What is the Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978?

Religion and spirituality are cornerstones in the lives of many American Indians as it is for others who live in the United States.

Religion and spirituality are cornerstones in the lives of many American Indians as it is for others who live in the United States. It is an American Citizen’s right to practice any religion of their choosing. The ability to practice religious freedom is based on the colonists desire to gain religious independence from England. On September 17, 1787, the 38 of 41 delegates present at the Constitutional Convention in Philidelphia, clearly documented in the US Consitution, that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion.” The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom asserts that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion.”

Religious freedom did not however, include the indigenous people who occupied this land thousands of years prior to creation of the Constitution. It was not until the passage of Public Law 113-126, the Indian Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of August 11, 1978 that American Indians were able to practice their traditional beliefs.

The IRFA allowed American Indians:

The Federal Government’s directive is to:

  • Instruct Federal departments and agenices to evaluate their policies and procedures in consultation with native religions leaders to ensure proper changes are made to protect and preserve American Indian cultural practices. 
  • Maintain confidentiality of sacred sites, when appropriate

Prior to the IRFA it was illegal for American Indians to practice or discuss their teachings or ceremonies in public without fear of retaliation or incarceration. Elders would tell stories to their families regarding traditions and ceremonies in a quiet way to appear they are discussing another topic because they wanted to carry on the traditions even though their freedom was at risk. Other stories that have been told are of ceremonies there were conducted in secret so the community would not find out they were practicing their ceremonies against the law. As a result Tribal Nations have lost many of their teachings, which have made it harder for the next generations to learn the traditional ways. One way to learn more about a communities culture and values is to be present in the moment, seek to understand, and to learn the history of the community. In addition, seek out a tribe’s historian or elders to assist with learning more about the community and building your understanding.

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