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Last update: 29 January 1995
Author: Ronald L. Grimes (rgrimes@mach1.wlu.ca)

Teaching Native American Religions

By Ronald L. Grimes, [29 January 1995]

During the summer of 1993 I initiated a discussion on the teaching of Native American Religions. It transpired simultaneously on three electronic discussion lists: Religion (religion@harvarda.harvard.edu), Anthro-L (listserv@ubvm.cc.buffalo.edu), and Native-L (natchat@tamvm1.bitnet). The actual discussion, which would print out at a hundred or so pages, is probably still available on each list through its archive facilities.{2} Since the members of any one list would not have known what was being said on the other two lists, I collected the replies after the discussion ended and re-posted them to the three groups. This move generated another hundred pages of discussion about the control and copyright of E-mail.{3}

The statement with which I initiated the discussion was as follows:{4}


I am submitting this query 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 its religious and academic forms. 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. Until recently, so did David Carrasco. 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 do what I do in relative obscurity, at considerable distance from indigenous populations of the American Southwest, where I do most of my fieldwork, and at a 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 Sabout in public. In part, the issue has to do with academic, religious, and cultural turf. Often it does not have to do with who is right or wrong on a given issue, but with who ought to be speaking about such issues. Anyone who has read Churchill's critique (in Fantasies of the Master Race) of Gill's Mother Earth or heard Deloria's public but unpublished 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 a few, their exiting is an ethical matter: make room for the oppressed, don't speak about what you are not, and so on. For most, 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 on this sort of back-room discussion.

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_ I wrote 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 not much different from those I have put to archaeologists and curators. Does teaching about religions indigenous to the Americas desecrate them?

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 wanna-bes 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, 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, and so on. One unspoken subtext of this response is the worry that thinking such a thought 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 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, or ethnicity, 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, emotionally loaded 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. 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 Indian friends, students, and colleagues. I am still too much a Protestant to believe that effort alone achieves much. 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.

It might mean that we ought 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 without being a subject matter in its own right.

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 (for instance, 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 with this model is focusing on aberrations and missing what is central to indigenous traditions. Another difficulty would be 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 three-quarters of which concentrates on a specific indigenous people and then perhaps even on a specific individual (as represented by an autobiography). I have taken this approach and typically focus on the Southwest. One can easily be torn between the dated ethnographies that directly describe rites and retell sacred stories and the contemporary fictional works (Silko, Momaday, Allen, and so on) 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 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.)

<end extract>

On the Religion list there were fifty-four responses; on Native list, forty-three; and on Anthropology list, sixteen. Because of the length of the electronic discussion and lack of space, my aim is less to represent individual points of view than to articulate my own position in the context of a summary of kinds of responses rather than of individual respondents. Although one is even less sure about identity in cyberspace than in cultural space, my impression was that few Native Americans and few teachers of Native American religions participated in the interchange. Indian participants, a few of them self-identified, appeared almost exclusively on Native-L. Almost all of the scholar-teachers of Native American religions were not members of the electronic lists but colleagues whose responses I solicited and then funnelled to the lists. In short, most participants, I believe, were scholars interested in the topic or its implications for teaching in general. A discussion confined to either Native Americans or to teachers of Native American religions might have taken quite a different turn.

The responses of many non-Native discussants seemed to assume that an unqualified prohibition against teaching Native American religions was the normative Indian stance. However, no respondent argued flatly that European Americans should be prohibited from teaching Native American religions. The nearest anyone came to such a position was in a letter sent directly to me from a director of the Western Shoshone Historic Preservation Society. Its author, who had heard about but not read the E-mail discussion, claimed that true traditional natives would never agree to such teaching. Since there were so few negative responses, it might be tempting to dismiss the issue as specious or exaggerated. One respondent said she imagined the discussion exaggerated until she read the posting by Sam Gill, which I will consider shortly.

To avert further speculation that the issue is either trumped up or merely local, I will begin with the responses Vine Deloria and Sam Gill, both of whom seem to offer negative replies to the first question. I represent only a few participants by name. I do so for two reasons: their visibility (largely through their public writing and lecturing) and the reflective and sustained nature of their responses in the E-mail discussion.

Vine Deloria took the most sustained negative stance, but it was far from unqualified. I see nothing wrong with [European Americans teaching courses on Native American religions], he writes, but I personally wish they would not do so. In summarizing his position, he refines it: I don't see why non-Indians cannot teach courses on Native religions, as long as they understand and accept the fact of modern American political life, [act] 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. The facts of American political life to which he refers are those that politicize teaching in a society whose history is fundamentally conditioned by colonialism.

Deloria suggests conditions under which teaching would be less of a problem: The reason [for his personal preference] 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.... Among the misconceptions mentioned in his communication are these: the assumption that Native American teachers are political and that European American ones are not; the distortions that necessarily arise from studying and teaching religion with no personal interest in it; and the application of non-Indian theories derived from Near Eastern, monotheistic religions; and the incredible smugness with which non-Native scholars talk about the little they do know about things Native.

Although Deloria does not sound optimistic about the possibility of overcoming the biases that make the non-Native teaching of Native American religions so troublesome, he actually issues a call for the continuation of teaching: ...It is essential that teaching Native religions in some form, and in spite of criticism, be continued...provided new ways of arranging and articulating the religion are found.... The motive for this turn seems to be that of countering New Age appropriation of indigenous ways. A refusal to teach would risk making New Age appropriation easier.

The other position that warrants being identified by name is that of Sam Gill. In an open letter Gill narrates his decision, announced on Columbus Day of 1992, to make what he called a rubric shift. After decades of thinking of himself as a student of Native American religions dedicated to dispelling romantic images and resisting a discourse of domination Gill decides to shift from this area, that is, to turn a significant amount of [his] attention from the study of Native American religions. He describes his motives variously: He finds the area too politicized, and he feels that what he or any other white male might write or say is regarded [by Native American scholars, I assume] as irrelevant. He writes, 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.

Sam Gill's response is in many ways the opposite of Vine Deloria's. Deloria is an Indian unhappy with the way Whites teach indigenous traditions; Gill is a White male unhappy about critique that he regards as racist. Like most opposites, they can appear to coincide. On the surface both are negative responses to the question of the appropriateness of non-Natives teach Native religions in academic classrooms. Deloria wishes White people would not teach Native American religions, and Gill is no longer going to teach under the rubric, Native American religions. On the surface it appears that Gill has conceded to Deloria's wish.

However, in the final analysis, something else transpires: Deloria calls for teaching to continue (albeit, on different premises) because of the dangers of not doing so, and Gill still believes in the whole humanistic enterprise, (including, one assumes, the academic study of Native American religions). Gill does not really concede to Deloria in principle but rather exercises a strategy, namely, waiting. The political agenda and climate will change as time passes, he reflects. Although Gill has other [academic] loves and is turning his attention elsewhere (for instance, to Australian Aboriginal religion), he does not so much give up territory as make a strategic retreat in order to search for a better vantage point. No where does he concede that White research and teaching are invalid. His rubric change is predicated on what he calls the impossibility of research and teaching in the current climate, not on an admission of its invalidity.

Both Gill and Deloria imply that their disagreement is not merely a local political battle over turf. Rather it is replicated elsewhere, in the American Academy of Religion, for instance. The University of Colorado is not unique in having trouble over the teaching of Native American religions. It is only unique in the degree of visibility that this trouble has assumed, and this visibility is largely the function of its prolific, widely read, generally respected scholars in the area.

There were few other negative responses. One was more confessional than prescriptive. A Ph.D. student, for instance, admitted that in the current contentious atmosphere she found herself paralyzed by self-consciousness and wondered whether she would ever teach on such a troubled topic again. Another respondent was prescriptive rather than confessional. He argued that there are topics which we should not write about and which our predecessors probably should have avoided (religious secrets, sacred ceremonies kept hidden from outsiders, myths owned by individual clans, etc.). An Indian student asked his non-Indian networkers, How would you like it if Indians were the authorities teaching you your own history?

The electronic discussion did not articulate the full range of reasons that have been advanced against the non-Native teaching of Native religions, so for the sake of further discussion, I will try summarizing the negative arguments, drawing on oral discussions and debates, as well as on the E-mail discussion. There seem to be three fundamental but related issues. One is the issue of the sacrality of the subject matter. The argument is that sacred things are necessarily objectified and therefore profaned by:

One Native participant objected to having her practices and traditions referred to as religion. Although she did not specify what made this usage offense, two common reasons are that the notion of religion confines spirituality to an institution and that it treats spirituality as a sector of life alongside other sectors rather than as permeating all of life. However, a Mohawk respondent objected to the term spirituality, understanding it to connote a New Age mishmash of borrowed ideas and practices. Obviously, much depends on how each term is defined.

A second reason for objecting to the teaching of Native American religions by non-Natives has to do with control and rights. The argument is that sacred lore (like land before the arrival of Europeans) belongs to Native Americans. Thus, non-Natives have no inherent right to it--no matter how much they may desire or need such knowledge. To assume such rights in an argument or to imply them by one's actions, amounts to a continuation of colonialism. One anthropologist, was critical of the fact that debates, including this one, too often are center in the academic rather than the tribal world. The implication is that such displacement amounts to colonialism no matter how sincere or humane the intentions of participants. Indians argue that scholarly works are used in political ways (for instance, in courts of law) no matter what scholars intend. Therefore, research and teaching on things indigenous is necessarily political (which does not make them any less religious).

A third issue is that of qualifications. The argument is that teachers of Native American religions are typically unqualified to teach those religions. If, on the one hand, one assumes religious instruction occurs in the classroom, no elders or other tribal body has trained or authorized most teachers. If, on the other, one assumes that teachers are teaching about religion, they are not usually qualified to do so. They have likely had no graduate training from a legitimate program in the field, and they typically fail to consult, co-operate with, and render service to, Native American communities.

Positive answers to the question of teaching Native American religions were of two sorts: the yes, of course variety and the yes but sort. The former took it as obvious that European Americans should be able to teach Native American religions. The resulting position was often relatively unqualified in its assertions and usually appealed to some single, sacredly held postulate. There were only a few such responses. The yes if or yes, provided that response was the majority one. Those who espoused it were more likely to argue rather than to assert, and to posit qualifications or conditions under which teaching should occur. Since both attitudes sometimes appeared in a single communication, there was no hard line between them. Some of the latter, with revision and amplification, could have become arguments.

A significant division among the yes replies was between those that actually addressed the issue with arguments and those that took the form of ad hominems, red herrings, collegial advice, one-liner throw-away's, or wound- licking. These are worth listing because of their recurrence both in the E-mail discussion and elsewhere, for instance, in classrooms. In the decontextualized form below they are not really arguments. Some of them could be reframed as arguments, in which case the would require serious debate. I am not claiming that there is no truth in some of these statements, only that they could easily function as shields for staving off argument. I have played philosopher and interpolated some of the unspoken implications in square brackets.

Now to the substantive arguments. They proceeded on the basis of three premises that amount to primary European American cultural values: the premise of a common humanity, the premise of objective knowledge, and the premise of individual freedom. On these grounds, arguments were advanced in favor of the teaching of Native American religions by non-Natives.

The premise of a common humanity posited a universal or common human nature on the basis of which any human being can, at least in principle, understand any other human being or group. Its motto could be something like Freud's Nothing human is foreign to me. The fact of a common humanity implies that, yes, Native American religions can be taught by non-Natives, just as Hinduism or ancient Egyptian religion can be taught by non-practitioners. Am I to be forbidden to do anything with ancient Israelite religion because I am Catholic? asked one teacher. One would never dream of saying that physics should only be done by Englishmen, wrote another.

Many participants assumed rather than stated this premise, or else they implied it in their contention that restricting the teaching of Native American religions to Native Americans amounts to racism. Several participants held that prohibiting or circumscribing teaching on the basis of ethnic identity constitutes racism. Some implied--but no one actually said--that this conclusion obtains regardless of historical circumstances. One participant, appealing to Ernst Gellner, rejected the position of embodied authenticity, that is, the claim that one can only speak about what one is or embodies.

One person argued that studying or teaching only about oneself or one's own people would narrow one's worldview. The result of European American scholars following such advice would be to make dominant ethnic groups even more oppressive. The ignorance that would result from not studying Native American religions, said one participant, is more dangerous than making the inevitable, ignorant mistakes that one commits in studying them. A common humanity both gives rise to and requires that groups study one another.

A second premise was that of objective, which is to say, non-political, or disinterested, knowledge. Not only is such knowledge a value but the pursuit of it is inevitable, implied one discussant. People, White and Indian alike, are always making observations about and having ideas concerning each other, he said, so the question is not whether but how knowledge is obtained. Most discussants assumed the inherent value of disinterested knowledge. Several defended a specific subtype of it, namely, the knowledge provided by outside observers. For instance, one said, Outsider points of view can often be valuable, especially if the insiders are factionalized. Some of the scholars asserted that such knowledge is valuable not just to non-Natives but to Native people as well. One claimed that scholarship itself has sometimes empowered indigenous peoples. It has had, he argued, the effect of validating aspects of indigenous cultures that were about to be lost by members of those cultures or not appreciated by the non-scholarly members of non-native cultures.

Some discussants defended not only the value of disinterested knowledge but the institution that claims to be its custodian, namely, the university with its various departments. One person argued that if teaching Native American religions is wrong, then so is the whole enterprise of anthropology, since it consists largely of description and interpretation garnered by outsiders. One scholar argued that the very questions that framed the E-mail debate threatened higher education, the values of which, he seemed to assume, were shared by most of his audience. The argument in defense of disinterested knowledge (teaching about) occasionally appealed to precedent: we are already teaching about other religious traditions, so there is no good reason to make an exception in the case of Native American religions. Some worried that making an exception for Native American religions would bring the whole academic house down: To assume that the only people who should study a group are members of the group is to totally invalidate anthropology, sociology, linguistics and so on....

The third premise was that of individual academic freedom, specifically, a subgenre of it: academic freedom. In its bald form the premise is that anyone has a right to study and teach about anything without restraint: all things may become subject matter for all people. In principle there are no limits to this freedom, even though there may be limits in fact. The argument goes: A scholar ought to be limited only by ability and resources but not by design or principle. Many discussants felt they had to resist pressure. One argued that if established non-Indian academics yielded to the pressures of Indians, then who would scholars be subjected to next--Muslims? Christian fundamentalists? Political groups? Correspondents cited examples of suppressed data and oppressed scholars--the Qumran scrolls held hostage, Gershom Scholem anathematized for teaching that the Zohar was a thirteenth-century rather than a first-century text, and so on. Some participants seemed worried that Native American concerns might exercise censorship. One person, who conceded that Indians had a right to control the teaching of religion, denied that they had a right to control teaching about religion. The premise of personal academic freedom occasionally inspired a turn from resisting censorship to asserting rights. I should not be prohibited from learning their ways. How else am I to enrich my life? complained one respondent.

Most of the arguments in favor of teaching were not absolute but predicated on desiderata. These were the yes, if responses, and I believe they constitute the most constructive aspect of the E-mail discussion. Typically, respondents enumerated only one or two. However, assembled into a list and treated as conditions rather than desiderata, they become formidable. It seems to me that a fruitful debate might arise around a proposition that runs something like this: Teaching Native American religions by non-Natives is desirable and/or permissable provided

Only a few participants explicitly stated their willingness to treat desiderata as criteria binding on those who teach of Native American religions. So the debate would have two tasks. One would be to consider each of the constituent items, struggling with definitions and implications: What constitutes being respectful? Is toleration a worthy goal, or should it be subordinate to some larger one? Is being out of current use a valid criterion? Products of scholarship should be valued by Indians--which ones? And so on.

The other task would be that of deciding what force this, or some modified, list might have: Is the list merely of things desirable but up to individual faculty to implement? Should it have binding force, but only if individuals choose to enforce them? Should it become the basis of a formal guideline or the purview of a committee formed on the analogy of university ethics committees? Do items on the list have moral or only pedagogical weight?

Lest I be accused of trying to keep my hands clean by merely managing this discussion, I conclude by saying briefly what my own position is. I continue to teach courses in Native American religions, because the alternatives seem to me worse. Not to teach could easily be construed as, if not actually be the result of, regarding such religions as inferior. So for me the question remains how, when, why, and where to teach.

In my view a primary qualification is attitude, and it is always easier to recommend one than to embody it. The requisite attitude is a combination of humility, collegiality, and sensitivity. Evidence of such would likely manifest itself in some of the conditions listed above: Does said scholar actually collaborate? Do Indians find that he or she actually listens? And so on. I agree with the Native American accusation that arrogance is a fundamental premise (attitudinal, not logical) of European American scholarship. It may be easy to identify personal arrogance, but it is much harder to identify and change institutional or collective arrogance.

I continue to advocate self-imposed, locally informed, and inter- ethnically negotiated limits. In teaching I set aside certain materials as inappropriate for classroom use now or in this situation. I regularly make compromises. Some colleagues view this position as trading off academic freedom for a mess of pottage. I do not. Some scholars experience it as an insult if they are expected to question, much less negotiate, the terms of their teaching of Native American religions, arguing that we should not have to consult Indians? I believe we must. But I also believe that such negotiating is no different from the constant negotiation that we are always in the midst of when we teach other traditions. Every course I teach, every book I write, is some sort of compromise with the market, with the expectations of readers, colleagues, and administrators, with the time and energy I am willing to spend. So it does not seem to me anything unusual to have to negotiate, thus exist in a politicized atmosphere, in order to study Native American religions.

In the library of the Anthropology Laboratory in Santa Fe there is a locked glass case containing, among other things, a volume on Pueblo religion. It is there because it keeps getting stolen--probably by Pueblos for whom making such knowledge public is a sacrilege or by White folks burning with desire to know sacred secrets. The result is that only we scholars with letters of recommendation in our pockets can get at that volume. My question is whether should we read, discuss, assign, and analyze such a work? We who do fieldwork work do so under both ethical and legal constraints regarding our consultants. Stealing sacred secrets would not pass the ethics committee at my university. Is such knowledge, obtained under colonial conditions, legitimate for us to use? Much (not all) of what we know about indigenous religions was obtained under shady circumstances. Methodologically speaking, how do we proceed--if our data is shady, our qualifications questionable, and Indian students and colleagues feel ripped off by acts of cultural imperialism?

I believe the study of any religion requires that those who teach it take seriously the history of their relationship to those who practice it. I resist, then, the attempt to circumvent the issue of teaching Native American religions by merely assimilating it to the study of religion in general, thus implying that teaching about, say, Pueblo religion is the same as teaching about Buddhism is the same as teaching about Islam. Most of us who teach Native American religions are descendants of colonialists, and we continue to reap benefits from that colonialism. In such circumstances appealing to objectivist epistemologies (functioning as ideologies) is not only ethically naive, it is immoral. In my view, then, sustained self-criticism is a prerequisite for being able to speak on the topic with credibility.

I advocate preferential hiring. For Native American students to want to study with Native American scholars makes sense to me. In their position, I am sure I would argue as they do for role models and for teachers who share their traditions and values. Sure, I would feel badly if, as a result of my advocacy, Indian students no longer took my courses and doubted my hard-earned authority, but in the long run doubting professorial authority is probably a good thing.

I reject the metaphor of embattlement and worry about the role it played in the E-mail discussion. I was counseled more than once to hold the fort and not give up the fight. If we are not careful, we Whites will trap ourselves with such metaphors. We will begin to feel as if we were hiding, rifle in hand, under a conestoga wagon, with Guess Who pointing arrows in our direction. I have had enough of embattlement and so refuse to treat this issue as if we are occupying Fort Apache or defending some academic Alamo. I take metaphors and imagination far too seriously to be very tolerant of the martial ones.

Does my position threaten the university and its humanistic goals? Some have said so. Even though I share most of those goals, I still view them as culture- specific. They represent an institutionalizing of our worldviews. I doubt that humankind really depends on the future of the university (any more than it does on the future of churches or nonprofit organizations or...). I am committed to humanistic scholarship, but I think its future depends on the capacity of intellectuals to listen. And the listening is sometimes hard. There is shouting and anger, then sulking and backbiting. So if we are to suffer through all this, we need some other metaphor: human family, maybe. We shouldn't walk away from angry or critical Indians, whether colleagues or students: they are family and this may be a feud but it is not a war.


  1. Part of this article will be published in my Marrying & Burying and is reprinted here with the permission of Westview Press.
  2. Members of the Religion list can access the archived discussion by sending the command get religion log9408 to listserv@harvard.harvarda.edu.
  3. The meta-discussion arose only on the Religion list. After lengthy debate, the matter was referred to legal counsel at Harvard, the list owner's home institution. The conclusion was that writers of electronic mail have implicit copyright over their submissions. Therefore they cannot be published without authors' permission, but they can be quoted within fair use guidelines.

    Even though this decisions leaves me legally free both to quote and to attribute, my report is minimally constrained by agreements with two e-mail authors who requested that I not use their submissions. I do not believe that these agreements compromise the substance of this report, though they do compromise its vividness. It is difficult to represent someone else's tone in summary and paraphrase.

    Even though I have explicit permission to quote from many of the other participants in the discussions, some neither denied nor granted permission. As a result, I resort to summary, paraphrase, and anonymous quotation more often that I like. My aim is not to deprive people of their identities but to protect them.

  4. Edited slightly for publication.

Ron Grimes
Department of Religion & Culture
Wilfrid Laurier University
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3C5

E-mail: rgrimes@mach1.wlu.ca
Office phone: (519) 884-0710, ex. 3085