U.S. Congress passes American Indian Religious Freedom Act on July 27, 1978.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 12/22/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20264
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On July 27, 1978, Congress passes the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA). The legislation protects the rights of Native peoples to practice their religions and requires federal agencies to consult with tribes to review policies and procedures that may affect tribal religious practices. In Washington, this law will be particularly significant for the management of national forests, national parks, and other federal lands.

A Policy of Assimilation and Conversion

Although the U.S. Constitution protects citizens' freedom of religion, federal Indian policies directly and indirectly limited the traditional spiritual practices of Native peoples for more than a century. The repression of Native spiritual beliefs and practices in Washington state dates to the 1850s. When the federal government sent Indian agents to administer federal policy, part of their mandate was the assimilation of Native people into the non-Native communities being established on former Native lands. Assimilation would require a wholesale change of Native culture to one based on farming and the cash economy brought to the region by non-Native settlers. Indians were expected to leave behind their heritage of fishing, hunting, gathering, and a trading economy built on reciprocity.

Native people were also expected to adopt Christianity and cease practicing their traditional religious beliefs. To that end, Indian agents prohibited the practice of traditional ceremonies and dances and encouraged conversion to the Christian faith. The fact that the Indian agents who promulgated Christianity were violating the U.S. Constitution's requirement of separation of church and state does not appear to have raised any concerns among policymakers.

Federal policies also undermined the ability of tribal elders to pass their knowledge to younger generations. In particular, a ban on ceremonies, especially the winter dances, and the gatherings around them made it very difficult to preserve these traditional practices. A number of Washington tribes circumvented the policy with Treaty Day celebrations or by sponsoring celebrations of national holidays, during which they could carry out ceremonies and perform traditional dances and songs. Many people also practiced their beliefs in secret.

A Slow Restoration of Rights

Although these policies shifted in the 1930s to allow more religious freedom, significant and lasting damage had been done, particularly in boarding schools that sought to erase Native students' religious beliefs, language, and traditional cultural practices. When the American Indian-rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s and 1970s, its leaders called for restored access to sacred sites and to sacred objects and materials used in ceremonies.

There were some isolated cases of land being restored. In Washington, the Yakama Tribe regained control over the eastern flank of Mount Adams when it was returned to the tribe in 1974. Although the move was largely to resolve a technical error, it was also a recognition of the spiritual significance of Mount Adams to the Yakama people.

The issue of access to sacred places arose in part because of legislation passed to establish national parks, national forests, wilderness areas, national monuments, and other protected lands. As the text of AIRFA states, "such laws were designed for such worthwhile purposes as conservation and preservation of natural species and resources but were never intended to relate to Indian religious practices and, therefore, were passed without consideration of their effect on traditional American Indian religions" (AIRFA, Sec. 1).

Access to these places is vital to Native religious practices because Native religious beliefs and ceremonies are often specific to place. Christian religious services focus on the reenactment of significant events that are not connected to the place they are held. In contrast, the location, the timing, and the manner of carrying out a ceremony are essential to many Native religious practices and rituals.

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act

As this issue came to a head in Washington state and across the country in the 1970s, it garnered enough attention to spur a bipartisan group of senators -- James Abourezk (b. 1931) of South Dakota, Hubert Humphrey (1911-1978) of Minnesota, Edward Kennedy (1932-2009) of Massachusetts, Daniel Inouye (1924-2012) and Spark Matsunaga (1916-1990) of Hawaii, Mark Hatfield (1922-2011) of Oregon, Ted Stevens (1923-2010) and Mike Gravel (b. 1930) of Alaska, and Barry Goldwater (1909-1998) of Arizona -- to sponsor a joint resolution that would protect the religious freedom of  Native peoples.

Debate on the resolution was not contentious, and it was passed on July 27, 1978, and signed by President Jimmy Carter on August 11. In the late 1970s a task-force report on the law explained, "It marked a formal recognition that interpretation of the freedom of religion and establishment clauses in the American Constitution were sufficiently broad to include religions of historically and culturally different peoples" (American Indian Religious Freedom Act Report, 13). The report specifically included Native Alaskans and Hawaiians, in addition to "American Indians."

Though the bill did not include enforcement provisions, it did direct federal agencies to review their policies and procedures "in consultation with Native traditional religious leaders in order to determine appropriate changes necessary to protect and preserve Native American religious cultural rights and practices" (AIRFA, Sec. 1). Federal agencies responded to the directive and it had a positive impact on the ability of Native peoples to access significant places and carry out their religious practices.

A significant outcome in Washington was the preparation of the Inventory of Native American Religious Use, Practices, Localities and Resources: Study Area on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington State. The inventory documented places that should be protected and to which access by Native American's should be allowed.

Restoring a Tradition

AIRFA has been interpreted to include the gathering of plant materials (including trees) used for religious practices, which helped launch the annual Canoe Journey that began in 1989. In 1985 Emmett Oliver (1913-2016), a Quinault, conceived of restoring canoe-carving traditions among tribal members. The introduction of automobiles, the construction of roads, a lack of access to old-growth cedars (many of which had been lost to logging or stood on protected federal lands) had combined with the cultural and economic difficulties the tribes experienced in the twentieth century to cause a near-complete cessation of canoe carving. Oliver believed that restoring the art of canoe carving could help restore tribal communities and cultural practices.

Oliver worked with other tribal leaders and the federal government under the provisions of AIRFA to gain access to old-growth cedar growing near Baker Lake. They transported the logs to the Swinomish, Upper Skagit, Nooksack, and Lummi tribes. The Canoe Journeys have contributed significantly to the Coast Salish cultural revival of the past several decades.

Working to Resolve Conflicts

The protection of sacred places on federal lands has not been an easy process. Particularly in the national forests, conflicting uses and the need to conceal the exact location of sacred places have led to some confusion and conflict. Federal and tribal employees and tribal elders have worked on solutions to these conflicting goals and values. AIRFA was amended in 1994 to clearly express the need to accommodate the use by Native peoples of public lands and to protect sacred sites.

An interesting ripple effect of AIRFA is the Centennial Accord, signed in 1989 by Governor Booth Gardner (1936-2013) and leaders of Washington's federally recognized tribes. After decades of conflict, which heightened after the 1974 Boldt Decision affirmed tribes' treaty-reserved fishing rights, the state and tribes realized they would both benefit from a more collaborative relationship. The Centennial Accord, signed during the centennial year of Washington's statehood, called for state agencies to work directly with tribal staff to identify ways that state policy infringed upon or hampered Native rights and to find solutions.


American Indian Religious Freedom Act, 92 Stat. 469, 42 USC 1996 (1978); American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994, 108 Stat. 3125 (1994); American Indian Religious Freedom Act Report: P.L. 95-341 (Washington, D.C.: Federal Agencies Task Force, 1979), available at https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000717365; "Indians' Leader and Kennedy Debate Legislation Affecting Treaties," The New York Times, July 19. 1978, p. A10; "'We Also Have a Religion': The American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the Religious Freedom Project of the Native American Rights Fund," Native American Rights Fund website accessed December 16, 2016 (http://www.narf.org/nill/documents/nlr/nlr5-1.pdf); Bill Dietrich, "A Forest to Most, a Temple to Indians -- Tribes Seek 450,000 Acres of National Forest," The Seattle Times, August 23, 1985, p. A1; Richard Nixon, Executive Order 11670, May 20, 1972, The American Presidency Project website accessed December 16, 2016 (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=60504); Charles Wilkinson, The People Are Dancing Again: The History of the Siletz Tribe of Western Oregon (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010), 187-188; Astrida R. Blukis Onat and Jan L. Hollenbeck, Inventory of Native American Religious Use, Practices, Localities and Resources: Study Area on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington State (Seattle: Institute of Cooperative Research, 1981).


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