Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Winter 2002


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 22, No. 1, Winter 2002, pp. 64-65.


Copyright 2002 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Lee Irwin, whose earlier writing has focused on Plains Indian visionary traditions, has gathered fourteen essays (including one of his own) that express current thinking about North American Indian religions. The authors include Indians, part-Indians and non-Indians, mostly trained anthropologists, and historians of religion.

They are all self-conscious about their scholarly mission: To what extent do they have the authority to represent Indian religious practice and belief to non-Indian audiences? How should the history of religious persecution (of Indians by non-Indians) in the Americas frame the treatment of their subject matter? How can they incorporate Indian viewpoints through dialogue? How might they treat their subjects with respect? How can they represent the diversity of Indian traditions and avoid the projection of stereotypic images?

For some authors (Nez Perce/Mexican mestiza Ines Hernandez-Avila, for instance), the duties of community and ritual performance will not permit her betrayal of confidences: "We do not want the details of our life divulged in public" to suit the purposes of education, for New Age edification, for romanticization or commodification. The current "politics of recognition" and "post-colonial theory" work to stifle investigative writing about Indian religiousness, according to John Grim, who suggests that in such a context academics might even refuse invitations by Indians to attend their ceremonies, knowing how much damage attendance and reportage might bring. Christopher Ronwanien:te Jocks (Mohawk/Brooklyn Irish) speaks of "unequal power relations" that limit "what should be taught" and "what can be taught" by Indians to outsiders. Indian religion is so imbedded in community and culture, he argues, that foreigners can appropriate only fragmentary (and thus relatively meaningless) data. Ronald L. Grimes recounts a cyberspace feud engendered by Vine Deloria Jr. and Sam Gill of the University of Colorado (and fueled by Grimes) on the following issues: "1. Should or should not European Americans be teaching courses on Native religions of North America? 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?" Grimes is not ready to quit the field but proposes that one proceed with "humility, collegiality, and sensitivity."