Within the Iron Houses: The Struggle for Native American Religious Freedom in American Prisons

Article excerpt

MOST AMERICANS FEEL SECURE THAT THEIR FREEDOM TO WORSHIP IN THEIR particular religious faith is a well protected right. After all, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise therefo..."

However, for many Native Americans, the First Amendment provides no such sense of security. Considering the genocide they have experienced at the hands of the U.S. government, it is not surprising that Indian peoples have never had their traditional religious freedoms protected under its auspices. In fact, Euro-American hostility toward Native American religions has served as justification for 500 years of oppression. Recognized early on as a primary source of strength and stability for Indian nations, Native religious practices were disrupted, degraded, and outlawed by white colonizers bent on eradicating "pagan savages" and helping themselves to their resources. The Potlatch of the Northern Pacific coastal nations and the Sun and Ghost Dances of those of the Great Plains are just a few of the better-known ceremonies that were forbidden and whose "illegality" was then used to persecute their practitioners. By the mid--1800s, nearly all aspects of traditional Native American religious practices were against the law.

It was not until the late 1970s that the U.S. government acknowledged its long history of Native American religious repression. In 1978, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), a move that seemed to indicate a new consciousness on the part of the government. In its preamble, the act spelled out the many ways that the federal government has failed to recognize Indian religions and has interfered with or prohibited their free exercise. The act stated that U.S. policy would now be to:

protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent rights to believe,

express, and exercise traditional religions...including but not limited to

access to sites, use, and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to

worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.

However, in the 14 years since AIRFA was signed into law by then-President Jimmy Carter, various branches of the U.S. government have continued to chip away at Native American religious freedoms. AIRFA was passed basically as a policy statement, without provisions for enforcement, and the recommendations it generated for changes in the ways agencies operated vis a vis Native religious concerns went virtually ignored. Subsequent efforts to invoke AIRFA as a tool in cases fighting for Native American religious protections (i.e., preservation of sacred sites or religious use of peyote) were often fruitless, further demonstrating the ineffectiveness of the act.

Incarcerated Native Americans have also tried to evoke AIRFA in support of their struggles for First Amendment religious protections. However, the American prison system is allowed to formulate its own unique interpretation of "freedom of religion," regardless of AIRFA. The courts consistently defer to the decisions of individual superintendents or wardens as to which "freedoms" constitute a "security risk." Religious activities can therefore be prohibited at the discretion of corrections officials without any substantiating evidence that past incidents involving said practices have transpired. The results are inconsistent and tend to privilege inmates with mainstream, Judeo-Christian beliefs.

Perhaps no other U.S. group has suffered greater denial of their First Amendment rights to freely practice their traditional religion than have incarcerated Native Americans. The U.S. penal system has its roots in Judeo-Christian concepts of punishment and redemption; solitary confinement, for example, began with the idea of isolating the prisoner with a Bible. In fact, two of the primary "rehabilitative" components of U. …