February 1, 2000 is the latest in a series of
arbitrary deadlines the federal government has given those few, brave Dineh
(Navajo) resistors to clear out of their traditional homelands, or face
the possibility of forced "relocation."
This brief article is intended to look at one aspect of this controversy in light of one so-called law the dominant cultures has, apparently, reserved for itself only. It's a Constitutional guarantee, really, that touches the very core of why the Dineh consider they have no choice but to remain where they are.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;..."
This is the beginning of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. The first of ten amendments known collectively as the Bill of Rights, it was tacked on to set at ease the concerns of several of the initial Constitutional signers that at some point there might appear a national church, to the exclusion and persecution of others. Both clauses are framed in the negative, which might lead us to suspect that in the original, un-amended version of the Constitution some powers over religion must have been given to the federal government. They were not. The original document is silent on the matter.
Further, the Constitution delegated specific powers and limitations to the three branches of government to prevent it from giving itself additional powers later on.
What does all this mean? What does it have to do with the Dineh relocation, and what is the government's track record with other Native Nations regarding the so-called guarantees established in the First Amendment?
Since no powers were given to the federal government over religion, the subject must be construed to be outside of government reach. The federal government, and therefor state governments, have no right to either establish or aid any religion. Therefore, the government is forbidden from compelling any person to support, adhere to, or be involuntarily influenced by any religion.
An excellent, concise explanation of the First Amendment comes from the Supreme Court's decision in Everson v. Board of Education, 1947, wherein Justice Black writes the majority opinion: "The establishment of the religion clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organization or group and vice versa."
Fairly straightforward. Yet our history is riddled with violations of this basic freedom of and from religion, supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution. Curtailing the rights of indigenous cultures to practice their religious ceremonies such as the Sun Dance, Ghost Dance, and Sweat Lodge, was a total disregard of Constitutional guarantees.
Consider the following. By 1872 the appointment of Christian-based missionary societies to positions of Indian Agencies was in full swing as seen in this extract from the Annual Report Of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Francis A Walker, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, November 1, 1872.
Hicksite Friends 6 agencies 6,598
Orthodox Friends 10 17,724
Baptists 5 40,800
Presbyterians 9 38,069
Christians 2 8,287
Methodists 14 54,473
Catholics 7 17,856
Reformed Dutch 5 8,118
Congregationalists 3 14,476
Episcopalians 8 26,929
Amer. Brd. Comm.
Foreign Missions 1 1,496
Unitarians 2 3,800
Lutherans 1 273
Total: 73 238,899
In his report, Walker states "...(as) it became
necessary to relieve officers of the Army from this service, it was decided
by the Executive that all the agencies thus vacated in the remaining States
and the Territories should be filled by appointment upon the recommendation
of some religious body; and to this end the agencies were, so to speak,
apportioned among the prominent denominational associations of the country,
or the missionary societies representing such denominational views..."
He goes further to say "...and in and through this extra-official relationship to assume charge of the intellectual and moral education of the Indians thus brought within the reach of their influence."
When Walker contracted the societies to act as agents of the federal government, by the nature of the agency relationship they became the federal government, therefor putting the federal government squarely in the religion business. Recalling Justice Black's commentary above, "Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organization or group and vice versa."
Further, the federal government does not have the right to abdicate its powers or duties to any individual or institution, which is exactly what it did here.
While the initial order for this change did come from the Executive (President), the decisions regarding how the Executive Order was to be carried out, and who was to be selected as agents were made by un-elected officials. During this entire period and through the first half of the twentieth century, the strategy of government officials, both elected and hired, was to make Indians "white" by supplanting their religions with Christianity.
By giving "charge of the intellectual and moral education" to the religious societies as their duty as Indian agencies, the government was in reality coercing native peoples to conform to that religion.
Remember, by this time the federal government had exerted its control over virtually every First Nation on the continent and was well on its way of devolving their status from that of sovereign, to wards of the state. Regardless of the Indians’ presumed status in the eyes of the dominant society, the government still had no legal basis contracting with religious agencies to carry out its political agenda.
Walker goes on to say "...in the frequent change of agents, no missionary efforts could long be carried on at any specified agency without encountering, sooner or later, from some agent of different religious views or of no religious views, a degree of opposition or persecution which would necessarily extinguish such missionary enterprise and even destroy the fruits of past labors. When it is remembered that efforts of this kind must, to achieve valuable results, be continued for many years, confidence being a plant of slow growth in savage breasts, and the hope of the missionary being almost universally founded on the education of the rising generation, while, in fact, Indian agents were under the old political regime changed every few months, or every two or three years at the longest, it will readily be seen that the chances of missionary enterprises being cut off in the flower were far greater than the chances of continuance and success."
He closes with these pearls, "...in the matter of the moral and religious advancement of the Indians, was the single reason formally given for placing the nominations to Indian agencies in the hands of the denominational societies, it is, perhaps, not improper to say that the Executive was also influenced by the consideration that the general character of the Indian service might be distinctly improved by taking the nomination to the office of agent out of the domain of politics and placing it where no motives but those of disinterested benevolence could be presumed to prevail."
Incredulously, Walker had the temerity to openly state that religious societies put in the unique position of agent for the U.S. Government would suddenly function as impartial and unbiased?
In proclaiming the moral and religious advancement of the Indians as the single reason the various religious groups were contracted, Walker exploited the self-serving myth that "good morals" only come from mainstream religion. The truth is, the federal government couldn't care less about the moral character of anybody. Its agenda is "conform and pay your taxes." And in the case of native people, "give us your land."
The Dineh are resolute in protecting the lands they were set on by Creator. In the words of Roberta Blackgoat, Chairperson for the Sovereign Dineh Nation, "We remember our honored friend and Traditional Hopi Elder, Grandfather David Monongye. He often told why many Traditional Hopi knew it was the Creator’s idea for Dineh to live here. He was taught the Dineh were brought to surround the Mesa by the Holy Ones so as to provide a protective buffer from the forces of greed and destruction. If, and when, the Traditional Dineh were removed from these lands, his people would fall in turn, and the Earth would be destroyed. He knew from ancient teachings that Dineh and Hopi were physically and spiritually bound together. He realized, as do the current Resisters to relocation, that if the Dineh Church and Altar can be destroyed, so could everyone else’s.
"The Hopi and Dineh people do not have a quarrel, but 22 years ago, a group of mining and power companies deceived the U.S. Government into thinking there was a range war between us. These mining companies convinced the U.S. Government that the solution was to evict everyone who lived in the areas which they wished to mine." (From a statement read and submitted to the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, August 9, 1996)
The Dineh people consider the land they occupy to be their altar, which Webster defines as "figuratively, a church; a place of worship." It is precisely in this context that the Dineh view their relationship with their ancestral lands - the very same lands Peabody Coal wants to strip mine, the real motivation for the government's relocation plan.
And so, our government sets about to once again willfully violate the First Amendment guarantees of people it unilaterally proclaimed citizens of the United States via the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.
By studying the treatment of First Nations and paying attention to current events, we can learn more about ourselves and the government we allow to exist in this country. When we see our own government violating laws it is supposed to uphold, and fail to protest, it is nothing less than tacit approval. What has happened, and continues to happen to these people can just as easily happen to anyone else.
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