalties of up to six months in prison for those who repeatedly participated in religious dances or acted as medicine men.
The government's attempts to suppress and in many instances outright ban Native American religious practices led to one of the bloodiest events in the history of the United States: the Massacre at Wounded Knee. To enforce the ban on the Ghost Dance in accordance with the Indian Religious Crimes Code, General George Armstrong Custer's former unit, the Seventh U.S. Calvary, was sent into the Lakota Sioux's Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations to stop the dance and arrest the participants. The Seventh Cavalry attacked and killed approximately 150 Native American men, women, and children on December 29, 1890. Charges of killing innocents were brought against members of the Seventh Calvary, but all were later exonerated. The massacre marked the effective end of the Ghost Dance movement and, according to many historians, signified the end of the Indian Wars.
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed as a joint resolution of Congress in 1978 as a declaration of Federal policy "to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians." It has no implimenting regulations but it is tied to Executive Order 13007 regarding administrative policy and procedure relating to Indian Sacred sites and to the extent practicable, accommodate access to and ceremonial use of Indian sacred sites by Indian religious practitioners and avoid adversely affecting the physical integrity of such sacred sites.
American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA)
Public Law 95-341
August 11, 1978
Whereas the freedom of religion for all people is an inherent right, fundamental to the democratic structure of the United States and is guaranteed, by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution;
Whereas the United States has traditionally rejected the concept of a government denying individuals the right to practice their religion and, as a result, has benefitted from a rich variety of religious heritages in this country;
Whereas the religious practices of the American Indian (as well as Native Alaskan and Hawaiian) are an integral part of their culture, tradition and heritage, such practices forming the basis of Indian identity and value systems;
Whereas the traditional American Indian religions, as an integral part of Indian life, are indispensable and irreplaceable;
Whereas the lack of a clear, comprehensive, and consistent Federal policy has often resulted in the abridgment of religious freedom for traditional American Indians;
Whereas such religious infringements result from the lack of knowledge or the insensitive and inflexible enforcement of Federal policies and regulations premised on a variety of laws;
Whereas such laws were designed for such worthwhile purposes as conservation and preservation of natural species and resources but were never intended to relate to Indian religious practices and, therefore, were passed without consideration of their effect on traditional American Indian religions;
Whereas such laws and policies often deny American Indians access to sacred sites required in their religions, including cemeteries;
Whereas such laws at times prohibit the use and possession of sacred objects necessary to the exercise of religious rites and ceremonies;
Whereas traditional American Indian ceremonies have been intruded upon, interfered with, and in a few instances banned: Now, therefore, be it Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that henceforth it shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.
Sec. 2. The President shall direct the various Federal departments, agencies, and other instrumentalities responsible for administering relevant laws Aug. 11, 1978 (S.J. Res. 102) American Indian Religious Freedom. 42 USC 1996. 2 to evaluate their policies and procedures in consultation with native traditional religious leaders in order to determine appropriate changes necessary to protect and preserve Native American religious cultural rights and practices. Twelve months after approval of this resolution, the President shall report back to the Congress the results of his evaluation, including any changes which were made in administrative policies and procedures, and any recommendations he may have for legislative action.
Approved August 11, 1978.