Masters Thesis

Fish, forests, fire and freedom : infringements of Karuk religious freedom through federal natural resource management

Religious freedom is necessarily a broad concept since it must apply to a wide range of religions. Yet, religious freedom in the United States is rooted in the First Amendment, which was created for a limited set of religions (i.e., Protestant Christian faiths) by a group of men with a limited range of knowledge about other religions and cultures at a time when slavery was legal and the mass extermination of Native Americans was common. These historically-based limitations of the First Amendment remain today, meaning that for Native Americans religious freedom is not as easily secured as it is for the Christian people for whom the First Amendment was originally intended. Among the many challenges facing American Indian attempts to obtain full religious freedom, Native religions are inherently bound in environmental relationships. Therefore, actions that lead to environmental or ecological alterations can be a violation of Native American religious freedom. The right to free exercise, for many Indians, must include the right to engage in the spiritually-enriched environmental relationships that are foundational to their particular faiths. The viability of this right is directly dependent upon the health and integrity of select ecosystems. In this way, religious freedom is intimately linked to environmental issues. American Indian Tribes have repeated appealed to the Supreme Court in pursuit of religious freedom protections related to environmental concerns, but have yet to receive a favorable verdict. The Karuk Tribe of California is among the Tribes currently seeking religious freedom protections. In particular, the Tribe seeks to practice their spiritually-guided systems of ecological management. Religious freedom for the Karuk requires more than separation of church and state; the right to the free exercise of religion for Karuk peoples hinges upon the ecological integrity of the Klamath River and its surrounding biomes. As a series of interviews conducted specifically for this study indicates, Karuk Tribal members believe their religious freedom is being violated in several ways, particularly through environmental alterations perpetuated by Federal Natural Resource Agencies. These violations must be acknowledged by the federal government, for each individual person within each generation must have the autonomy and opportunity to practice the tenets of their religious beliefs. This is the heart of a universal religious freedom that all people inherently deserve. Yet, if the conditions that make Tribal religions possible – social, cultural, or ecological – are in any way eliminated, the religious freedoms of current and coming generations are destroyed.