To the zealous security guards at the Denver airport, the handful of pine needles they confiscated from Henry Old Horn in a drug search was a "suspicious substance." To the young Indian, the needles were essential to the daily purification rite he practiced as a devout follower of the traditional Crow Religion.
Every time the Indians of the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico went to worship at Blue Lake, they found their scared shrine littered with beer cans and other debris. It took the tribe 64 years of battling government red tape to reclaim the lake, in their religion is as scared as the Wailing Wall is to Jews, from the Forest Service.
Certain portions of the sacred Sun Dance of the Great Plains Indians have been banned because authoritites have perceived them - primarily those portions dealing with fertility - to be sinful.
Such misinterpretation, complained Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.D.) Thursday, "is analogous to attributing the taking of communion to cannibalism."
Abourezk made his remarks as he introduced legislation aimed at making sure First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom include the religious practices of American Indians, native Alaskans and Hawaiians.
The bill would guarantee native Americans "access to [sacred] sites, use the possession of sacred objects and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites."
Indian leaders who gathered for the introduction of the bill acknowledge that their religious rights often get trampled out of ignorance or lack of sensitivity on the part of officials who are zealously enforcing other laws.
Similarly, said Barney Old Coyote, an urbane and articulate retired civil servant from Montana, the Indians' use of eagle feathers has run afoul of regulations to protect endangered species.
"Indians have been using eagle feathers in their worship and culture and lifestyle for centuries, and there was never a shortage of eagles until the [white] farmers and hunters began killing and poisoning them," he said.
But when conservationists found out that the species was endangered, he continued, "they looked around and saw an Indian in possession of an eagle feather, so they punished the Indian."
Old Coyote said Indian leaders are "hopeful the resolution will begin to sensitze enforcement agencies" to the religious convictions of Indians.