This past week I was in northern California conducting interviews and doing research on a free exercise of religion Supreme Court case. In addition to working in Los Angeles to assist in constitutional literacy programs and service-learning practices in public schools, I have also used my BIPI fellowship to further my research of one of the most important, yet little known, free exercise of religion Supreme Court cases.
In 1988, three northern Californian Native American tribes argued that a proposed U.S. Forest Service road construction and logging plan would trample sacred burial grounds and also eviscerate the tribes’ most significant religious practices. The proposed plan would essentially eliminate the practice of Indian tribal faiths. The Supreme Court, however, ruled on behalf of the Forest Service.
So what happened after the case? Were the religions eliminated? Did the faiths evolve in order to survive (are they even adaptable faiths in the first place)? Over twenty years after the Supreme Court ruling, little research has been done to follow up on the aftermath of Lyng v. N.I.C.P.A.
Over the past three months, I have read as much as possible concerning the Lyng case. I have plowed through the majority and dissenting opinions of the case. I have read the transcripts of oral arguments in front of the Supreme Court, and I have read articles in federal Indian law journals concerning the precedents of the case. In addition, I have spoken with tribesmen and attorneys who were parties in the 30 year legal struggle.
My trip to northern California--a 16 hour bus ride--was motivated by my effort to better understand the territory at issue in the case and also to conduct interviews with Native American chiefs who were active in the legal proceedings. My trip was worth the multi-hour transport: I unearthed invaluable information from the interviewees and also from the local Native American library, which housed government documents concerning the case.