Native Americans and Freedom of Religion

Native Americans and Freedom of Religion

Despite the First Amendment, the United States' federal policy toward Native Americans and native religions has been inconsistent.


4 - 12


Religion, Social Studies, Civics, U.S. History


River House Ruin at Bears Ears

Native Americans still sometimes fight with the United States government over lands considered holy. One such place in dispute is Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Here is the River House Ruin at Bears Ears.

Photograph by Stephen Alvarez
Native Americans still sometimes fight with the United States government over lands considered holy. One such place in dispute is Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Here is the River House Ruin at Bears Ears.
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The United States Constitution protects people's rights in the United States. The First Amendment is part of the Constitution. The law promises freedom of religion. Everyone is free to practice their beliefs as they choose. Native-American religions, though, have not always been treated fairly.

Europeans first made contact with Native Americans about 500 years ago. They did not understand Native American religions. Nearly all Europeans belonged to Christian churches. Native-American peoples, in contrast, had many different belief systems. Still, Native-American religions have certain similarities. For example, many have a god that created Earth. Place and nature have spiritual meaning.

In the late 1800s, the U.S. government tried to make Native Americans more like European Americans. Native Americans were forced off their land. Their children were taken away. The children were sent to government boarding schools. The separation made it easier to make the children forget their language and culture. At school, the children had to practice the Christian religion.

In 1883, Hiram Price was Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He made rules for Native Americans. Price made many Native-American religious practices like their dances against the law. These practices were against the law until 1934. By then, John Collier was commissioner. Collier said the government had to respect Native-American practices.

Court Decisions Go Back and Forth

In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act became law. The law protects Native-American religions.

The Supreme Court is the country's highest court. In 1988, the Supreme Court heard a case about a logging road. The government Forest Service wanted to build the road in California. Some Native-American peoples did not want the road built. They said it would get in the way of their holy sites. The Forest Service built the road anyway.

The Supreme Court ruled against the Native Americans. They said people were free to practice their faith. However, the government did not have to provide for people's religions, the court ruled.

Eight years later, President Bill Clinton went against the courts. He said the government had to let Native Americans use holy sites. The government could not hurt the sites.

The government is no longer actively trying to limit Native-American culture. There's been progress in protecting freedom of religion. However, Native-American religious practices can still sometimes have trouble with U.S. laws.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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