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227 CHAPTER 15 Beyond the Judeo-Christian Tradition? Restoring American Indian Religion to Twentieth-Century U.S. History JACOB BETZ I believe that they [American Indians] would easily be made Christians, for they appeared to me to have no religion. —CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, The Four Voyages, 1492 Traditional [Native believers] . . . are fundamentally religious and are perhaps the only consistent religious groups in American society over the long term. —VINE DELORIA JR., “Secularism, Civil Religion, and the Religious Freedom of American Indians,” 1992 As the U.S. history survey is frequently taught, both American Indians and American religion make significant appearances before 1865. Yet, after the Civil War, Native Americans are moved offstage historiographically , mirroring their literal marginalization onto the reservations as settlers homesteaded the West. Religion likewise fades as the U.S. survey progresses past the Civil War. Religion’s antiquated believers are often portrayed as subsumed by the modernity of industrial capitalism and urbanization. Both subjects, then, dissipate as the survey enters the twentieth century. Yet, of course, American Indians continued to persist in the twentieth century, and likewise the United States has, if anything, become more— not less—religious, with profound consequences for today’s political environment . This essay combines both subjects, arguing that the struggle of American Indians to maintain their religious beliefs throughout the twentieth century is part of this larger story of religious resurgence in America. It contextualizes the American Indian experience—not just how Indians reacted to whites but also vice versa—within the broader ebb and flow of religious liberty in United States history. To that end, both directly and indirectly, American Indians have helped shape both national ideas 228 JACOB BETZ about church and state as well as the scope of First Amendment protections for religion. At the onset of the twentieth century, the country remained by and large a Protestant nation, dominated culturally and politically by Protestantism since the nation’s founding. In the 1940s this changed as Supreme Court rulings began enforcing the First Amendment’s two religion clauses against individual state laws. For minority religious groups—who had often found themselves disadvantaged by laws that privileged Protestantism or Christianity more generally—the possibilities of religious freedom expanded greatly. Though by no means a wholly triumphalist narrative, the fact remains that minority religious groups successfully pushed back against the Protestant religious milieu after World War II, creating a more inclusive Judeo-Christian America with space for Catholics and Jews alongside Protestants.1 But adherents of religions outside the JudeoChristian tradition—such as traditional Indian religions—were stymied repeatedly between the 1970s and the 1990s in their attempts to enjoy this expanding religious freedom. Seeing this, many Americans—even those who belonged to the Judeo-Christian tradition—worried a lack of freedom for American Indians signaled a growing disregard for religion generally in a secularizing America. The stories of American Indian religion and of religion more generally in the United States are intimately tied together. This essay begins with an overview of American Indian religious freedom through the nineteenth century and then examines more closely the events of the twentieth century in relation to the American Indian experience, including freedom to perform Native religious dances, protection of sacred lands and burial sites, and the sacramental use of hallucinogenic plants. Its central thrust is that even with regard to general questions about religion in today’s United States—such as defining religion and the extent to which it deserves protection in America—the American Indian experience has a great deal to say to the broader population. As mentioned above, Native American spirituality—indeed Native Americans in general—tend to be much more prevalent in the first half of the U.S. history survey. Though it was long customary to begin the survey with the arrival of European explorers and settlers, the survey often now begins with an overview of Native North America. In fact, the sheer variety of American Indian religious traditions at the time of European arrival can hardly be overstated.2 This is important to stress in the U.S. survey, not merely because Native beliefs constitute legitimate Restoring American Indian Religion to U.S. History 229 sites of scholarly interest in and of themselves, but also because European colonization was justified in part upon the fiction that American Indians lacked any religious traditions at all.3 Though the European arrivals did not recognize it, Native Americans possessed complex belief systems that varied across geography and time. Native religious traditions differed...


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