“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” —The First Amendment to the United States Constitution
In 2018, in the throes of my undergraduate education, I read an article highlighting perspectives of Indigenous reflections on the 40th anniversary of the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA). I was dumbfounded. Even though I knew about the Federal Policies that unfolded in the 1970s, I’d barely quantified the years that had passed. Until 1978, it was federally illegal for Native Americans to participate in traditional or ceremonial practices. I knew about the Ghost Dance and other acts that were outlawed, but I never considered that in the years after 1883, Natives were arrested, jailed, and even killed for practicing their spirituality. For nearly 100 years, immense pressure was thrust upon native communities to eliminate spirituality from their lives in the name of assimilation; spirituality is at the core of our identities as Native people. I imagine that practicing in secret while we were systematically separated from our ancestral land bases was, to say the least, exhausting. Despite this, many of our ancestral ceremonies are alive, thriving, and evolving.
As I began to understand and appreciate the effort my relatives put into preserving our cultural teachings, I began to analyze and deconstruct my deep seeded misconceptions of Indigenous ceremony. Indigenous ceremony is not a noun, a thing, but a verb. It’s an act and a relationship, alive, evolving, and at times even obligatory. As much as I love bikes, a bike race route didn’t present to me at first as the lodge did. The lodge offered a door, a room, a place where a thing would happen deep within my spirit. As I spent time in the lodge, I found myself visiting places within myself that I’d only ever found while racing my bike hundreds of miles.
Ceremony and the Bike Race
As I started racing in ultra-endurance bike races more frequently, I began to win the women’s field. As I started to win more races, journalists found interest in me. Eventually, I started getting contacted by people who were interested in making films about the “new” craze of ultra-racing and my identity as a Native woman competing in a white-male-dominated sport. As I had conversations with these folk, my gut told me to say “no” to filmed race efforts even though my ego told me to say “yes.” I turned down several film project opportunities and set out to understand why I said no to them, why ultra-racing felt sacred to me, and further, how was I supposed to be authentically my whole Indigenous self. Because, back then, as far as I understood, a bike race was no place to practice my Indigenous spirituality. I set out for an ultra-race with a big goal. This time, I asked myself why am I so protective of my experience during an ultra-race?
It took a few days for me to realize, but before I crossed the finish line, I’d come to understand that racing my bike helped guide my spirit in a similar way that the sweat lodge and other ceremonies had. In races that followed this epiphany, I’d start doing things that made me feel like the bike space was a sacred space.
In 2019, I swapped out my shorts for a skort towards the end of the Tour Divide. Most women wear skirts in our tribal ceremonial spaces. I started to wear my medicine pouch instead of stuffing it into my pack. I began to adorn my bike with bits of ribbon. I started to wear jewelry crafted by other Native people. I started sporting beadwork that carried deep meaning for me. I asked Industry Nine to build me wheels representing the medicine wheel, with red, yellow, black, and silver spokes. I started to smudge my bike, and before long, bike racing became the most significant ceremony I practiced regularly.
Before setting out on that race, I felt like something deeper within kept me from inviting someone to film an ultra-race effort, but I wasn’t sure what that thing was until I started looking inward and asking the manidoog. Back home, we don’t bring outsiders in to film our ceremonies, and in the most sacred of ceremonies, we don’t document anything at all. I finally understood; the ultra-race is ceremony for me.
It’s an event, where other people are invited, where we share a space (the race course) together. And all those people who show up and cross the finish line share a deep bond, despite spending little to no physical space together. We help each other (Ishkode shared his ketchup packets with me, Ana and I sent voice memo’s back-and-forth to each other during the loneliest parts of our AZT efforts), we try to move as quickly as each other; we use each other to dig deep within ourselves to become stronger people when we come out the other side. The power that comes from ceremonies is not in the way outsiders perceive them; instead, the power lies in the impact they have on the participant’s spirit and the way they use that impact to serve their relations.
It took me a long time to feel like I could speak about bike racing as ceremony. I had to develop the confidence to talk about Indigenous ceremony and build more confidence to practice it in non-Native spaces. I often struggled because of the imposter syndrome I used to feel about my indigeneity. I hope to see Native people practicing their culture in all spaces they occupy; this keeps me motivated to explore the continued evolution of our ceremonies.
It’s incredible, impressive, and even powerful to know that through all the eras of genocide imposed upon the Anishinaabeg, my relatives kept our ceremonies alive. Further, that those ceremonies have impacted me in such a way that I am able to bring indigeneity into the cycling space.
To fully comprehend how radical it is that Indian Ceremony is still practiced today, we need to understand the magnitude of the threat of assimilation for Native peoples. The phrase “broken treaties” remained a relatively abstract idea to me until I looked into building bike trails in my tribal community. I wondered how the University of Minnesota owned more than 3,000 contiguous acres of lush, beautiful forest in the heart of the Fond du Lac Reservation, despite language in The Treaty of La Pointe explicitly defining the bounds of our reservation. I wondered how the rest of the territory ceded in this treaty still belonged to the government despite breaking the terms of the agreement.
The United States was born out of the dust that settled in the midst of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In 1788, the Constitution was ratified. From this date forward, the United States was to use the Constitution as a document of guiding principles that would create a government at a nationhood level that did not put individual fundamental rights at risk. As settlers began encroaching on Indigenous territories, the U.S. began a push to move Indians out of those territories. For roughly 100 years, from the late 1700s to the late 1800s, the U.S. government ratified more than 370 treaties with Indian nations.
The significance of the U.S. government entering into treaty agreements with Indian nations lies in the definition of a treaty. Treaties are made between two sovereign nations in which mutual benefit is seen. Therefore, the U.S. government understood that Indian nations were sovereign entities. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution defines “treaties as the supreme law of the land.” The process of land cessions by Native nations was paramount for the acquisition of land by the U.S. In exchange for the ceded territories, the government offered annuities for a given period of time, while everything not explicitly ceded in the language of the Treaty was retained by the Indian nation entering into the treaty agreement. Treaties were an issue of rights given by Natives to the Federal government, not the other way around. All rights not explicitly surrendered were retained by Native people.
As ancestral land bases became encroached upon and more tribes ceded territories, traditional lifeways were dismantled. Indians became more and more reliant on the annuity agreements allotted to them in the terms of the treaties. As the government realized it could yield this imbalance of power to aid in the dissolution or assimilation of the Indian, withholding rations became a way to force Indians to abandon their lifeways entirely. As the Indian Wars erupted and continued, the government targeted a foundational aspect of the Indigenous life: ceremony.
The Code of Indian Offenses
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), formed in 1824, was housed in the Department of War until 1849 and then moved into the Department of the Interior where it still exists today. It was a revealing move, as those in the Department of the Interior were also tasked with managing America’s public lands. After the BIA was formed, dissemination of “The Indian Agent” to posts across the country was the status quo. Indian Agents were government officials charged with distributing annuities and reporting back to the Secretary of the Interior.
Henry M. Teller, the Secretary of the Interior from 1882 to 1885, wrote a letter seeking to criminalize Indian culture. In 1883, Hiram Price wrote The Code of Indian Offenses. It was a protocol for identifying and punishing people. In the broader interest of Indian assimilation, Natives were considered offenders for consulting with medicine men or participating in “feasts” and other religious practices. These laws were enforceable by withholding annuities and/or putting offenders in jail.
For more than thirty years, this oppressive behavior to urge Natives toward colonial lifeways continued. In 1928, Lewis Meriam and a research team were commissioned to conduct research seeking answers to The Problem of Indian Administration. The 847-page report was submitted to the Secretary of the Interior and criticized the Dawes Allotment Act for failing to turn Indians into farmers and further dispossessing them from their lands. Ultimately, the report found that in just about every avenue of government–Indian relations, the United States and its policies had made it nearly impossible for the Native to build a fulfilling Indigenous life. The findings in this report signaled a shift in Federal Indian Policy. In 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) was created. The IRA offered federally recognized Tribes the opportunity to draft constitutions and receive access to development programs within the BIA, signifying a massive shift away from the assimilationist approach of the previous 200 years. While the IRA halted the illegal dissolution of Indian lands, the IRA was certainly still flawed. Later that year, John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, issued a circular mandating that “[n]o interference with Indian religious life or ceremonial expression will…be tolerated”. This effectively decriminalized the practice of Indian Ceremony, but decriminalization does not mean legal.
I was gifted an eagle feather by my we-eh, and I was told to keep it with me in all of my travels. He warned me, however, to be careful if I am traveling in an airport or in places where authorities may not understand. He told me to make sure I have my Tribal I.D. with me any time I have my eagle feather. I am migizi clan, and my eagle feathers are some of the most sacred items I possess. During prohibition, Catholic churches were granted rights to procure wine for communion, but even today, there are federal laws regulating our use and possession of eagle feathers.
The United State’s history with Native children and boarding schools is a monstrous, painful one that aided in the suppression of Indigenous ceremony. Utilized as a way to quell culture and assimilate Natives, the federal government started an all-out attack on Native children that started in the late 1800s and carries on (albeit not as blatantly) today. Native children were removed from their tribal communities, prohibited from speaking their languages, eating their ancestral foods, and participating in ceremonies.
There are generations of Natives still impacted by this today. Multiple generations of our ancestors have been affected by these eras of assimilationist federal policy, it’s through sheer determination that any of our ceremonies still exist. Because these ceremonies exist to guide us on our paths through life, they help us build a foundation as contemporary Native people to explore new pathways of ceremony. Building off of what our ancestors created and preserved for us today ensures that the coming generations have access to culturally relevant ceremonies.
Native Narrative Shift
I don’t know if I am right. I don’t know if ultra-endurance bike racing is a space that offers Native people a pathway to finding their own versions of contemporary ceremony. I believe that sport is an avenue for this, though. When I look back on accounts of participants from Native coming-of-age ceremonies, the diaries of spiritual leaders, and tales from warriors, I can’t help but see fractions of their stories sprinkled along the race journey.
It’s in reclaiming our traditions and sacred teachings that our nations will endure. It’s in evolving and adapting that our ceremonies can become, and remain, accessible for all of our Native relatives, everywhere. It’s through telling these stories that we can prevent these atrocities from ever happening again.
My mother was just a child when AIRFA was finally enacted, making it no longer federally illegal for her to practice ceremony. That means everyone who would have taught her any of our ceremonial ways grew up in an era that criminalized Indigenous lifeways, yet, we still have access to our languages, ceremonies and spiritually significant foods today.
It’s led me to understand the responsibility we have as Native people to participate in ceremony in all spaces and identities we carry. As athletes, artists, and musicians, as politicians, farmers, and chefs, we benefit from the work our ancestors put in to preserve our ceremonies. We can honor them by accepting ceremony as a gift and an invitation to explore contemporary ceremonies. And as technology evolves, we can find meaningful ways to practice our cultural teachings with pride.
When I am out there, racing my heart out, I am honoring all the lives lived before me. I know that love is the reason I can even show up in the first place. My ancestors love me. I pray, I offer asema, I cry, I laugh, I dance, I sing, I’m silent, I speak our language, I let the manidoog know I am still here. In every space where I do anything, I do it as the Anishinaabeg did before me.
I’m reminding them that we are still here, doing as the Anishinaabeg always have. If that’s not ceremony, then I don’t know what is…
Death by Civilization an article by Mary Annette Pember
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