I regularly teach an upper-division undergrad course on Native American religions. I happened to be scheduled to teach it in spring 2018. My historically organized survey covers archeological evidence from the Southwest, changing death rituals during the early period of colonization in the Northeast, revitalization movements across the Great Plains, and the adaptation of the very concept of religion among Pueblo peoples in the early 20th century. But I also search out ways to bring contemporary events into the class, punctuating the class’s narrative stretch with continual considerations of the “now.”
In spring 2018, the “now” was Standing Rock and the protesters gathered there. I decided that no matter what our class material for the day, we would start with words related to that place and those protesting people. Every day, a student presented on a text featured in the #standingrocksyllabus. The syllabus is modeled on other reading lists created to accompany and understand social movements. One of the first ones I encountered was the #blacklivesmattersyllabus. Since then, others have been written, including one related to the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, and as I will discuss here, one for Standing Rock.
Students presented readings from the syllabus, written by Indigenous scholars, activists, and their allies. Again and again, the texts spoke to the importance of protecting people and protecting places. This work was so necessary because, as the syllabus details in multiple ways, settler colonialism in the United States has endangered (and continues to endanger) peoples and places. When religion or spirituality appeared in these sources, it was part of a broader emphasis on collective work and activity situated in beloved places.
For instance, the syllabus begins with a timeline of “United States settler colonialism.” It lays out a series of events between 1492 and the present controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). It also makes a direct tie between religion and the pipeline protest. It includes a reference to a 2015 statement from Osage and Iowa tribal historical preservation officials in support of the Standing Rock opposition to DAPL. They are quoted in the timeline as saying: “We have not been consulted in an appropriate manner about the presence of traditional cultural properties, sites, or landscapes vital to our identity and spiritual well-being.”
Recognizing religion among Native peoples as something collective and grounded in a place is no small task for my University of Texas undergraduates. They are a body of students who mostly assume that religion is individual and portable. But, really, this recognition – through the #standingrocksyllabus and our historical survey – was only the first step. Another set of recognitions is necessary because the peoples we’re talking about aren’t just any people. They’re treaty people. And the places under discussion aren’t just any lands. They’re treaty lands. To talk of religion at Standing Rock, then, was to talk about people and place. It was also to invoke an even more difficult subject to convey to your average Texas undergraduate: sovereignty. Or as Natalie Avalos put it in her recent essay on decolonizing the classroom, an education that makes plain the tools of settler colonialism and offers ways of seeing Native American religions can be one in which students are “prepared to understand Indigenous stewardship movements as a profound expression of sovereignty.”
So how does this pedagogical effort relate to struggles to protect places such as Bear’s Ears? How does it intersect with the ongoing conversation about religious freedom? As this symposium’s organizers have observed, the rhetoric of religious freedom has often failed to secure protective action in the courts, especially in cases related to land. As a result, some Native activists and their allies have moved away from it and searched out other lines of argument. But ineffectiveness is not the only reason to avoid invoking religious freedom. As the organizers have also noted, religion and religious freedom are foreign concepts and carry with them all the weight of Europe’s categorization and classification of things as “religious,” as well as the legacy of the Americas’ exploration and exploitation.
Even so, I want to make a case for the possibility of creating a public that can see Native religion, conceive of Native sovereignty, and then, perhaps, support the protection of beloved places under the mantle of religious freedom. To do that, I want to highlight episodes in which this kind of recognition has already occurred and then return to my students and their interactions with the #standingrocksyllabus.
My first example comes from Greg Johnson’s book on efforts to repatriate human remains and burial objects. Among other things, Johnson showed how Native activists convinced important officials of the “seriousness and moral gravity of their position.” They invoked their “religious and moral perspectives” to useful effect with legislators and executives. Indeed, Johnson argued that these politicians were in some ways “converted” to talk about and act in ways that regarded repatriation of remains as authentically religious and therefore deserving of support. Of course, he also noted the complications and ironies of these exchanges, but it’s important to remember that Native activists were, at times, able to achieve their goals not only by referencing their religion, but also by effectively training their interlocutors to see it and respect it.
The second example comes from Thomas Maroukis’s book on peyote. He chronicled how Native activists responded to the 1990 decision in Oregon v. Smith, including those who started the American Indian Religious Freedom Project. Project members held academic conferences and media events. They put together information packets and filmed two documentaries. The documentaries, especially, invoked the category of religion and the phrase “religious freedom” as part of an argument for legislative relief regarding ritual peyote ingestion. One of them is titled “The Peyote Road: Ancient Religion in Contemporary Crisis.” The other features legendary religious studies figure, Huston Smith. If he’s not a figure for popularizing previously unrecognized practices as religious, I can hardly think of one! Again, as Johnson noted in his work, there are ironies and complications replete in this sort of effort. And yet, the coalition building and educational efforts of Native activists from the American Indian Religious Freedom Project were effective. They secured legislative relief under the mantle of religious freedom with the passage of AIRFA in 1993 and its amendments protecting ritual peyote ingestion in 1994.
In both these cases, Native activists trained non-Native folks to recognize their religion. They also convinced people about the special status of Native people under American law. As a result, they effectively cultivated publics willing to protect aspects of Native religious worldviews: the right to bury their ancestors, the right to ingest medicine.
I want to return to my spring classroom to make a case for how we, as teachers in the field of Religious Studies, might cultivate publics better equipped to recognize Native religion and Native sovereignty. This kind of work is also not without complications or ironies. There is a wider debate within the field about whether or not our primary job is to produce culturally competent students. Scholars worry that some of our most questionable pedagogical traditions, namely the classic undergraduate survey in “world religions,” is an unfortunate effect of that impulse. But I consider pedagogy about Native religions a little differently. So let me offer an example from my class, an example of one student grappling with a text he read from the #standingrocksyllabus.
My student, Luis, read an article by First Nations/Métis filmmaker, Tasha Hubbard, called “Buffalo Genocide in Nineteenth-Century North America.” He communicated the article’s primary argument to his classmates. Namely, from an indigenous perspective, humans are not the only beings endowed with personhood. Many animals, including the buffalo, have been considered persons, if not relatives. As such, the U.S. destruction of the buffalo, through active policy and an unwillingness to stop hide-hunters, constitutes genocide. According to Hubbard, the U.S. engaged in parallel genocides, of Native peoples and their relatives, the buffalo. They subsequently elegized the destruction and “vanishing” of both.
At this point, Luis ended his engagement with Hubbard’s work from the #standingrocksyllabus and took it in his own direction. He went out looking for legacies of this elegiac tradition. He found for us a recording of Carl Sandberg reading his poem, “Buffalo Dusk.” The audio clip features Sandburg’s sing-songy voice during a haunting refrain: “The buffalo are gone/And those who saw the buffalo are gone.”
But then Luis went even further. He found a Choctaw/Chickasaw poet writing about the buffalo in a very different way. In Phillip Carroll Morgan’s poem, “Endangered Species,” the buffalo are also gone. But a new relative moves across the land: the prong-horned antelope. Addressing the reader, Morgan writes, “You identify with/this striped sailfish/skimming the surface/a harpoon’s throw away.” In the poem that Luis so cleverly found, the land is still central. And animals are still there. And people who – as Morgan writes – “identify with” them are still there.
So what does this have to do with religion and religious freedom and the ongoing effort to protect beloved places? Well, every article on the #standingrocksyllabus chronicles some sort of threat to Native people and Native land. Some of them also detail Native responses to these threats. As we worked through the pieces, some of them describing the ongoing catastrophe of uninvestigated violence against Native women, others considering appropriation of Indigenous cultural forms, and still others, chronicling direct threats to Native populations and their relatives, the words from the Osage and Iowa historical preservation officers stayed with us. “We have not been consulted in an appropriate manner about the presence of traditional cultural properties, sites, or landscapes vital to our identity and spiritual well-being.” Every day, students engaged texts explaining how care of people, relations, stories, traditions, and places are central to Native religion.
Over the course of the semester, Luis and my other students came to be people who could see Native religions. They could understand how a place or a ritual or object might be the subject of a claim for protection under the mantle of religious freedom. In the end, what I’m saying is that the Native activists chronicled in Johnson’s and Maroukis’s work wouldn’t have had to work so hard, or risk some of the more vexing ironies of that effort, if we in the academy were better at creating a culturally competent public.
As both Johnson and Winnifred Sullivan have noted in more recent pieces, there are risks involved in this approach. The world post Oregon v. Smith not only gave us RFRAs that protected peyote ingestion, it also shelters Protestant fundamentalist employers unwilling to offer contraception to their female employees. The world post Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association gave us new energies for consultation between government officials and tribal representatives, but consultations are hardly strong legislation or judicial relief. I take note of the dangers.
But I also recall what Finbarr Curtis has observed about religious freedom. It’s not a thing, or at least not one thing. It’s always constructed and those constructions take place in contests over power. We should not be surprised that Smith led to RFRA or that Lyng led to more consultation. It’s no wonder that I got the idea to teach a first-year seminar on religious freedom during the conflicts over Standing Rock and hateful rhetoric about religious difference spewed during the 2016 presidential campaign. As a teacher, I’ve decided to enter the fray, to bring my students along in an exploration of these current contests, especially as they relate to Native people and lands. Johnson’s activists expended so much energy crafting messages to persuade legislators of the spiritual quality of human remains. Maroukis showed how peyote activists created a media extravaganza in an effort to protect their ritual practice. But how might we, as teachers, craft a public with eyes to see? What if it wasn’t so hard, in Johnson’s words, to “convert” leaders and those who vote for them? What if they could see Native religion? What if they had even the most basic understanding of sovereignty? Would arguments about religious freedom have a better chance?