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American Indians, panel discuss religious law.

MINNEAPOLIS - "We do not wear an eagle feather as an ornament. We wear it only when we are worthy, only when we earn it. We don't ask for it - we struggle for it," explains Oglala Lakota holy man Pete Catches.

The 82-year-old healer from the Pine Ridge Reservation, resplendent in a red ribbon shirt, refers to the two long eagle feathers pinned to a red bandanna holding back his hair. "This is all I can wear in my life. ... I cannot wear one more feather on my head, even though I'm a medicine man. It is hard to be worthy, to earn it, to wear it."

The religious use of eagle feathers and peyote, access to sacred sites and religious rights of American Indian prisoners were the issues considered recently at Augsburg College in Minneapolis at the fifth regional hearing of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs.

Catches was among the American Indian spiritual practitioners and tribal leaders testifying about proposed changes to the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, an attempt by Congress to strengthen protection of American Indian religious practices.

Committee chairman Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii was joined by fellow Democrats Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado - an American Indian from the Northern Cheyenne tribe of Montana - and hundreds of observers, including dozens of American Indian schoolchildren.

"All we are asking is that our traditional religion be afforded the same rights and protections as conventional religions," said Mario Gonzalez, attorney for the Oglala Sioux tribe.

Recent Supreme Court decisions have "greatly weakened the rights of American Indians to practice their religion," Wellstone said. Two cases are cited often: the 1988 Lyng decision, supporting the U.S. Forest Service's logging road in the Chimney Rock region of northern California, an area sacred to the Yurok Nation; and Smith, a 1990 decision that upheld Oregon's denial of unemployment benefits to state employees who were terminated because they used peyote in their Native American Church meetings.

Campbell offered the case of Bear Butte, a promontory east of the Black Hills, which is sacred to the Lakota and Cheyenne. Now the state of South Dakota has erected an observation deck - complete with telescope - so tourists can gawk at the Indians praying on the mountain. American Indian spiritual ceremonies at Bear Butte have been turned into a zoo attraction, Campbell said.

"We still don't feel right," said Arvol Looking Horse, the 19th generation keeper of the sacred Dakota/Lakota ceremonial pipes. When we go to old sacred places to pray, we have to get permits." Looking Horse has been active in efforts to stop the commercialization of red pipestone, quarried only at the Pipestone National Monument in western Minnesota.

The extraordinarily complex meeting of ancient American Indian religions and U.S. laws and bureaucracies will unfold in four more congressional hearings before a vote on the AIRFA amendments. A number of American Indians express sadness that in 1993 such measures still are necessary to ensure their rights.

Catches says his people have suffered enough and offers the analogy of Hurricane Andrew, which devastated Florida last summer: "For 500 years, the Native Americans have gone through a human hurricane. It is time now to right the wrongs done ... to understand each other ... to make things right. May the Great Spirit love you all, as I love every one of you here."
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Author:Specktor, Mordecai
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Mar 26, 1993
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