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 First Amendment of the United States Constitution promises freedom of religion. People are free to worship as they choose. The government cannot get in the way. However, Native-American religions have not always been treated in this manner.

About 500 years ago, Europeans first made contact with Native Americans. The Europeans failed to recognize Native American beliefs as religions. It's important to remember that Native Americans do not have one single religion. Instead, there are many different belief systems among peoples. Many of the religions have certain similarities, like a creator. Place and nature are important, as well as sacred, or holy, spaces.

Toward the end of the 1800s, the United States tried to force Native Americans to become more like European Americans through assimilation. Native Americans were forced off of their land. Their children were taken away and forced to go to boarding schools set up by the government. The separation made it easier to make the children forget their language and culture. Even though the schools were run by the government, the children were taught Christian beliefs.

The government believed that Native-American traditions got in the way of the assimilation of the children. In 1883, Hiram Price was Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He was in charge of how the government treated Native Americans. Price created a set of rules. They became known as the "Code of Indian Offences." The code made many traditional Native-American religious practices like dance ceremonies against the law. If people broke the law, they might not get food or have to go to prison.

New Commissioner Respects Native-American Religions

The code lasted until at least 1934. In 1934, John Collier was the new Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He said the government would no longer get in the way of Native-American practices.

In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, or AIRFA, became law. The law recognized that the government had been preventing the practice of Native-American religions. They admitted that the government had also kept Native Americans from holy sites and objects.

In 1988, the country's highest court, the Supreme Court, heard a case called Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association. The government Forest Service wanted to build a logging road in Six Rivers National Forest in California. The road would cut through important Native-American holy lands. The government decided the road should not be built.

However, the Forest Service went ahead with construction. The Forest Service argued that the road would be far from the holy sites. The tribes sued. However, the Supreme Court allowed construction of the road. It decided that while people could not be forced to practice certain religions, the government did not need to meet every person's religious needs.

Peyote Use Is Allowed Again

Eight years later, President Bill Clinton went against the court's decision. He ordered the government to let Native Americans use their holy sites. The government must also avoid harming such sites.

More recently, the Supreme Court looked at the Native American Church's use of a drug called peyote. The church is a mix of Christian and traditional Native-American practices. Peyote is a cactus. When eaten, it can cause people to see and hear imaginary things. Using peyote is against the law in the United States. The Native American Church uses peyote, though, in some religious ceremonies. The Supreme Court decided that the church must follow generally valid laws.

In response, Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA. The law stated that the government could not stop someone's religious practice even through a valid law. Twenty-one states have their own version of RFRA. The AIFRA was also changed. Now, the law specifically allows for use of peyote by members of the Native American Church.

The U.S. government is no longer actively trying to get rid of Native-American culture. Some progress to free religious practice has been made. However, traditional Native-American religious practices can still conflict with the law.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

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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