- Religious Freedom and Native Sovereignty—Protecting Native Religions through Tribal, Federal, and State Law:Panel Discussion
Judge Carey Vicenti
As I was coming down here, I was going through a lot of different thoughts about how I could address the anniversary of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and at the same time remain truthful to myself and to the things I believe. Quite frankly, I'm disappointed, after twenty-five years of the effects of this act, that we haven't had as stark a turnaround in American culture as I thought might have been possible.
While I was thinking about speaking to you, a phrase popped into my mind that has to do with property. For me, the greatest thing has been the loss of lands that we've all suffered from. We've lost a whole American continent: the whole thing. At least for a period of time, people, the U.S. government, tried or at least made some statement that there were going to be reparations, and they sort of forced these reparations down our throats in the form of the Indian Land Claims Commission work. I feel very sad about it, because in the law when we talk about property we say there is a bundle of rights that exist in property. Sometimes you peel them away, and there are mineral rights, and there is a surface estate, and the phrase that popped into my mind was that for Native people there has always been this "radiant sense of belonging." It was part of that bundle, and nobody in Congress [End Page 185] could ever see that one strand, that radiant sense of belonging that we had to these lands that we lost. It might have been a good thing that when the Land Claims Commission extinguished our legal title they didn't notice that one strand, that radiant sense of belonging, and so it remained in our hands. It remained in our hands, and so we do belong to this country and vice versa.
The people from whom we come still belong to this country, still belong to the landscape, still belong to the sacred sites that exist all across the continent. This thought has persisted for a very long time with me. Outside of Abiquiu there is a mountain that is sacred to us: Beshzilthlhigai. It means the white edge of a knife, otherwise known as Pedernal. Once I went to an exhibit of Georgia O'Keefe. She had painted that mountain, and I thought, "she knew," because that radiant sense was in her painting. When we were doing the NAGPRA work up in Rapid City, I was riding in a car with the director of the Field Museum in Chicago, Jonathan Haas, and Dan Monroe, the director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Boston. I had never been there before, but as we rounded a turn headed up to Bear Butte, all I had to do was just see it pop over the horizon and I knew that I was there. Nobody had to tell me. Later on, Haas said, "I sort of felt that sense before." I said, "I bet you have, because you've spent a lot of time in New Mexico." The place he said he felt it was around Abiquiu. I took out a pencil and paper and drew a picture of it, and he said, "That's it! That's it!"
I want to at least say this much, that what has happened over the past several hundred years has been a constant effort at conquest. This conquest is not complete and won't be complete until eventually that radiant sense of belonging is extinguished. Once that happens we will also lose that quality of memory that is so important: to remember the long lines of ancestors going generation after generation before us. That is, in essence, what we are fighting for, fighting against: we have to retain that quality of memory and that beautiful and radiant sense of belonging to the country from which we come. For this reason we can't stop...