Forty years ago the U.S. Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act so that Native Americans could practice their faith freely and that access to their sacred sites would be protected. This came after a 500-year-long history of conquest and coercive conversion to Christianity had forced Native Americans from their homelands.
Today, their religious practice is threatened all over again. On Dec. 4, 2017, the Trump administration reduced the Bears Ears National Monument, an area sacred to Native Americans in Utah, by over 1 million acres. Bears Ears Monument is only one example of the conflict over places of religious value. Many other such sacred sites are being viewed as potential areas for development, threatening the free practice of Native American faith.
While Congress created the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to provide “access to sacred sites,” it has been open to interpretation. Native Americans still struggle to protect their sacred lands.
Native Americans have land-based religions, which means they practice their religion within specific geographic locations. As Joseph Toledo, a Jemez Pueblo tribal leader, says, sacred sites are like churches; they are “places of great healing and magnetism.”
Some of these places, as in the case of Bears Ears National Monument, are within federal public lands. As a Native American scholar, I have visited many of these places and felt their power.
For thousands of years, tribes have used Bears Ears for rituals, ceremonies and collecting medicines used for healing. The different tribes – the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute Indian Tribe and the Pueblo of Zuni – have worked to protect the land. Together they set up a nongovernmental organization, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition to help conserve the landscape in 2015.
Source: Why Native Americans struggle to protect their sacred places : The Conversation