1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) was passed July 27, 1978, by a joint resolution of Congress and signed into law Aug. 11, 1978, by President Jimmy Carter.

Text and Interpretation

The law begins with Congressional findings regarding freedom of religion, and First American culture and practices, and ends with a statement:

“Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That henceforth it shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites” [1].

The law has been interpreted as essentially clarifying that First Americans have equal protection of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution [2].

While not explicitly granting these rights to First Americans, as it is generally recognized that these rights were guaranteed to all U.S. citizens through the U.S. Constitution, this law did recognize that some governmental policy violated the free expression of religion by First Americans [3].

Historical Need for the AIRFA

Limiting the cultural and spiritual practices of First Americans goes back at least to the 1850s, when governmental policy included assimilation of First Americans into the growing communities of the burgeoning United States [4].

Government officials prohibited ceremonies, dances and other practices that First Americans observed for religious and cultural reasons. Boarding schools also prevented First American students from participating in traditional cultural or religious practices.

People such as Mary Frances “Te Ata” Thompson Fisher helped expose audiences around the world to some of the cultural practices of Chickasaws and other First Americans.

“Te Ata brought the beauty and wisdom of American Indian culture to the world in a way that helped develop greater appreciation for core values such as basic human kindness and respect for the natural world,” said Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby. “Her life’s work helped bring diverse cultures closer together. She is a shining example of how artistic expression can change hearts and minds [5].

By the 1970s, these issues had enough support that AIRFA was introduced through a bipartisan joint resolution.

Results, Challenges and Amendments

The AIRFA did not include a penalty that allowed for its enforcement but required federal agencies in conjunction with tribal religious leaders to evaluate and rework policies that denied First Americans freedom to practice religious and cultural ceremonies.

The law allowed First Americans to practice their religion and culture freely, and to visit sacred and significant cultural sites [4].

The AIRFA has been subject to review and amendment through the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress and other governmental agencies. Despite the way the law is applied still being unclear in certain cases, as is the case with application of the First Amendment and a lot of legislation in general, the AIRFA represents a change in governmental policy away from eliminating traditional First American culture [3].

[1] "Public Law 95th Congress," 11 8 1978. [Online]. Available: https://bit.ly/30p9dL8. [Accessed 15 11 2021].

[2] "American Indian Religious Freedom Act," 11 8 1978. [Online]. Available: https://coast.noaa.gov/data/Documents/OceanLawSearch/Sum. [Accessed 15 11 2021].

[3] "National Geographic," [Online]. Available: https://bit.ly/3Fmjl6K . [Accessed 16 11 2021].

[4] "History Link," [Online]. Available: https://bit.ly/3kICyrr. [Accessed 16 11 2021].

[5] "Smithsonian," [Online]. Available: https://s.si.edu/3DqisJx. [Accessed 16 11 2021].

[6] Dennis Zotigh, "Smithsonian Magazine," 30 11 2018. [Online]. Available: https://bit.ly/3FjC0zS . [Accessed 15 11 2021].