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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition
Civil Rights 101 - Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund - 2001

Native Americans

Among the most difficult civil rights issues are those facing the nation's 2.5 million Native Americans. Federally recognized tribes are considered domestic dependent nations, with their rights to tribal sovereignty preserved. Tribal sovereignty refers to tribes' right to govern themselves, define their own membership, manage tribal property, and regulate tribal business and domestic relations; it further recognizes the existence of a government-to-government relationship between such tribes and the federal government. The federal government has special trust obligations to protect tribal lands and resources, protect tribal rights to self-government, and provide services necessary for tribal survival and advancement. The fight to preserve tribal sovereignty and treaty rights has long been at the forefront of the Native American civil rights movement.

Moreover, Native Americans suffer from many of the same social and economic problems as other victims of long-term bias and discrimination - including, for example, disproportionately high rates of poverty, infant mortality, unemployment, and low high school completion rates. The struggle for equal employment and educational opportunity is key to addressing these problems.

Also important for many Native American civil rights advocates are cultural issues related to the ability to maintain and pass on traditional religious beliefs, languages and social practices without fear of discrimination. For example, Native Americans have long fought to protect their religious freedom from repeated acts of governmental suppression -- including the denial of access to religious sites, prohibitions on the use or possession of sacred objects, and restrictions on their ability to worship through ceremonial and traditional means.

In 1988, for example, In Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protection Association, the Supreme Court allowed the construction of a Forest Service road through an ancient site held sacred by several tribes. In a setback for Native Americans' religious freedoms, the Court ruled that such intrusion did not violate the Indians' First Amendment rights.

And in 1991, in Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith, the Supreme Court ruled that states and localities no longer had to show a "compelling governmental interest" to justify generally applicable laws that applied to limit or infringe upon religious exercise. The ruling in this case, which involved two Oregon men who were denied unemployment benefits after taking peyote as part of a worship ceremony of the Native American Church, was widely attacked by representatives of virtually all religious bodies in the United States as a major blow to religious freedom.

In 1993 Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would have overturned Smith and restore the "compelling interest" standards that limited government's ability to enforce legislation that infringes upon religious freedom. However, the Supreme Court soon struck down RFRA as an unconstitutional exercise of Congressional powers in City of Boerne v. Flores.

In 1994, a law signed by President Clinton exempted the religious use of peyote from federal and state controlled substance laws and prohibited discrimination against those who engage in the use of peyote for religious purposes. Although this protected Native Americans' use of peyote, the fight to protect other areas of religious freedom continues.

Other civil rights priorities include ongoing battles for voting rights, as well as the elimination of offensive use of mascots by schools and professional sports teams that reflect outdated stereotypes and perpetuate racism against Native Americans. The "Digital Divide" is also a major area of concern for Native Americans and other minority groups - because many American Indians and Alaskan Natives have yet to be connected to basic telephone networks and are thus unable to access the Internet, they are at risk of falling even further behind in their ability to access employment, educational, and other opportunities made available by information technology.

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