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Interfaith Voices:Time to stop othering Indigenous-based faith

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This past fall, I was talking with one of my daughters about school, about social studies. She was learning about world religions. Our conversation covered a lot, revealing that Indigenous-based religions/faiths were not part of the unit. We talked about why Indigenous-based spiritualities are often left out of religion/faith conversations — both in and outside of classrooms.

Simply put, Indigenous people are continually described in the past tense. Our ceremonies and spiritualties are viewed as past tense, viewed as “other” and typically not described as “real religions.”

Rather than be part of broader conversations about religion, Indigenous-based faith is boxed into designated Native American curricula, special topics or side conversations. The normalization of this type of othering is not reflective of Indigenous experiences with faith/religion, which are very much alive and vibrant.

Indigenous teachings are always dependent on the region, tribe and communities in which they occur. The diversity of practices can make it harder for some to recognize them as religion or faith. Indigenous-based faith is grounded in connections to each other and the world around us — plants, animals, waterways, lands, the cosmos. It is grounded in responsibility to these connections and the Creator.

Indigenous-based faith relies on instructions, ways of living and the power of prayer. This may sound familiar to those from other religious backgrounds because it is a type of religion. Framing Indigenous faith as illegitimate does not make Indigenous-based faith any less important, or powerful, for those who follow it.

Indigenous-based faith and ceremonies are so powerful that laws were enacted to prevent them from taking place. I am writing this article on the anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre that happened Dec. 29, 1890. This massacre occurred in response to the Ghost Dance movement and the resurgence of Indigenous ceremonies during that time.

In other words, people were killed for practicing their faith. For most people, this is unfathomable. Yet it did happen. This was a government-sanctioned action that resulted in medals of honor being awarded to those who killed Indigenous people for practicing their faith.

The Wounded Knee Massacre and other similar killings were a result of policies outlawing the practice of Indigenous-based faith. In 1883, the Courts of Indian Offenses was established to prosecute Indigenous people for practicing ceremonies, dances and rituals which were described through a Code of Indian Offenses. Medicine people were deemed “threats to civilization” and prosecuted.

These federally sanctioned sets of laws applied only to Indigenous people, used as justification for massacres such as Wounded Knee and the persecution of Indigenous-based faith and practices.

For nearly 100 years, Indigenous people had to practice their faith underground due to fear of religious persecution. It was not until 1978 that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed. This act ensures Indigenous peoples’ religious rights are protected through the First Amendment.

Law, policy, education and popular culture have all played a part in othering Indigenous-based faith and religions. Yet they have continued to remain a fire that burns across time in the hearts of Indigenous people. Part of the responsibilities that come with Indigenous-based faith is ensuring that our teachings continue for future generations.

Our religious practices are about helping keep balance for all creation. This is taken very seriously. I continually live in gratitude that the generations before me found a way to keep our ceremonies going, and fought so hard to ensure current generations would not be persecuted for practicing our faith.

This is something I give thanks for each day and in each prayer. It is something I ensure my children understand and offer gratitude for as well.

Luhui Whitebear is an enrolled member of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation, mother and assistant professor at Oregon State University. She also volunteers as part of the Corvallis School Board, is an MMIW advocate and, in her free time, enjoys hiking with her children.


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