Indigenous Peoples, Sacred Rights, and Religious Freedom

October 21, 2020

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A tipi stands in front of the White House

Although religious freedom is a hot-button issue in the 2020 U.S. election cycle, the debate often centers the priorities of white, Christian communities at the expense of other voices, including Indigenous perspectives on the sacred. The relationship between law, religion, and Native American communities in the United States is complex—in no small part because the government has a track record of breaking treaties with Native communities and “religion” as a category of analysis is stepped in Protestant history. So, Indigenous groups using a religious freedom framework to protect sacred land have often met limited success. For example, the years-long legal battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline—portions of which were built on sites of spiritual significance—is still ongoing. Critical reflection on religious freedom vis-à-vis Native communities is needed as the country continues to debate the policy and its role in public life.

This week the Berkley Forum asks: In what ways do Indigenous worldviews complicate Western definitions of religion as a category of academic and legal analysis? How might Native experiences contribute to broader debates about the theory and practice of religious freedom in the United States? What might religious freedom policies look like if they were to be reimagined from Native viewpoints? If current religious freedom laws are inadequate to protect Indigenous rights, what other discourses do Native American communities use to safeguard their ways of life? What role might interfaith action and dialogue play in future activism to protect Indigenous sites and practices?

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