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 for everyone. However, the law has been inconsistently applied to Native American religions.

Europeans first made contact with Native Americans about 500 years ago. During the early years and throughout much of the colonial period that followed, Native American religions were not properly recognized. Europeans struggled with the fact that there has never been just one Native American religion.

Many Native American religions have certain similarities. They feature a creator as well as other gods. Place, land, and nature are important, along with sacred locations such as burial grounds. The sacred and the nonsacred are not as distinct as in European religions.

Toward the end of the 1800s, the United States began trying to force Native Americans to adopt more European-American cultural practices. Native Americans were pushed off their land and onto reservations. The government also established Native-American boarding schools. The schools separated the children from their parents, making it easier to make the children forget their language and cultural practices. The children were also forced to learn and practice Christianity, even though the schools were run by the U.S. government.

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 that became known as the "Code of Indian Offences." The code outlawed many traditional Native-American religious practices. Religious leaders were not allowed to discourage children from going to the boarding schools. If people participated in the outlawed activities, they would not get food and sometimes they went to prison.

Congress Takes Steps To Protect Native-American Religions

Religious leaders were not allowed to stop children from attending the government schools. Moreover, they were not allowed to encourage Native-American traditions. Other Native-American practices were also outlawed.

The code would remain in effect until at least 1934. In 1934, John Collier was the new Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He issued a statement saying the government would no longer get in the way of Native-American practices. "The cultural liberty of Indians is in all respects to be considered equal to that of any non-Indian group," he said.

In 1978, Congress passed and President Jimmy Carter signed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, or AIRFA. The law recognized that the government had been preventing the practice of Native-American religions. They admitted that the government had also restricted access to sacred sites and use of sacred objects and materials.

In 1988, a court case called Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association came up before the Supreme Court. The government Forest Service wanted to build a logging road. The road would cut through the sacred lands in the Chimney Rock area of the Six Rivers National Forest in California. Building the road would harm the religions of three Native-American peoples. After close inspection, government agencies 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 religious sites. The tribes sued, but ultimately 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.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act Is Passed

Eight years later, President Bill Clinton went against the Court's decision. He ordered that government agencies had to allow for access to and use of sacred sites. Further, the agencies must avoid harming such sites.

More recently, the Supreme Court also addressed the issue of religious use of a drug called peyote by members of the Native American Church. The church is a mix of Christian and traditional Native-American practices. Peyote is a cactus that can cause hallucinations when eaten. Using it is against the law in the United States. The Supreme Court decided the church must follow laws with generally valid purposes.

In response, Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA. The RFRA stated that the government could not stop someone's religious practice even through a generally valid law. Some 21 states have since passed their own versions of the 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 exercise has been made. However, traditional Native-American religious practices can still come into conflict with state and federal 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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