Rethinking Protections for Indigenous Sacred Sites
66 Pages Posted: 9 Sep 2020 Last revised: 11 Feb 2021
Date Written: September 8, 2020
Meaningful access to sacred sites is among the most important principles to the religious exercise of Indigenous peoples, yet tribes have been repeatedly thwarted by the federal government in their efforts to vindicate this practice of their religion. The colonial, state, and federal governments of this Nation have been desecrating and destroying Native American sacred sites since before the Republic was formed. Unfortunately, the callous destruction of Indigenous sacred sites is not just a troubling relic of the past. Rather, the threat to sacred sites and cultural resources continues today in the form of spoliation from development, as well as in the significant barriers to meaningful access Indigenous peoples face.
Scholars concerned about government failure to protect Indigenous sacred sites on government property have generally agreed that the problem stems from the unique nature of Indigenous spiritual traditions as being too distinct from non-Indigenous religious traditions familiar to courts and legislators, and therefore eluding protection afforded to other traditions. By contrast, this Article approaches the problem from an entirely different angle: we focus instead on the similarities between government coercion with respect to Indigenous religious exercise and other non-Indigenous religious practices. We illustrate how the debate about sacred sites unwittingly partakes in longstanding philosophical debates about the nature of coercion itself — a phenomenon that has previously gone unnoticed by scholars. This Article argues that whether or not one formally labels the government’s actions as “coercive,” the important question is whether the government is bringing to bear its sovereign power in a way that inhibits the important ideal of religious voluntarism — the ability of individuals to voluntarily practice their religious exercise consistent with their own free self-development. Indeed, this is precisely the sort of question courts ask when evaluating government burdens on non-Indigenous religious exercise. The failure to ask this same question about voluntarism for Indigenous religious practices has created a double standard, wherein the law recognizes a much more expansive notion of coercion for contexts impacting non-Indigenous religious practices, and a much narrower conception of coercion when it comes to Indigenous sacred sites.
This egregious double standard in the law ought to be revisited. Doing so would have two important implications. First, when government interference with religious voluntarism is viewed clearly, tribal members and Indigenous practitioners should be able to prove a prima facie case under statutes like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act much more easily. Second, this Article makes the novel claim that clearer understanding of the coercive control government exercises over sacred sites should animate a strong obligation under the government’s trust responsibility and plenary power doctrine to provide more — rather than less — robust protection of Indigenous sacred sites.
Keywords: American Indian Law, Federal Indian Law, Native American Law, Tribes, Indigenous Peoples, Sacred Sites, First Amendment, Religious Freedom Restoration Act, RFRA, Religion
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