The Navajo Nation’s Spiritual Battle for the Moon
It’s time for the US government to stop its unconstitutional preference for Native American religion.
About the Author
Elizabeth Weiss is a professor of anthropology at San José State University, a faculty fellow at Heterodox Academy's Center for Academic Pluralism, and a National Association of Scholars board member. Elizabeth is the co-author (with James W. Springer) of Repatriation and Erasing the Past (2020). Find out more at her website, and follow her on X at @eweissunburied.
Recently, the Navajo Nation has embarked on a mission to stop flights to the moon, especially those intending to deposit human cremated remains (commonly referred to as “cremains”). The Navajo Nation regards the moon as sacred, arguing that depositing cremains—or any objects, for that matter—constitutes an act of desecration. This controversy centers around the Peregrine Mission 1, a NASA-sponsored expedition to the moon. Two private companies, Celestis and Elysium Space, plan to use this mission to transport the cremains of individuals who opted for a lunar resting place.
Upon receiving a letter from Buu Nygren, the Navajo Nation’s President, the White House convened a meeting to hear their objections to those flight plans. Although the White House correctly concluded that the government did not have the authority to stop the flight or hinder the private companies’ plans, one may wonder why these religious concerns of the Navajo Nation were ever seriously considered in the first place. Typically, the U.S. government refrains from interfering in scenarios where religious beliefs are at stake, as evidenced by the longstanding conflict between fundamentalist Christian creationists and the teaching of evolution in schools.
Yet, the case appears different when it involves Native American traditional religions—a loosely defined amalgamation of beliefs, often intertwined with Christian elements, and lacking formal sacred texts. In these instances, the US government has been bending the First Amendment of the Constitution so greatly that it is bound to snap.
The First Amendment of the US Constitution clearly states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This means that the federal government should be neutral towards all religions, avoiding favoritism to any denomination. Although the U.S. Government generally avoids supporting or discriminating against specific religions, as demonstrated by the diverse holiday displays ranging from nativity scenes to the Satanic Temple altar in Iowa, traditional Native American religions have been the exception to this strict adherence to the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
This exception is evident in NASA’s collaboration with the Navajo. In NASA’s 108-page education guide, “Story of the Stars,” intended for “Classrooms and Community-Based Educational Events,” Navajo religious beliefs are treated as being of equal importance to NASA’s scientific research. On page 3, the guide contains a statement from the Navajo: “We are the Holy People of the Earth. We are created and placed between our Mother Earth and Father Sky.” Further evidence of religious support in this guide is a story stating, “After the creation of the Earth, sky, and the atmosphere, the Holy people realized the whole university was entirely dark.” It is interspersed with tales of sacred directions, seasons, beliefs, and rules of life. Notably, in the acknowledgements, Leland Anthony Jr. is listed as the project’s “spiritual advisor.”
Given this content on NASA’s website, it’s hardly surprising that the White House would hastily convene a meeting with the Navajo Nation to consider the validity of objections to moon flights. However, these considerations favor one religion and teach one religion, thereby violating the US Constitution.
Another example of the Federal government showing a denominational preference appears in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Enacted in 1990, NAGPRA aids in the repatriation and reburial of human remains and artifacts deemed “sacred,” or as grave goods, or objects of cultural patrimony. A specific instance of this favoratism within NAGPRA is the requirement that at least 2 of the 7 individuals on the review committees “must be traditional Indian religious leaders.” Additionally, each NAGPRA meeting begins and ends with a “traditional Indian prayer.” For example, Armand Minthorn’s prayer at the January 5, 2023 meeting started with, “Today, as we come together, we thank our Creator for our life, our family, and our friends. And we ask our Creator today to give us strength and courage to go on and go forward.”
Perhaps most troubling is the acceptance of Native American religious creation myths as evidence for present day tribal affiliation to past populations. These tales have been leveraged to empty museums and universities of research collections–collections that might otherwise contribute to advancements in forensic identification techniques, aiding today’s Native American crime victims.
Final examples of the US government supporting Native American religions involve discriminatory practices based on sex. For instance, at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, religious traditions led Inuit elders to forbid female archaeologists from handling certain artifacts. Similarly, when the California Department of Transportation archaeologists collaborated with the Kashaya Pomo tribe, the tribe’s religious protocols dictated that menstruating women be isolated, prohibited from conducting fieldwork, kept away from Native elders, and forbidden from talking about spiritual topics!
It is time for the US government to stop its unconstitutional denominational preference of Native American religions. Stopping these preferences would uphold the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, protect scientific endeavors, and prevent discriminatory practices.
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