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Religious Freedom, Sweat Lodges and Being Denied Our Basic Rights

All this talk about banning Muslims from traveling to the U.S. based on their religion reminds us that it’s an American tradition to ban religions.

Religious freedom is a state of mind. Over the generations tribal peoples throughout the United States have been, on too many occasions, denied the basic right to worship freely. But does it still happen on a regular basis – Native religious ceremonies being interfered with by local, state or federal authorities? When was the last time it actually happened to you?

I’ll tell you the story about the last time it happened to me. First of all let me mention that most Native Americans/tribal members live away from reservations/tribal lands in places like New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Oklahoma City, Anchorage, Albuquerque, Chicago, Houston, etc. We should always keep that in mind when it comes to talking and writing about Native issues and viewpoints.

I mention this because in 1978 the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed by Congress. It was enacted to “return basic civil liberties, and to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise their traditional religious rights and cultural practice(s)…” It applied mainly to accessing sacred sites, possession of outlawed ceremonial items and non-interference with sacred ceremonies. The problem was that AIRFA had no teeth.


Another problem with AIRFA, in my opinion, is it didn’t address Indian issues in urban and suburban areas, where again, most tribal members are living. I recently read about a man being arrested at a community sweat lodge in Fargo, North Dakota that was built on city-owned land. My first question is why would you build a community sweat lodge in the middle of a historically racist city? The first lodge built on Fargo land for community members was plowed down a few years ago. It doesn’t make much sense to me to build a sweat lodge on city-owned land. There is one at the Indian Center here in Albuquerque that is regularly vandalized.

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All this talk about banning Muslims from traveling to the U.S. based on their religion reminds us that it’s an American tradition to ban religions that white folks aren’t familiar with or comfortable with because of their utter lack of cultural sensitivity. But Indians have had a few generations to adjust to this kind of thinking and these kinds of attitudes.

One of the first adjustments we made was to take our religious ceremonies underground and hold them under the secrecy of darkness. When I was younger I sometimes wondered why our family held our Native American Church meetings at night. For my people it was because we were being persecuted for possessing and utilizing peyote we had to hold our services at night for our own protection. It became traditional.

Over the years, as I spoke to tribal people here in the Albuquerque area who were from other places, many from distant places, there seemed to be one big regret; it was hard to make it home for ceremony. It was either money, transportation, couldn’t take time off from work or school, or all of the above. I was suffering from the same withdrawals. That’s why I decided to build a sweat lodge in my backyard well within Albuquerque city limits. That was about 10 years ago, and we had many good sweats over the years. One of my fondest memories was when a group of Maori from New Zealand came to my house to partake in the lodge.

I have never applied for a permit or ask the city for permission. I did talk to my non-Indian neighbors and they had no problem. The fire department came twice in 8 years to check out the smoke. The first time the crew chief saw what was going on, and after a little bit of explaining by me, he said “be safe” and they left. The second time it was really windy and two trucks came to the house and we had to put out the fire, but not before they let us take the rocks out – they were almost ready anyway.

I took the sweat lodge down a few years ago because I was going to sell my property and I didn’t want to spook potential buyers. After the Spring Solstice this year I knew it was time to put down an offering and gather some new poles from the river. It is time to rebuild the sweat lodge. The people will be invited once again. It is time to pray, worship, and fellowship. For at least one night a week we can come together, create a sense of community, laugh, eat together and feel at home. Religious Freedom is a state of mind.

Harlan McKosato is a citizen of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma. He is the Director of NDN Productions, an independent media production company based in Albuquerque.