Spirit and Respect: Indigenous Leaders Explore the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief

“It is not the form of what we do and how we do it, but the essence that matters. The real importance is in our relationships, our humility, our love and our connection.” 

Laulani Teale offered this crucial observation during Freedom to Be: Perspectives on the 2022 UN Report on Indigenous Peoples and the Concept of Freedom of Religion or Belief, a discussion organized by Center for Earth Ethics on December 6. The virtual session, co-sponsored by Union Theological Seminary, the American Indian Law Alliance and the United Confederation of Taino People, was part of an ongoing Freedom to Be series exploring the 2022 report on the status of freedom of religion or belief among Indigenous communities by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. 

The panelists were Pavel Sulyandziga of the Udege people in Russia, Laulani Teale of the Kanaka Maoli people in Hawai’i, and Åsa Larsson Blind of the Sámi Peoples in Sweden. Roberto Múkaro Borrero, chief of the Guainía Taíno Tribe and strategic advisor to CEE, moderated. CEE Executive Director Karenna Gore introduced and closed the program.

Borrero opened by expanding on a key insight of the Special Rapporteur’s report, namely the intricacies and complexities of the categories of religion and spirituality in relation to Indigenous lifeways. Unlike many Western religions, Indigenous spiritualities are deeply interwoven with cultural traditions and the land itself, rather than being distinct or discrete cultural spheres. Indigenous spirituality “is so much embedded that we might not even ourselves sometimes recognize it as being a manifestation of our spirituality,” said Larsson Blind, “It’s how we see the world and how we approach our surroundings.” 

Pavel Sulyandziga echoed this sentiment. Indigenous spiritual traditions are “very vast, and actually go beyond how we understand the word ‘religion’ today.” As a result, Indigenous spiritualities are often not given the legal protections afforded to the category of “religion.” 

This is especially true when it comes to protecting sacred sites, which for many Indigenous communities include the land itself. Each panelist shared examples from their respective communities of ways in which their sacred sites had been disrespected and desecrated, often by governmental agencies or extractive industries, with little or no legal recourse. 

Mother Earth is screaming at us now: ‘Stop, take a step back. You have overused resources for so long.’

Traditional ways of protecting sacred sites have not only served a “religious” function for Indigenous communities, but have also aided in safeguarding natural systems that support human and non-human life. Accordingly, the desecration of sacred sites often results in grave disruptions not only to sacred ways of life but also to ecosystems. 

Laulani Teale spoke to this dynamic in reflecting on the Lahaina fires of August 2023. Although on one level, this disaster was fueled by climate change interacting with land mismanagement to create a “tinder-box” of dry non-native grasses, there were much deeper spiritual dynamics at play. This comes down to the fact that “Lahaina is traditionally a sacred wetland” and “the home to a freshwater deity”— Kihawahine. The waters of this sacred wetland were diverted to “fuel golf courses and hotels,” and the fires that resulted were a direct result of the “massive exploitation and desecration of [Kihawahine’s] sacred waters.”

Larsson Blind highlighted Indigenous-led resistance to a proposed solar radiation geoengineering testing site in Sámi territories. The Sámi opposed this project not just because of the effect that this testing would have on local ecologies. On a deeper level, it was an indictment of the assumptions underlying such efforts, namely that “humans are above nature, and are entitled to do as they please, and that they can alter anything to suit modern society.” This is fundamentally the ethos that “has gotten us into the climate crisis and has gotten us into the biodiversity crisis,” she said.

Underpinning all of the comments is the clear schism between Indigenous peoples and the ambitions of states. Pavel Sulyandziga described the Udege people’s long battle to reclaim and protect their traditional homelands of taiga forest in the Bikin River Valley from the Russian government. This effort was ultimately victorious, but there was an “absurd” irony in the fact that money from a foreign bank was used to pay for the Udege buying their land back from Russia for the purpose of carbon sequestration. 

Although each speaker came from a vastly different context, a powerful throughline emerged: Indigenous spiritualities are not relics of the past, but vital, living traditions that hold the key to ensuring the continued survival of humanity and the species with which we share the planet. According to Laulani Teale, “these easily dismissed practices, deities, and other religious and spiritual elements are at the key of turning the tide for humanity, for the care of the earth, for the balance of land, people, animals, plants, waters, all that is sacred, all that is life.”