For over 500 years, our ancestors have fought against and resisted the destruction of our traditional Native American religion, culture, traditions and spirituality. But even in death, the bones of our ancestral Chiefs, warriors, leaders and heroes have not been left in peace. Our Lakota ancestors were so feared and despised by the government that after they were killed, their remains were not allowed to be put to rest according to our own Native American religious beliefs and spiritual practices.
This government through its racist policies, regulations and laws, has relentlessly tried to interfere with and control every aspect of our lives from birth to death by regulating almost everything. For example, the government requires that we enroll our children into a tribe to “prove” that they are Indian.
A more gruesome example of the government’s interference is the permit process under the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) which allows “grave diggers” with permits to excavate the human remains of our ancient relatives. Respect for traditional religious rights and dignity for the dead does not extend to the Indian people of this country.
Joseph Eagle Elk, a powerful Lakota Thunder Dreamer, a Heyoka and a relative, related a story told by a respected Sicangu tribal leader, Stanley Red Bird, about forced acculturation and assimilation on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in Eagle Elk’s book, “The Price of a Gift,” during the early days on the Reservation.
According to Mr. Red Bird, a BIA Agency Superintendent at Rosebud, a Catholic priest and Indian police officers went door to door destroying the sacred medicine bundles of our Lakota medicine men. The federal government for many years outlawed traditional Native American religion and our sacred ceremonies. How many Sicangu, Oglala and other tribes across this country have memories of such disrespect?
I have heard it said many times that the U.S. Constitution is supposed to be a “timeless” document. Yet our ancestors’ rights to free exercise of traditional Indian religion and spirituality since the founding of this country to today have never been protected by the First Amendment.
In 2011, few of our people are aware of the anti-Indianism in U.S. Supreme Court decisions and the ignorance and hostility shown towards traditional Indian religion in these decisions. These racist attitudes and laws pose a threat to our sacred sites as well as our right to freely exercise our traditional Native American religion and spirituality.
In Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, 485 U.S. 439 (1988) the Supreme Court turned its back on tribes and their right to free exercise of their religion. The Court did away with its free exercise balancing test for Indian religious rights. Prior to this case, the government’s interest was balanced against the burden on religion. Now it is okay for the federal government to interfere with Native American religious practices if it involves the government’s “property.”
Thus traditional Lakota spiritual practices such as vision quests on a sacred site such as Bear Butte in South Dakota are not afforded any protection. In another anti-Indian case, Employment Division v. Smith, 495 U.S. 872 (1990), the Supreme Court further gutted the right of Indians to be protected by free exercise clause of the First Amendment clause.
The Court held that the balancing test didn’t apply if the object of a “generally applicable” rule had only an incidental effect and didn’t burden religion. This shows the ignorance of the Court about Native American traditional religion and practices.
Some tribal leaders have complained that the policy of Manifest Destiny is now firmly entrenched at the highest level of the judicial system in this country. Where have all the open minded and fair Justices gone who would apply the Canons of Construction for Indian law? These rules are now disregarded and tossed aside by the majority on this Court.
We must remember that in 1890, our respected and beloved Hunkpapa Chief Sitting Bull was murdered by traitorous Indian police at the direction of the government agent who was jealous of Chief Sitting Bull. Even in death, our great Chief could not be put to rest in the traditional way upon a scaffold so his remains could go back to nature rapidly.
Instead, the government and soldiers desecrated Chief Stitting Bull’s body and they tossed him into a “grave” outside the church cemetery in Ft. Yates, ND. Chief Sitting Bull deserved to be honored and laid to rest in accordance with Lakota spiritual belief and practice, not the shameful way he was treated. The wounds which were inflicted upon our people remain as fresh as ever for the government has never given up on trying to destroy our religion, culture and spirituality.
Our elders taught that man is only a small part of creation and nature. They also taught and promoted generosity, sharing, not selfishness. If man took from nature, there was a moral and spiritual obligation to give back to nature as practiced also in another of our sacred ceremonies, the Sundance or Wiwanyung Wacipi.
Giving back extended to our traditional Lakota way of placing the body of one who has passed on a scaffold. In this manner, the remains would soon again become the many different parts of nature. Even in death, the Indian way is to give back to the relatives so others could live.
According to our Lakota religious beliefs, everything returns to Unci Maka, Grandmother Earth. The buffalo and the eagle, important in traditional Lakota society, existed natural and wild but in death, also returned to the earth and gave back to nature.
As we Lakota will all make the journey South to deer killing country, are we assured that the government will not try to restrict that as well? In the spirit of our forefathers, have we not been robbed of the very Red Road that we have lived and walked on for centuries? Has civilization gone too far within the dimensions in a square world we must share also in our fate the minds, laws and words that imprison within a square paper?
Have we been so defined and regulated as to have lost the very spiritual path back to our Creator? For the Heyoka and stubborn traditionalists, we will find our way home upon departure any way we choose for spiritual laws supersede man’s laws.
Wambli Sina Win (Eagle Shawl Woman) is currently an Associate Professor and
Director of the Bacone College Criminal Justice Studies Department in Muskogee,
Oklahoma. Her grandfather was John Fire, Chief Lame Deer Tahca Uste, a well
known Lakota Holy Man from the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
One of her sons is also a medicine man. She has served as a Tribal Judge for the
Oglala Sioux Tribal Court, as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, a Tribal Attorney and
as a legal Instructor for the U.S. Indian Police Academy at Artesia, N.M. You
may contact Wambli Sina Win, J.D. at firstname.lastname@example.org She can be reached
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