American Indians, Panel Discuss Religious Law
Specktor, Mordecai, National Catholic Reporter
MINNEAPOLIS - "We do not wear an eagle feather as an ornament. We wear it only when we are worthy, only when we earn it. We don't ask for it - we struggle for it," explains Oglala Lakota holy man Pete Catches.
The 82-year-old healer from the Pine Ridge Reservation, resplendent in a red ribbon shirt, refers to the two long eagle feathers pinned to a red bandanna holding back his hair. "This is all I can wear in my life. ... I cannot wear one more feather on my head, even though I'm a medicine man. It is hard to be worthy, to earn it, to wear it."
The religious use of eagle feathers and peyote, access to sacred sites and religious rights of American Indian prisoners were the issues considered recently at Augsburg College in Minneapolis at the fifth regional hearing of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs.
Catches was among the American Indian spiritual practitioners and tribal leaders testifying about proposed changes to the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, an attempt by Congress to strengthen protection of American Indian religious practices.
Committee chairman Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii was joined by fellow Democrats Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado - an American Indian from the Northern Cheyenne tribe of Montana - and hundreds of observers, including dozens of American Indian schoolchildren.
"All we are asking is that our traditional religion be afforded the same rights and protections as conventional religions," said Mario Gonzalez, attorney for the Oglala Sioux tribe.
Recent Supreme Court decisions have "greatly weakened the rights of American Indians to practice their religion," Wellstone said. Two cases are cited often: the 1988 Lyng decision, supporting the U. …