ON his first day in the New World, Christopher Columbus wrote back to the Spanish court that native inhabitants "would easily be made Christians, because it seemed to me that they had no religion."
That misperception about native Americans - who had a deeply spiritual outlook on life and many forms of worship - paralleled the emergence in Europe of a new philosophical view of the world as a huge machine rather than a living organism. And it set the tone for centuries of attempts by Europeans settlers and their descendants to dominate Indian culture through religious conversion.
"To Christianize Indians, the federal government appointed missionaries as Indian agents ... to separate Indians from their religious ways of life and make them into mainstream Americans," Walter Echo-Hawk, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, told a recent congressional hearing. "Federal laws, still on the books, provided Indian lands to church groups for the building of churches. Federal troops and US marshals were employed to stamp out the Ghost Dance religion in the 1890s; and thereafter , until 1934, a complete government ban was placed on all Indian religions and ceremonies."
Even late-19th century reformers calling themselves "Friends of the Indian" felt this way about Indians' traditional life. University of Colorado historian Patricia Nelson Limerick says "the Indian reformers ... acted on the assumption that inside every Indian was a white American citizen and property holder waiting to be set free."
University of Washington historian Richard White observes that "by withholding rations, imprisoning recalcitrants, forcibly cutting adult men's hair, seizing children for schools, physically breaking up religious ceremonies, and seizing religious objects," the US Bureau of Indian Affairs "mounted direct assaults on Indian cultural and religious practices that would continue well into the 20th century."
Until 1970, official US policy called for "termination" of Indian tribes and bands. This included cash payments in return for tribal lands. For Indians, this was another way to undermine their religion - which was closely tied to the land, much of which was considered sacred.
Tribes were restored when that policy ended during the Nixon administration. Congress in 1978 passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which was meant to "protect and preserve" tribal religions.
But now Indian leaders and supporters see serious weaknesses in the law, as illustrated in two recent US Supreme Court cases. In 1988, the court upheld the right of the US Forest Service to build a logging road through a mountain-top area held sacred by three tribes, even though (as the court said) the road would "virtually destroy the Indians' ability to practice their religion." Mr. Echo-Hawk says Forest Service plans for logging, mining, and tourism today threaten sacred Indian sites in Oregon, Wyomin g, California, Montana, South Dakota, and Arizona.
Then, in 1990, the court denied constitutional protection to the use of the traditional Indian sacrament peyote by members of the Native American Church, even though it was legal in 23 states and exempted by the US Drug Enforcement Agency from its list of illegal drugs.
Proposed amendments to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act would give greater federal protection to sacred sites, recognize the right to use peyote for ceremonial purposes, and permit the religious use of eagles except where listed as threatened or endangered.
As Indians continue to fight for the right to practice their religions under the United States Constitution, elements of Indian religious values are emerging in non-Indian settings, such as "New Age" thought, the "men's movement," and the environmental movement, particularly the "deep ecology" strain which sees man as a part of nature rather than Biblically directed to dominate the Earth.