American Indian Religious Freedom in Theory and Practice

Russell Means

The late Seneca scholar and philosopher John Mohawk said: "In order to be free, you must act free." Mohawk was a contemporary of mine, and he knew the struggle for freedom for indigenous peoples is not theoretical, it is real; it is also difficult, constant and requires remembering where we, as American Indians, come from.

I was reminded of John two weeks ago when a number of people and I put up and participated in the Lakota’s most sacred ceremony, the Sun Dance in the sacred Black Hills in occupied Lakota territory. For thirty-three years, we have put up our ceremony where it is supposed to be held, in the He Sapa. This year was different though, and that’s why I thought of John.

This year, the National Park Service tried to impose unacceptable restrictions on how we were going to gather, meet, and support the ceremony where we hold it, in what the invaders now call Wind Cave National Park. When we arrived at the site, we were met by over a dozen armed federal rangers, including what appeared to be SWAT team members. They had roped off the area with yellow rope and bright orange snow fence. It immediately felt like we were being imprisoned for our ceremony, but we did not put up with these arbitrary restrictions. We were required to respond to the U.S. officials as if we were free, and we did. We successfully put up our camp and held our five-day ceremony.

Most Indian people who are under fifty years of age cannot recall a time when our indigenous sacred ceremonies were illegal, but I can. Let me repeat, our ceremonies were illegal—people went to jail for dancing the Sun Dance, for constructing and using the purification lodge, for practicing the Peyote Way, and for many other of our traditional ways.

I personally remember when the government would send a doctor to supervise the piercing of the flesh; if the ceremony did not meet with their approval, they would cancel the ceremony! It was because of these racist restrictions on our spirituality that the American Indian Movement and others actively challenged the U.S. policies—resulting in the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA). We knew, however, that AIRFA meant nothing if we did not exercise our rights, and if we did not force U.S. officials to respect our natural rights to spiritual freedom.

Unfortunately, the passage of AIRFA was a hollow victory. Of the first twelve cases brought by Indians, we lost all twelve cases. The U.S. Supreme Court said AIRFA was primarily a policy statement, with no provision for legal enforcement in the courts. AIRFA was amended in 1994, with stronger requirements for U.S. officials to respect indigenous ceremonies on what the U.S. says are federal lands, with a right for Indians to sue in federal courts for violation of our access and use of sacred sites. Specifically, the amendments state that "no Federal lands … may be managed in a manner that undermines and frustrates a traditional Native American religion or religious practices."

Two weeks ago, we had to remind the National Park Service (NPS) that we have been engaging in our ceremonies long before there was a NPS. When the NPS said that we were subject to the restrictions of the Archeological Resources Protection Act, we reminded them that we, and our ceremonies, are part of the living archeology of the region.

At one point, while the ceremony was in progress, the rangers entered the camp and began to give orders about how the camp was to be organized. I challenged them to arrest us. We were willing and able to assert our natural rights, our treaty rights, and our statutory rights before a federal judge. The rangers withdrew and did not bother us for the remainder of the ceremony. In order to be free, we must act free—and we must be willing to risk the costs of doing so.

At the same time that we were asserting our rights at Wind Cave, a gang of thugs, known as the U.S. Supreme Court, was handing down its recent decision in U.S. v. Jicarilla Apache Nation. The main part of the opinion was bad enough, saying that the U.S. could engage in conflict of interest in administering Indian trust assets, and the U.S. does not have to disclose its bad acts.

The more revealing part of the opinion, and a position that is directly related to how the National Park Service was treating us at Wind Cave, was that "The trust obligations of the United States to the Indian tribes are established and governed by statute rather than the common law, and in fulfilling its statutory duties, the [United States]Government acts not as a private trustee but pursuant to its sovereign interest in the execution of federal law."

Every Indian person should understand the meaning of this last sentence. Some Indian tribal government officials and Indian law attorneys relate to U.S. government officials and courts as though the "trust relationship" will serve as a kind of shield against injustice. This is pure delusion.

The Supreme Court has now made it crystal clear that the so-called trust relationship is a sham, and that the highest and primary interest of the U.S. is to protect its own sovereign interests, and not those of indigenous peoples. It has also made clear that the fabrication of federal Indian law by the U.S. Congress and the U.S. courts is the tool and the vehicle to protect those U.S. interests. The only remedy for this latest expression of anti-Indian racism is for all Indian people to "act free, in order to be free.

Russell Means, Oglala/Iynktowan, is Chief Facilitator, Republic of Lakotah (republicoflakotah.com), and author of the autobiography Where White Men Fear to Tread.

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dbender's picture
Thats right Russell! Freedom is psychological and very real. It seems they would have Indians act like they were white people or something. They must have forgotten that Indians don't take "no" for an answer and we will not tolerate meddling in our religious ceremonies. In times of economic depression, tribalism will revive in a way that will make our people great again. It seems like they have no regard for us as people and the only power we have depends on a credit score. That way is the evil way. I live in a white community now and i've lived on an Indian reservation as well; most people these days aside from the hardcore racists tolerate and celebrate the Native history of this land. They try to adopt it as their own even. Towns try to have an Indian in their logo and everything. There are even ancient burial mounds in my neighborhood. Some people know where these mounds come from and others could care less. That goes back to what Russells friend said about freedom and acting free. Those mounds, to me, are a reminder that we were once the hated enemy of these people. So much so, that they drove us away from perfectly good land and put us on a dump. That infuriates me. We are free. But with freedom comes great responsibility. As a people our responsibility to freedom is to fulfill our sovereignty and live long healthy lives in the "good way" our creator intended and that means sundancing and hunting and gathering in the ways of our ancestors! HOKA HEY!
dbender's picture
Also, be free of addiction. Our tribal governments need more awareness of addiction and how addiction plays a role in our freedom. It is my belief that one who is addicted can not be free. That includes pills, meth, tobbacco, sweets, and salty food. Marijuana is actually a good medicine that helps cure rather than manifest disease. To be free you must free yourselves of addiction and train you mind, body, and soul. Then you will know freedom and be ready to fight!
freedomway's picture
To your first point on freedom: Your article helped me remember the courage, sacrifice, and action of so many on whose shoulders we stand today. I remember the tears, the crushed bones, the telephone taps, the helicopters, and more. I also remember fighting with those in my own community about who was "an apple" or "a traditional," who was a real Indian and who was not, and much more. We could divide over anything - even the tone of our skin. We no longer needed an oppressor. We had internalized the oppression and had begun to oppress each other - Red on Red abuses, fighting, and killing. Then came the awakening - sparked by the loss of so many of our children to the child welfare system (and the committed, vocal work by many Canadian Indigenous women) and the work of AIM. I remember feeling deeply connected to my history for the first time. Tears welled up from the deepest part of my spirit as I came to understand the profound loss of life, children, sacred places, language and culture that our ancestors experienced. I also came to understand that without healing from this historical trauma, unresolved grief continues feeding a sense of despair and powerlessness that is passed from one generation to the next. Our ancestors could not grieve because their spiritual ceremonies and activities were outlawed - they were forbidden even to congregate. Unresolved grief, despair, and powerlessness wears many masks - often seeking power over others with anger/rage, violence, political/economic privilege, academic/professional privilege, and more. Some were overwhelmed with sadness and depression. Some chose suicide, especially the young ones. Unresolved historical trauma led to lifetime events of trauma within our families, within our communities. When the tears came, I felt that I was somehow crying for our ancestors who could not, for the generations who could not, for my parents who could not, and for me. Then the most profound experience of love, of gratitude for all those who worked and died while protecting our teachings, our cultures, our languages, and our hopes - for the day when we would awaken. Entirely new dimensions of connectedness to a seen and unseen world opened to me - colors, sounds, music, movement, insights, and ways of being. I listened to the elders with new ears. I began to cross paths with many who carried deep wisdom. I began to understand the wisdom of our great ancestors. I began to be challenged by events requiring action. There has been a great awakening in Indian Country beginning in the 1960s when many acted to ensure some of the freedoms we have today. How these courageous men and women lived taught that freedom is not the absence of accountability (i.e., the ability to make an honest accounting, or assessment), or the absence of responsibility (i.e., the ability to respond in a good way, or act), but the willingness to step wholly into both - to act with a good mind, a strong voice, a committed heart, a willing spirit grounded in our ancestors' teachings, and an eye toward providing brighter futures for the children. Not just our children, but for the children of the next seven generations. Thank you for reminder - act free. To your second point on the recent Supreme Court decision regarding their trust relationship with the Jicarilla Apache Nation: I'm a lay person with little patience for reading legal documents, but I was moved by your article. The dissenting opinion offered by Sotomayor is quite revealing and speaks directly to how this decision basically uses smoke and mirrors to distort precedent, redefine the fiduciary trust relationship, and cherry picks the language of previous decisions. She expresses deep concern about how this decision is likely to influence the many similar cases (mismanagement of tribal trust monies) before the court. Thank you for making a call to action. The children of the coming generations need our protection.