Updated May 1, 1995
The following is a series of discussions concerning the teaching of Indian religions outside of their own cultural context.
From: Ron Grimes, U Colorado Boulder (at the time)
Subj: Teach. Nat. Am. Rel.
I am submitting this query simultaneously to two electronic discussion groups–one on religious studies, the other on Native American issues–to invite reflection on three questions:
1. Should or should not European Americans be teaching courses on Native American religions?
2. If we should not, why not, and what would be the results of our deferral?
3. If we should, how best can we proceed?
I am giving much thought these days to the question of cultural imperialism, especially in two of its forms, namely, religious and academic imperialism. While on leave, I have been asked by the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, to teach a very large, publicly visible introductory course on Native American religions.
Vine Deloria teaches here. So does Sam Gill. So does Ward Churchill. So does Deward Walker. Even without David Carrasco, soon on his way to Princeton, this is an sizeable concentration of authorities, of various sorts, on indigenous cultures, politics, law, and religions. Ordinarily, I teach courses on indigenous religions at Wilfrid Laurier, a small Canadian university where I can do what I do in relative obscurity, that is, at considerable remove from indigenous populations of the American Southwest, where I do most of my field work, and at a considerable remove from high-profile scholars whose names are regularly associated with Native American studies.
Currently this campus is the locus of a highly charged stand-off that no one talks much about. In part the issue has to do with academic, religious, and cultural turf. It does not have to do simply with who is right or wrong on a given issue, but who ought to be speaking about such issues. Anyone who has read Churchill’s critique of Gill’s _Mother Earth_ or heard Deloria’s reflections on that book knows there are good reasons for Euroamerican scholars not to rush in, fools, where angels fear to tread.
In fact, some are rushing in the other direction: out. I know of several instances in which white male colleagues are giving up longstanding research and teaching commitments to Native American, Black, or feminist religion. For some, their exiting is an ethical matter: make room for the oppressed, don’t speak about what you are not, and so on. For others, it is a matter of feeling embattled or unappreciated. Exiting white guys feel they will never get respect or credit for attending to such matters. Some may find this minor exodus an occasion for joy. I do not.
I have to ask myself–as a colleague asked me yesterday after seeing the video “Gathering Up Again: Fiesta in Santa Fe”–“Shouldn’t you (I think he meant “we”) just abandon such topics (in this case, the conflicts among Native American, Hispanic American, and Anglo American) religious traditions? Isn’t scholarship, like art, he said, just another way of appropriation, just another form of cultural imperialism? Why do you keep teaching on the topic of indigenous religion? This was the question of a non-native colleague; native ones are raising the question as well. The notion of abandoning academic turf (as if it were bad land) and giving it back to “the natives” (as if it were a gift we previously owned) seems to me a piece of bad choreography to which we have danced several times before. So here I am blowing a whistle of some sort.
The question of cultural imperialism is especially acute when the subject matter is religion rather than, say, law, economics, or politics. Religion is, after all, supposed to be a protected domain. We religion scholars ought not be desecrating what we study. In _Ritual Criticism_ and elsewhere I have written about the problem of desecration especially as it occurs when indigenous cemeteries are excavated or sacred objects put on display in museums. But the questions I must ask myself are no different from those I have put to archaeologists and curators. Does teaching about religions indigenous to the Americas desecrate them?
I have, of course, violated sacred domains. Reared a cowboy American Protestant in the Southwest, I could hardly have done otherwise. I violated the sanctity of my grandmother’s religion when I began to study it critically. Had I not done so I would still believe that Indians, Blacks, Catholics, and Communists are all in league with the devil. So I cannot say that I regret my decisions to talk religion with religious studies teachers (and not just my grandmother) and to sit among Buddhists rather than Methodists.
But, of course, it is altogether a different matter when the object of study is somebody else’s religion. In religious studies we like to feel that we honor a religious tradition by taking it seriously enough to teach. The very act of paying attention is, or ought to be, a way of valuing. So what are we to make of the accusation that our teaching of religions, especially Native American ones (particularly those forced by historic necessity into linking sanctity with secrecy), is really a way of appropriating or desecrating? Our first line of defense is that we teaching ABOUT religion; we do not teach religion. Unlike “those” new-ager wannabes in California, “we” responsible scholars do not put on Plains garb or do the Santo Domingo Corn Dance. But we do read the ethnographies (some of them distorted, some of them in violation of confidences) and contemplate the museum objects (some of them stolen, some of them falsely named and ritually underfed). We may not be guilty for the sins of our forbears, but we certainly make intellectual capital on the basis of their colonial activities.
An anthropologist friend said to me a while back, “Grimes, if we took all the stuff you say seriously, we’d be paralyzed–like the proverbial centipede suddenly made aware of his own legs and completely immobilized by that fact. You would paralyze us with self-consciousness or guilt.” I said I thought that was probably right but that being stilled and silenced for a while might not be a bad thing. He accused me of being a Buddhist.
But what form, I had to ask myself later, should this immobility and silence take? Should we white folks give up teaching about Native American religions, leaving it to those who can teach it from their own hearts and traditions? (In many cases such given-up courses would not be taught, because there are not yet many native Ph.D.s in religious studies.) I can hear the religiologists object, “Surely you don’t think that only Hindus can teach Hinduism, only Muslims, Islam,” etc., etc.
One unspoken subtext of this response is this: Thinking such a thing would surely put us out of business. If this were the only motive for the objection, I’d say, “Let’s go out of business.” But another subtext–one with which I am in more fundamental sympathy–is the belief that all kinds of academic study require the sympathetic exercise of imagination. If we taught ONLY that which we embodied by virtue of our upbringing, gender, class, ethnicity, etc., we would all be reduced to autobiographical confession or mere reiteration of our traditions. I’d be teaching Grandma’s peculiar brand of frontier Methodism, which would certainly insist on the obvious superiority of “my kind.”
So I have not chosen to exit. I continue to write and teach about religious practices of groups I do not embody. Some of them do not object to such study, but others do. Scholarship, I have come to believe, necessarily incurs guilt. We should not pretend otherwise. Scholarship, though it can be a kind of honoring, is also a kind of hunting as well. So we should do it with great care–identifying our fates with the fate of what we hunt, taking only what we really need for survival, and hedging our activities with considerable prayer. I dislike the hunting analogy.
I am, of course, borrowing it because in the hunting tradition I grew up with we did it for sport. I invoke the hunting analogy as a way of reminding our(white)selves of the violence of our actions even when we intend to be nonviolent. Though we may not experience scholarship as violent, thus not a form of hunting, we are certainly being told that others experience our study as violation. We need to pause to consider this charge, because some of our colleagues, students, and friends are making it. So the question is not, “What is the nonviolent way to study religion?” but “What is the least violent way to do it?”
Once in a brief public discussion with Vine Deloria at the American Academy of Religion I tried to press him (because I thought this was what he was implying) to say forthrightly that he thought white scholars should not study or teach Native American religions. He pulled up short of taking such a position. Instead, he said that European American scholarship should content itself with description but forego interpretation. I objected that description was already interpretation. Even if it weren’t, I said, insofar as descriptions become the basis of interpretation, a white person’s description was still just that, a point of view. Did he really think a Native interpretation based on a non-Native description would be of any value?
We never did finish the discussion. We became circumspect, wry, and humorous with one another, because it was a tough topic. But the bigger question, which this little scene illustrated, continues: What are the limits and ethics that bear on the teaching of Native American religions by non- natives in public institutions? We all know that anyone who teaches anything should be qualified, but what constitutes qualification in this instance? Is ethnicity itself one of the qualifications? I am not asking a legal question such much as an ethical and a methodological question.
I suspect that we white male scholars will never get it quite right when we either describe or interpret things Black, things female, things Native American. The list could go on; it might even include ourselves as objects of study. One can draw several different kinds of conclusions from this observation: we should stop trying; we should try harder and harder–with effort we will get it right; we should do what we do with humility and open ears.
I could not pursue the first option without abandoning friends. I am still too much a Protestant to believe in the second. So I prefer the last conclusion. And I have to ask what it might mean to teach a course on Native American religions on this premise?
First, it might mean that we do not try to teach courses directly on Native American religions as such but rather on the encounter between religio-cultural traditions. When I first went to Santa Fe to do fieldwork, an anthropologist (not Victor Turner, who had better sense) asked me why I wasn’t going to study the Pueblos. I quipped, “Because the Pueblos are studying the Pueblos” (I had Alfonso Ortiz in mind). I decided to work on the Santa Fe fiesta because that was where “my kind” was encountering “other kinds.” I had both a responsibility and a right to study it because my ethnic group was partly responsible for making it the Gordian knot that it is. The problem with this approach is that it forces Native American traditions to share the stage.
Second, it might mean that we require readings that emphasize indigenous voices. One way to do this would be to incorporate autobiographical material and then deal with all the theoretical issues that surround the model (indigenous “informant” / white “editor”) that produced most of these works. A problem with this model is that Anglo American scholars write most of the theories that would frame the discussion.
Third, it might mean focusing on controversies and conflicts that marks the study of indigenous religions (e.g., the _Black Elk Speaks_ controversy, the _Mother Earth_ controversy, the Castaneda-Lynn Andrews-Jamake Highwater phenomenon, the Frank-Waters-and-the-Hopi controversy, etc.). The obvious problem here is focusing on aberrations and missing what is central to indigenous traditions. Another is finding sufficient material written by Indians to balance the debates.
A fourth possibility is a course, one quarter of which introduces the general issues and 3/4 of which concentrates on a specific indigenous people and then perhaps even on a specific individual (as represented by an autobiography). I have done this and typically focus on the Southwest. One can easily be torn between the really dated ethnographies that directly describe rites and retell sacred stories and the contemporary fictional works (Silko, Momaday, Allen, etc.) which are more circumspect. What are the respective virtues and liabilities of these two kinds of literature as windows on the sacred–the one supposedly factual but which, for lack of understanding and meaningful context, necessarily falsifies; the other fictional and therefore not necessarily bound to reflect actual practice?
I am not entirely happy with any of these ways, but I have given up teaching the kind of survey that uses collections by Hultkrantz, Brown, and others. I find these works largely naive about issues of appropriation and cultural imperialism. In addition, no matter how often you say to students, “It’s Native American religionS, not Native American religion,” the degree of abstraction and generalization in such surveys is so high that the force of the course’s structure presses students in the direction of overgeneralization and stereotype. (The structure of a course always teaches more profoundly than its content does.)
I have also used Beck and Walters’ _The Sacred_, a very peculiar kind of introduction to religion via Native traditions. It presents itself as a collaborative Indian/White work and precipitates interesting questions about the relations of one group (the Dine) and other indigenous traditions, as well as questions about how to distinguish a religious book from a book about religions. Before I would use it again, I would want to know much more about the collaborative process that it seems to imply between the two women who wrote it and between authors and the Native people apparently consulted in its writing. The scholarly folklore has it that the book is less genuinely collaborative that it appears.
I end by repeating my three original questions and asking for your reflections on them:
1. Should or should not we European Americans be teaching courses on Native American religions?
2. If we should not, why not, and what would be the results of our refusal?
3. If we should, how best can we proceed?
Temporary address–through August 15, 1993: Ron Grimes, Department of Religious Studies University of Colorado Boulder, CO, USA 80309-0292 Office phone: (303)492-7095 FAX: (303)492-4416 Internet: email@example.com
Original Sender: GRIMES RONALD L
Mailing List: NATCHAT (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A note from Ron Grimes: My colleague Vine Deloria, Jr., has asked me to post this response to the earlier queries on the teaching of Native American religions:
1. On Teaching Native American Religions – Response to Ron Grimes questions to three electronic discussion groups. I would like to preface my response to Ron Grimes by citing several instances of conflict between American Indians and scholars which I hope will provide background for the discussion of these questions.
In the mid-sixties, a number of anthropological studies were cited by attorneys for the state of Washington to prove the non- existence or disappearance of an Indian tribe as a means of canceling fishing rights under treaties. More recently several anthropologists testified in the Yellow Thunder case in South Dakota that the Sioux only arrived at the Black Hills a decade before the whites and therefore could not be said to have “owned” the area. This testimony was rebutted by the Rosebud Sioux star knowledge people who showed that the Sioux constellations were over certain points in the Black Hills as early as 1500 B.C.
I recently received a letter from Paul Martin, a scholar at the University of Arizona, stating his chagrin at the realization that his theory – which purports to explain the extinction of big game animals – giant sloth’s, saber-toothed tigers, mammoths, dire wolves, etc., as the result of big game hunters – Indians – arriving from Asia. His theory is not a mainstream theory by any means, but it is continually cited by anti-Indian forces and columnists as evidence that Indians had no sense of the ecological nature of the physical world and therefore should not, in the modern sense, have any treaty fishing rights – as if the alleged big game hunters of 12,000 B.C. were simply the grandfathers of living Indians.
Sam Gill’s theory of “Mother Earth” can be used, and indeed may have already been used, by clods who want to use the authority of scholarship for wholly political purposes. Indeed, in teaching here for three years I have frequently had students tell me that NONE of the speeches or ideas that are generally attributed to Indians, and in many cases Sioux Indians, are not actually the thoughts or ideas of Sioux Indians but of the whites who transcribed or recorded them, leaving the Sioux as inarticulate savages while elevating their white companions to classic poets and philosophers.
The fact that scholarly articles on racial and ethnic minority groups are frequently used for wholly partisan political purposes should not have escaped the attention of white scholars, and to pretend that what is happening in the academy has no impact on the lives of real people in the world outside the academy is just nonsense. In America, with its rampant capitalism and its extreme individualism and competition, EVERYTHING IS POLITICAL. To have Sam Gill complain that Ward Churchill and I have now politicized the discussion of “Mother Earth” is absurd. The moment Sam finished the article/book and submitted it for consideration by others it became a political instrument – to be used by fools and wise men alike.
Then to read from some of the discussion feedback to Ron that some of you consider yourselves objective scholars who handle the subject of religion in a neutral and peer-approved manner seems to me disingenuous at best and perhaps even tongue- in-cheek dishonest.
So we should admit that everything we do has political implications in the world outside our walls – the REAL world as it were.
We then have the problem of exactly what studying and teaching about religion means. My impression is that the scholarly tradition has created a dreadful imbalance in the minds of people who teach religion. A year ago when I attended the AAR in Kansas City, I was astounded to see a lobby filled with people who taught religion but obviously had no real personal emotional interest in it – I had just as well been at a bar association meeting and would have preferred to have attended a General Motors “Mr. Goodwrench” convention where I would at least hear smutty jokes occasionally.
Which is to say – there appears to be no fine line of distinction between the religious life of the average citizen and the idea of scholars that these kinds of emotions can be reduced to formulas and paradigms without people taking offense at the intrusion. And here I am speaking of all people and not simply minority groups. Surveying recent spectacular events in Christianity–the standoff in Wacko, Texas, Jim Jones and Jonestown, and Oral Roberts telling us that God was extorting millions of dollars from him–I am led to believe that in Christianity, and perhaps in the major world religions (except Islam perhaps) people are so filled with doctrine and so starved for religious experience that they can’t tell if their private emotional lives are being invaded or not – thus they can sit and watch scholars dissecting their religious lives without the slightest feeling of insult.
But the problem is that mainstream religions do not get the attention from scholars that minority religions do. That is to say, we do not see crowds of people trying to get close to the Catholic priest or rabbi to become disciples, to find out what’s in the incense pot, or to be commissioned as religious office holders in the various denominations. Additionally, we do not see outmoded and basically insulting categories of analysis applied to the mainstream religions. The Presbyterians and Reformed Jews are not described as “cults”, and the function of religion in “civilized society” is not seen as a primitive and clumsy effort to relate to higher powers. In short, the mainstream is never bothered by the academic world or is treated with the utmost respect. Black gangs in LA are described in negative terms, but what about our local student stompers at Fairview High School? In the exotic mountain Disneyland of Boulder we are told these hoodlums need entertainment to keep them from decimating our college student population, not a hint that they represent the inherent violence of the white majority.
My personal complaint about scholars who study Native Religions is that they are incredibly smug about the little they do know, that a good many of them fight zealously to protect their reputations as experts, and that they rush non-Indian frameworks of analysis into the discussion as soon as possible in order to control the definitions of what is being said and thought about regarding Native religions – but then perhaps I may just have run into a bad crowd of people over the course of 60 years.
To get to the point of Ron’s questions.
1. Should or should not European Americans be teaching courses on Native American religions.
I see nothing wrong with it but I personally wish they would not do so. The reason is that unless and until religious studies, as well as every other social science, adopts new language and a new orientation – unless EuroAmericans grow up about what it is they think they know, they will simply continue to perpetuate misconceptions and misperceptions – EVERY social science we have today needs to have a RESTATEMENT of basic concepts and intellectual framework that accepts humanity as it is and does not orient itself toward the proposition that western civilization is necessarily the highest expression of human striving. True, we do have microwave popcorn; but we are also in great danger of extinguishing life on this planet, so industrial success does not provide the sole criterion of truth.
2. If we should not, why not, and what would be the results of our deferral?
With the multiplicity of “New Age” interest and alleged representation of tribal religions it is essential that teaching Native religions in some form, and in spite of criticism, be continued so that there will be some systematic exposition of the basic framework of the religion – provided new ways of arranging and articulating the religion are found – can be used to demonstrate a more respectful attitude than what we currently find on the New Age circuit. Boulder, for example, has more self-appointed Oglala Sioux non-Indian pipe carriers than the whole Pine Ridge Reservation and one could perhaps throw Rosebud into the mix.
We cannot seem to stop this proliferation because many Sioux at Pine Ridge, or originally from Pine Ridge, are themselves out on the circuit selling spiritual snake-oil. I doubt if we can ever get the exotic out of the exposition of Plains religion, and even if what we teach is dull and analytical, deliberately avoiding the exotic, we may not have done enough and we will deserve criticism. But we should at least pretend that what is happening in Indian ceremonies is equal to what is taking place in other religions and that they are not a prior, more superstitious stage of religion.
3. If we should, how best can we proceed?
I would advocate that we look seriously at the basic data and try to find new ways of presenting the materials – find a new framework in which to examine Native religions.
For some time in the past the effort was to try and discover if and whether the Indians had arrived at the concept of a creator and/or monotheistic religion (Schmidt’s effort to show a “High God” in North American Native religions is characteristic of this phase). This effort, in my opinion, was fruitless and simply was a means of making Indian religion respectable enough that it could be fit into existing intellectual frameworks. For instance, James Walker’s re-arrangement of Sioux spiritual entities into a hierarchy of “gods” demonstrated again that Indian material could be placed in a Western European framework of interpretation.
But what are some of these tribal religions really saying? The idea of wakan, mana, orenda, etc., was the EXPERIENCE of personal energy within the physical universe and could not possibly have been the correlate of Middle Eastern ideas of deities. That is one of my main criticisms of Sam Gill’s Mother Earth venture. Sam keeps using the word “goddess.” I told Ward Churchill and George Tinker that Sam’s framework of interpretation or his selection of data, not Sam as a person, should be the points of attack. If people had listened carefully a century ago, or would really try to hear what Indian’s are talking about now, we could do away with the idea of “gods” – which is a Near Eastern concept – and get to the point that most tribal religions and ceremonies were efforts to achieve a balance with a physical universe inhabited by spiritual entities who were intimately connected to everything else in certain fundamental ways. So the interpretations of the Sun Dance, the Vision Quest, etc., should be seen as Indian versions of Universalist-Unitarian quests for deity, EXCEPT they represented emotional and not intellectual commitment.
* * * * * * * * * * *
In summary, I don’t see why non-Indians can not teach courses on Native religions, as long as they understand and accept the fact of modern American political life, and with the knowledge that they are intruding on the emotional commitments and experiences of a specific group of people who may not appreciate their efforts, and are willing to take the consequences.
— Vine Deloria, Jr., University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado.
My colleague, Sam Gill, read my statement about the teaching of Native American religions and asked me to post this response: It was Columbus Day, 1993, or so I choose to remember it, the five hundredth anniversary of the European discovery of America. It seemed a particularly fitting day for the announcement to my faculty colleagues of what I now call a rubric shift. After decades of identifying myself as a student of Native American religions, after the publication of numerous books and articles on this subject, after working to establish programs in Native American religions at Arizona State University and the University of Colorado, and before the publication of my DICTIONARY OF NATIVE AMERICAN MYTHOLOGY (co-authored), I had decided to stop describing what I do as the study of Native American religions. Though at the time I didn’t quite know what I wanted to call myself, I now see my rubric as the study of religion and culture. It is not that I no longer have interest in Native Americans, but that I want to add Australian Aboriginals, Indonesians, and others. It is also because I want to study ritual and religion and dance. But there are other reasons and these need to be explored as they relate to the issues that Ronald Grimes has recently raised.
I came to the University of Colorado about a decade ago and in time a number of students began to be attracted to our program to study Native American religions. Vine Deloria, Jr. and Ward Churchill complement Deward Walker and myself. Others here teach and do research related to Native Americans. The University of Colorado at Boulder has more resources to support the study of Native American religions than most institutions. With graduate students working with me and with this plethora of resources why would I ever want to shift from this area? I think the simple answer is that I found the area simply too politicized and that this politicization, in my view, serves ultimately to distract interest from Native American cultures. I found that my persistent efforts in the area continued to provide the object by which a few with basically political motives could progress toward the destruction of all genuine efforts to follow out the attempt to appreciate and understand those of other cultures.
I am not so naive as to fail to recognize that attempts to understand other peoples, other cultures, other religions, is often a guise, even unwittingly, for domination. Much of my research has been aimed at exposing these elements. However, to cease in this effort, to give up trying, is to accept an infinitely divided world, to promote a world without sensitivity and understanding, to resolve not to care about others or even about the nature of being human. I cannot accept this. It is death to humanity.
Over the years I have held steadfast in the efforts to proceed despite the difficulties of being a white male studying Native American religions. I have felt that there were boundaries to what an outsider can know. I have felt that there were areas off limits to my pursuit. Nonetheless, I believed that much could be known and that carefulness, attention to the details of specific cultural and historical materials, constant vigilance of my own suppositions and ways of interpretation could at least show, by example, how one might proceed. In teaching about Native American religions to thousands of students over the years, I believe that I have raised the consciousness of most, that I have dispelled simplistic and romantic images, that I have treated all Native Americans with dignity and care.
Graduate students come to Colorado to study Native American religions. Some are Native American. It doesn’t take long for all these students to learn that some who are, or claim to be, Indian hold little regard for me and other whites as students of Native American religions. Soon some students, usually Native Americans, express to others that my classes are too academic and are irrelevant to them. They simply want to study their own traditions without what appears to them to be useless and distracting academic trappings. Many other students, usually not Native American, find my teachings and research engaging. They appreciate that the academic approach, while often artificial and abstract, assures them as outsiders that they are not unwittingly entering a discourse of domination, that they are taking responsibility for their knowledge, that they are consistently sensitive and modest in their claims to knowledge. Though this is a local image, it is replicated in many other places and at other levels such as at meetings of the American Academy of Religion. However one looks at this situation, the result is division and the division tends to be along racial and cultural lines. The efforts to support and develop the academic study of Native American religions has been swept into a political arena that achieves misunderstanding, distrust, and division.
I am not shy of controversy. I can stand against the odds and hold to my convictions. However, what I perceive happening is that what I, or any other white male, do is largely regarded as irrelevant. Any work by a white scholar becomes for some politically powerful and visible Native Americans emblematic of the enemy. It matters not a bit what is done, how it is done, why it is done. All that matters is the cultural identity of the doer. That is, to my mind, racism, but it is a racism that is widely tolerated and welcomed by many who, I believe irresponsibly, permit political correctness to guide their minds and values. The perceived authority of even one falsely claiming to be Native American is almost absolute in contrast to the not-Native American scholar even if she/he advances modest highly qualified positions arrived at by decades of careful scholarship focused on extensive detail interpreted in the light of self-consciously selected theory.
So my decision to switch rubrics came when I found myself angered by some of my Native American colleagues, disappointed in some of my Native American students, dismayed by the flood of action motivated by superficial political correctness, and distracted from the study of Native American religions by the impossible attempt to justify what I was doing. I found myself forced to contribute to the antithesis of my goal. This is no way to carry on my work and to pursue one of my academic loves. I have other loves. In shifting rubrics I cease to be so easily used as a political emblem. The political agenda and climate will change as time passes.
I do not agree with Grimes that perhaps white scholars should limit their attention to the areas of encounter between religio- cultural traditions. Nor do I believe this attention should be limited to the study of the controversies that arise in this area. While I have often done both and while I think both are important, no scholar ought eliminate from her/his purview, on the principle of the scholar’s cultural identity, the materials of specific Native American cultures. To do so would at once risk indulging ourselves in either guilt or superiority and deprive the study of the history of religions. This approach would also suggest that all persons who could identify themselves as Native American are equally capable and qualified to study all of the hundreds of Native American traditions. The ramifications of this would soon degenerate into absurdity.
Much more is at stake here than a local political battle over turf. What is threatened is the whole humanistic enterprise, one of the most promising foundations on which to build a peaceful understanding among the diverse peoples of the world. Despite all the criticism this academic enterprise receives, despite whatever political factions are engendered, despite the failures and limitations, I still know of no other enterprise dedicated to bringing together the fullest measure of the finest minds and bodies tempered by the constant fires of criticism to the sole task of understanding and appreciating all of the diverse peoples of the world. This endeavor must not be allowed to waiver or to perish. I believe the human future literally depends upon it. This goal is far greater, the effort much more honorable, than the political issues of a few. Though it appears ironical and perhaps even antithetical it is in service to this greater goal that, in my present circumstances, I found it necessary to turn a significant amount of my attention away from the study of Native American religions.
Sam D. Gill
Date: Tue, 11 May 1993 04:06:52 EDT Original Sender: Arlen Speights Mailing List: NATCHAT (email@example.com) It seemed that Ron Grimes’ original article about the area of Religious Studies exaggerated the problem of academic study and property–until I read Sam Gill’s statement. I think that any academic study that is based on the traditional European model, which is in turn based on the printing press and the commodification of knowledge, operates on the principle that knowledge is a kind of wealth that can be uncovered, worked for, purchased, and/or accrued at will. And like the printed book, the acquisition of knowledge has few clear elements of accountability to its source; in fact it tends to represent freedom to go and find more.
So any academic study will have a subtext of access and acquisition, whether it’s religious studies or fluid dynamics or music theory. Trying to make university study of Native beliefs and traditions fully accountable to the kind of ethics involved with a hegemonic relationship (which Gill seems to consider a negligible concern) just about evaporates the purpose of the course, and the desires of most of the students interested. Even holding the course of study responsible to the rather narrow institutional idea of “understanding and appreciation” greatly limits the scope of a canonical and serious academic pursuit.
However I think that it Is possible to present a course in which the subtext of academic study is revealed and given long, serious discussion, and the eager eye that Euro-Patriarchy turns to its non-white-male subject matter is a powerful example of the problems involved with blindly considering the sort of knowledge one gets in academe to be a manifest right of all humanity, as if we all had access to it. But it will go on, and a position vacated by a compassionate and truly informed scholar will be filled by someone.
Sam Gill seems to think that the controversy arises when people he considers to be less than viable authorities on Indian needs (almost as if he expects distilled procontact behavior to validate them) raise objections to his style of gathering cultural knowledge for commodification (and an eventual try at understanding). Since this style is standard fare in academic research that I’ve seen, the raising of political questions would seem out of the ordinary if the subject were Buddhism or feminism, which have strong elements of outreach and persuasion in some areas. But where there are strong elements of protection and solidarity in the objects of study, the acquiring of the knowledge only to hold it separate from oneself in academic fashion is worth questioning, politically or otherwise.
That Gill openly challenges Native scholars to prove their identity when questioning his activities kind of stinks, and being disappointed by his Native students for having reservations at doing that kind of study is equally suspicious. It belies the sensitivity that he claims to inform his teaching with. It sounds like he’s more concerned with fulfilling the rather elitist goal he calls the whole humanistic enterprise, which resembles the notion that if one nation holds enough military control over the world, there will be peace. For example, if we were to replace the words “academic” with “military,” “criticism” with “resistance”, and “appreciating” with “assimilating” in his paragraph below, it would make a fine declaration of empiricism rather than tolerance:
* Despite all
* the criticism this academic enterprise receives, despite whatever
* political factions are engendered, despite the failures and
* limitations, I still know of no other enterprise dedicated to
* bringing together the fullest measure of the finest minds and
* bodies tempered by the constant fires of criticism to the sole task
* of understanding and appreciating all of the diverse peoples of the
* world. This endeavor must not be allowed to waiver or to perish.
* I believe the human future literally depends upon it. This goal is
* far greater, the effort much more honorable, than the political
* issues of a few.
As it is it’s pretty clearly paternal, given the realities of access to education and to motivation to stay in a university environment. Maybe there should be classes on Sam Gill at Indian schools l-: Arlen
Date: Wed, 12 May 1993 21:45:55 -0600 Original Sender: GRIMES RONALD L
Mailing List: NATCHAT (firstname.lastname@example.org) Note: Deward Walker asked me to submit this as a reponse to my posting on the teaching of Native American religions. It is a synopsis of a presentation made at the conference, “Equal Justice before the Law,” University of Colorado, Boulder, April 7, 1990. Ron Grimes The Challenge of Native Americans to American Anthropology by Deward E. Walker, Jr. Professor Anthropology University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado I. Purpose To explore the changing place and role of Native Americans in the coming transformation of American Anthropology. II. Historical Background Foundations in 1880’s with Franz Boas, whose orientation was scientific and historical.
A. Most important early research was the Jessup Expedition (beginning of participant observation, use of language, etc.).
B. Most important teaching was at Columbia (Clark University earlier) where he trained the first generation of American anthropologists.
C. Founded the American Historical School which was very difficult from European model. Principal goal was to describe what was thought to be the vanishing Native American. Very little concern for the contemporary problems or survival of Native Americans. Like Edward Curtis, Boas and his students were memorializing the passing into history of Native American cultures and peoples.
D. Boas employed Native Americans as informants and trained several in the writing of their own languages and description of their own cultures, especially the Kwakiutl Hunt family. This practice was followed by some of his students, like Kroeber, who employed Ishi. The Omaha La Flesche family assisted anthropologists and worked directly with them. This tradition has continued and a few Native Americans have acquired Ph.D.’s as a result. III. What is the basis of Native American objections to anthropology?
A. Elitist origins of many anthropologists and their views.
(1) Study of Native Americans from the view of the White Man for the benefit, amusement, and enrichment of White people.
(2) Anthropologists are seen as predatory, seeking data for their science, “taking with no return.”
(3) Social division or chasm between university anthropologists and Native Americans.
(4) Distortion of contemporary realities of Native American life in favor of ethnographic and archaeological stereotypes and images. “Native American is genuine or authentic only to the degree that he is like these stereotypes invented by anthropologists.” B. Distaste among many anthropologists for problem-solving and direct participation in the Native American struggle for survival.
(1) Preference for a role in defining the problems and studying them, but strong opposition to solving the problems. The latter is thought to be unscientific and full of professional risks.
(2) Failure to confront the failure of the Boasian belief that Native Americans were becoming extinct. They have not and show every sign of recovery and increase.
(3) Poverty of conceptual tools and methods for studying a recovering, growing, politically sophisticated population of ever more educated Native Americans who are reestablishing their power within the dominant society.
(4) Graduate training of anthropologists continues to stress the superiority of studying distant, remote populations. IV. What Must be Done? We must redirect anthropology away from its primary concern with previous cultural systems toward a concern for the present and future condition of Native Americans.
A. This is happening as Native Americans take control of the research process.
B. Native Americans are demanding more realistic and contemporary representations of themselves in the published literature.
C. Native Americans are calling for a separation of the goals of traditional anthropology from its methods and techniques. The latter they are using while they are rejecting the former.
D. A university curriculum of liberation is emerging among Native American studies programs to challenge and replace the American Indian curriculum of fragmentation, antiquarianism, and extinction that now dominates departments of anthropology and the graduate training of anthropologists.
E. Native Americans must lead this transformation of traditional anthropology into a new American anthropology compatible with Native American goals.
F. These reforms must emphasize developmental, dialectical, holistic, action/applied, and community and tribally based research and training of graduate students.
G. A new alliance between anthropology and Native Americans must be forged.
A. Unless it changes, anthropology will become a harmless, irrelevant exercise, conducted by academic pedants and be of little relevance to Native American survival struggles.
B. Unless Native Americans force these changes on anthropology, they will not occur. Anthropologists are increasingly resistant to the challenges of Native Americans who question their historic approaches.
C. It is the young to whom we must turn. Native American and non-Native American graduate students must lead the way.
D. Native Americans and anthropologists are natural allies and can become an effective political and intellectual alliance.
E. Anthropology must become part of the Native American survival struggle if it is to survive as a meaningful and relevant activity within the university and society.
F. Probable future developments:
(1) A long struggle — paradigms die slowly.
(2) The current Native American legislative offensive against anthropology will create an unnecessary but strong backlash among certain anthropologists.
(3) Increases in tribal control over anthropological research on and around reservations will produce a different research agenda emphasizing goals that are politically and economically relevant.
(4) Tribal control over anthropological funding will become a major source of tribal leverage.
(5) Increasing cooperation between anthropologists, tribes, and Native American scholars will reveal much common ground in their respective struggles for survival. From: MX%”email@example.com”
Subj: Europeans & Native religions…
In answer to the question “Should or should not European Americans teach Native American religions?”, I believe the answer is no, not because I believe that only Natives should teach Native American religions, but because I don’t think this is a valid question. The question should not be “Should European Americans (be they white, black, yellow, Jew, Italian, whatever) teach Native…”, but “Who should teach Native American religion?”. This may be viewed as a simple play on words, but it brings up a point I think was missed: What qualifications are necessary to teach Native American religions? Obviously, not every one is qualified to teach this material. But does being non-native make a person less qualified by default? Or does being a native infer a concrete advantage? The answer to these last two questions must be no. Otherwise the individual element is lost in the broad generality.
So why do I answer no? I believe I must begin by separating the necessary qualifications required by someone for religious knowledge into two categories: those required to teach, and those required to practice. To teach a cultural subject, an in-depth knowledge of a people’s background, experience, culture, etc. is required. But to practice a religion, one must have all of the above plus faith, the key element in any religion. In relation to out discussion, I do not believe that one need be a Native American in order to practice a Native American religion. This is again true to all religions. But when it comes to teaching a class, I believe that Native American religious studies differ from most other religions in that only those who practice it should teach it. This is because there is such a polarity between the sizes of the minority (the Native Americans) and the majority (European Americans) that there is a tendency by the teacher to dilute and demean (in the ways presented with the original questions) the very subject he/she is teaching. This is due to the prevalent attitudes of the majority group (ie: the need to put everything into a western context) and is done almost subconsciously. Because it is, comparably, such a small group, I believe that, unless you practice it, it’s messages will be distorted. Only the practitioner can have the adequate mastery to avoid the pitfalls that “outsiders” invariably encounter.
I’m sure there are some flaws in my logic. I’m thankful for any feedback that might be offered (except for letterbombs, threats, etc…)
Undergrad. in Civil Engineering
The Ohio State Univ., Columbus, Oh.