Religious Freedom & Sacred Places

Despite centuries of hostile and assimilative policies often designed to dismantle the communal structures of Native peoples and invalidate their belief systems, in recent decades, tribal nations have vigorously pressed their claims to religious self-determination.

NCAI supports the religious freedom of all Native peoples.

In the United States, there are 566 federally recognized tribes that speak hundreds of different Native languages. With the vast geographic, linguistic, and cultural diversity that exists among tribes, it is impossible to refer to Native American religion or spirituality in the singular context. Native religions and traditions vastly differ from tribe to tribe, but the one thing that all tribes have in common is their continuous struggle to protect their religious freedom from acts of governmental suppression—including denial of access to sacred lands, prohibitions on the use or possession of sacred objects, and restrictions on ceremonial practices.

Native religious practices do not typically conform to conventional Western standards of religion and the free exercise thereof. For example, several American Indian and Alaska Native practitioners hold eagle feathers sacred and use them in religious ceremonies and traditional practices. These practices are directly at odds with federal laws that broadly prohibit the possession and use of eagle feathers and parts. Even though there are certain exemptions for Native practitioners, underlying conflicting values have at numerous times in recent decades resulted in the US Fish & Wildlife Service carrying out undercover operations on Indian reservations to the detriment of surrounding communities. These activities allegedly target illegal activities, yet the rights of innocent practitioners have been unjustly trampled upon in the process, causing widespread fear in tribal communities. NCAI actively partakes in a tribal eagle feathers working group with the goal of evaluating existing policy implementation and proposing cooperative solutions.

Another issue that has arisen time and again is the right of Native Americans to access their sacred places for worship. Year after year, sacred landscapes that are integral to the exercise of Native religions are being destroyed or are under threat by development, pollution, recreation, vandalism, or other public and private actions. There is no effective comprehensive policy to preserve and protect sacred places and Native Americans’ rights to access them. The public needs to understand that the tenets of traditional Native religions require the protection of the physical integrity of these sacred places. Tribal nations and Native people have fundamental spiritual duties of care and protection. These duties are part of Native traditional religions and, therefore, are an integral part of the lives of tribal people. They are indispensable and irreplaceable. As such, NCAI will continue to make protection of Native religious freedom a top priority.

Testimony & Speeches

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