The root of these feelings of disappointment and outrage are ones rooted in the ignorance of the people like Muschietti who so quickly co-opt cultures they know and care nothing about. It would be easy, then, to say that this is a Hollywood problem, one that only the film industry needs to reckon with. But that would be a worse lie than the one told in IT: Chapter Two. The truth is, Native people in this country have never had their religions respected, by the film studios, by the government, or by the people they welcomed onto their land.
In 1714, when the English were attempting to colonize what is now known as Virginia, my people, the Saponi (now the Sappony) were a small band. We had our own religion, our own language, our own way of living. We were distinctly Saponi, in the same way that the Cherokee were distinctly Cherokee and the Iroquois were distinctly Iroquois. All separate cultures coexisting in communities established by our ancestors. I imagine it was a beautiful thing.
But, according to John Kincheloe’s 2019 book, Rediscovering Christanna: Native Worlds and Governor Spotswood’s Fort, that all changed from 1714 to 1717. The Saponi were forced to enter Fort Christanna, run by Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood, or face genocide. Once they had us within the walls of the camp, the English government and their religious institutions wiped our slate clean. They Christianized us. They forced us to speak English and discard our language. They took in the children and taught them the old ways were wrong and their new way was right. Within two decades, the Saponi way as we knew it was dangling by a thread, melding with the colonizer’s culture in a mix that will ring familiar to many Southern Native bands.
My tribe survived. Still staking out the land in southern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, the majority of our tribal members are now predominantly some form of Southern Baptist, a direct result of what the English government sought some 300 years ago. We have no fluent speakers remaining, though through our annual youth camp we have slowly begun to reclaim the Tutelo-Saponi language word by word.
The most sobering aspect of this portion of the Sappony story is not that it is unique but that it is near-universal among smaller tribes. Across the continent, cultures that had thrived for millenia were, in an instant, very nearly dashed from existence. While the colonizers started this cultural genocide, the American government they formed merely continued and expedited the process. Only in the past half-century has the country even attempted to right this wrong.
By 1978, the United States federal government had been in the genocide business, cultural and physical, for two centuries. In the 20th Century version, federal boarding schools, often tied to religious institutions, snapped up Native kids, indoctrinating them with their purportedly superior American ideals. They cut their hair and burned their old clothes, toys, and religious items. As it would soon do to the land and its natural resources, the U.S. attempted to extract every last ounce of culture from an entire people. The idea was to take Native children who were still developing their sense of self, and forcibly make them forget how to pray, how to speak their own language—how to be Native. And for too long, the government proceeded largely unimpeded.
Forty-one years ago, to little fanfare from the American public or media, a bill was passed with Native people in mind, and for once, it wasn’t just about taking something from them. The law was the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Approved by Congress and signed by President Jimmy Carter two months before the Indian Child Welfare Act, the legislation marked a rash of actions in the 1970s by U.S. politicians, starting with Richard Nixon, that served as a monumental shift in the federal government’s policy in relation to the Indigenous nations with which it shared its borders.
The Religious Freedom Act was drafted with this history in mind. Citing the way these actions violated the First Amendment, Congress sought to put an end to forced assimilation policies. For the Native nations who had been forced to hide their beliefs, it was a chance for a new start out in the open. They could finally again worship their gods and speak their languages without looking over their shoulder. Or at least that was the idea.