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Understanding why Native American religion is linked to land

Through the lens of Western religion, sacred land is the church, building and animals, and plant life, the sacraments.
Posted at 2:51 PM, Apr 09, 2023

Freedom of religionis something that we here in America treasure. It's ourFirst Amendment. But for so long, Native Americans have not had that right. And even today, there are fights to protect not only traditions, but sacred lands that they consider to be their places of worship.

What’s happening on this land in West Central Wyoming is more than restoring the presence of American bison, or buffalo, missing since the late 1800s. To Eastern Shoshone tribe member Jason Baldes, it's also about repairing a hole in the identity of his and the Northern Arapahoe people, who share land on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

"The buffalo was missing for about 131 years, but that's a small window in terms of the millennia that we've lived alongside this animal; it's in our DNA," Baldes said. "We come from Buffalo people, so this program's working to integrate them back into our lives."

Baldes is the program manager at the Wind River Tribal Buffalo Initiative, a program to restore the species to tribal land.

"Nutritionally, academically, ecologically, spiritually, it's very important that we can restore that relationship," Baldes said.

In 2016, ten bison came to the Wind River Indian Reservation. Now, there are 150 animals between the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe tribes. The Buffalo Initiative has also raised $8.5 million to buy back the surrounding land, lost to broken treaty promises, to create the proper habitat and preserve land culturally important to the tribes.

"Reservations were supposed to be places that tribes were able to reserve for their cultural practices," Baldes said. "All of these things work to undermine who we were as a people. Fortunately, we've been able to hold on to a lot of those things. We still have our languages; we still have our songs; we still have our ceremonies — but buffalo was missing for a period of time."

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Beth Wright and Matthew Campbell are both with the Native American Rights Fund, an organization that fights to protect "Native American rights, resources, and lifeways through legal assistance." They talk about the importance of land in the traditions and religion of Native Americans.

"The practice of tribal religions and tribal ways of life are inseparable from the places in which they're practiced, and I think that's something that is not common for other mainstream religions and not well understood," said Wright.

A big part of their job is protecting practices and land sacred to Native Americans; several battles are happening right now to protect or acquire sacred areas like Bears Ears in Utah and Oak Flat in Arizona. Wright and Campbell were both in Denver, testifying about the importance of letting graduating Native students wear eagle feathers and other regalia.

"We actually get calls every year around this time near graduation from students that are denied the right to wear their regalia," said Campbell. "There are ceremonies done around the items before they're given to the students or our youth, and so they're really imbued with the prayers of their families, their communities."

Wright says that these fights for the right to land and traditional practices are happening for the same reason the Eastern Shoshone are working to restore their relationship to bison: it's about preserving an identity that was nearly erased by colonization.

"What's important is that that really is a foundation for tribal identity, and without the ability to have those practices and pass those on, you really sort of lose this tribal identity that's wrapped up in the landscape," Wright said.

Through the lens of Western religion, sacred land is the church building and animals, and plant life, the sacraments. For the people who practice, they say these fights to protect Native religion and land are about identity and a connection that has sustained tribes through modern atrocities. From those outside the tribes, they ask for understanding of this.

"Buffalo is a way for us to find our foundation, our grounding. Something happens with Native people when they get around buffalo. It's a spark. It's genetic memory. It's a great mystery," said Baldes.