RELIGION: Land is sacred to Native Americans. Why don’t we protect their religious freedom?

dWeb.News Article from Daniel Webster dWeb.News

dWeb.News Article from Daniel Webster dWeb.News


(RNS] — America has recently been confronted with horrific stories about mass graves at Indigenous residential school. These stories bring back the injustices suffered by Indigenous communities for many years. They also serve as a painful reminder of a common misconception: How do we define religious freedom?

While America is today the most diverse country in the world, there is still a misconception about religious freedom.

America was founded on diversity. It is based on the belief that people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds can come together to form one nation. The First Amendment’s guarantee to religious freedom is perhaps the most obvious example of this. It requires that everyone realizes the guarantee of equal rights, freedoms and worship. No one person or community can force anyone’s faith orientation.

Despite this historical understanding, we still often favor one group over the other when we try to promote religious freedom.

The first step in changing your mind and creating a wider vision of religious freedom that is truly inclusive is to recognize that religious freedom is more than the dominant cultural understanding of religion.

Ironically, 400 years ago, Europeans came to what is now the United States specifically for religious freedom, yet they failed to extend that freedom to Indigenous communities who had called this land home for millennia. Individuals and tribes were subject to systematic extermination of their culture and faith by Indian residential schools and genocide.

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The atrocities committed in these institutions are well-known by Indigenous communities over the decades. This is because they were and continue to be affected by this trauma collectively and individually. The mainstream culture has long ignored the Indigenous worldview and its experiences, and treated them as “problems to eradicate” rather than as human rights violations.

The land is an important part of Native spirituality. There have been many failed attempts to protect Indigenous sacred Land through policy and litigation. Instead of seeking protection under religious freedom laws for their sacred land, Indigenous communities have changed their mind. To protect their religious freedom rights, it is now a standard that they use the Environmental Protection Agency to focus on environmental arguments. You can see the protests against Line Three in Minnesota and the destruction parts of the Tonto National Forest this summer, both of which would have a severe impact on sacred Indigenous land.

Waya Brown, from right, Gouyen Lopez-Brown and Lozen Lopez-Brown dance and bless the land at Oak Flat campground on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, roughly 70 miles east of Phoenix. RNS photo by Alejandra Molina

Indigenous groups are not the only ones left behind by the mainstream understanding religion and religious freedom. Muslims do not believe in the concept of religion. Instead, the term “din,” which is a synonym for “way of living,” is used to describe any belief system or practice. The way of living is described in Hinduism by the word “Dharma,” and not “religion.” In the Protestant and mainstream understanding of religion, it focuses more on belief than practice. It also erases communities that are focused on behavior and practice rather than beliefs. Many communities are left behind if we use the mainstream Protestant Christian Christian understanding of religious freedom and religion to discuss them.

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Aside from the impact it has on particular religious communities, the definitions and interpretations of religion have an impact on the protections of religious freedom for an increasing number of non-religious Americans, which is about one-third according to recent data. These people are often called “nones” but research and studies show that they are still deeply spiritual and practice it both individually and in small groups. This understanding of spirituality is not compatible with the Protestant understanding and they are therefore excluded from religious freedom work.

It’s time for a new vision of religious freedom and to advocate for the rights all religious communities that call the United States home. We will continue to abandon people and communities if we don’t expand our understanding of religion, and clarify who we are protecting. This work begins when we realize that religious freedom goes beyond religion at our dinner tables or in religious institutions.

This means that we must ensure that our understandings of religious freedom are broad enough to protect the beliefs, practices, and traditions of all of our neighbors.

(Dr. Billie Jo Kipp is a clinical psychologist and a member of the Blackfeet Tribe. She is also the Associate Director of Research & Evaluation at the Aspen Institute’s Center for Native American Youth. Mohamed Magid is the executive Imam of All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Center in Sterling, Virginia, and a member of the Inclusive America Project’s Powering Pluralism Network on Religious Freedom. Dr. Allison K. Ralph is a scholar of history and religion and the associate director at the Aspen Institute’s Inclusive America Project. Religion News Service’s views may not reflect the opinions expressed in this commentary. )

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