From Oppression to Religious Freedom

It took centuries for religious practices of American Indians to receive full protection under U.S. law.

It took centuries for religious practices of American Indians to receive full protection under U.S. law.

Until 1994, when President Clinton signed legislation granting Native Americans the right to use peyote for ceremonies without fear of losing their jobs, tribes suffered oppression and even death for their spiritual beliefs. Most notorious was the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, when the U.S. Army killed nearly 300 “ghost dancers” (men, women and children) who sought freedom to practice their ceremonies. Thirty-one years later, the Bureau of Indian Affairs authorized its agents to use force and imprisonment to halt Native American religious practices. A huge stride was made in 1978, when Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to protect and preserve the religious rights of native people. Clinton’s signature on an amendment in 1994 secured employment protection.

I am studying the reasons it took so long for native people to receive the same rights that are assumed by other Americans. I want to know why native beliefs and practices have resulted in such religious oppression.

My study, focusing on the Native American Church, will unearth the stories of active participants in this blend of Christian and traditional native beliefs dating back to the 1890s. Native people created the church to protect those who use peyote as a sacrament, but members often take part in other traditional ceremonies as well. It’s peyote’s hallucinogenic nature that often makes it misunderstood by people who have not seen for themselves the respectful, prayerful manner in which it is used. That is why the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendment was so vital to members of the church.

Two years ago I spoke to an anthropology class, Native Peoples of North America, at Eastern Oregon University and spoke about the healing practices of my Cheyenne people. Afterwards, a student asked me to pray for her son, who was in the hospital and not expected to live. I went to the hospital, accompanied by the class professor and two personal friends. A few days after we conducted a ceremony for him, the professor phoned to tell me that the boy had recovered and been released from the hospital. This was a turning point in my life. It gave me the desire to gather other healing stories. I am honored to learn from my elders and to use their knowledge for the health of other people, native and non-native.

By providing an indigenous view of the Native American Church, I hope to increase understanding of and appreciation for native religious practices. By including native voices and perspectives in my work, I also hope to achieve greater respect for non-traditional medicinal practices. My goal is to build bridges of cultural understanding among native people and others.

A published poet and member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, Renée Roman Nose is a master’s student in applied anthropology at OSU. A regular guest lecturer for Eastern Oregon University’s anthropology program and a recent guest at EOU’s International Women’s Week, she has lived in seven states, from Hawaii to Florida.

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