Teaching Nat. Amer. Relig.

Tue, 2 Aug 1994 11:42:06 EDT

----------------------------Original message----------------------------

Last year we had a discussion about the teaching of Native American
religions. I promised to submit to members of this list a draft of my
report/response before it goes to publication. I'd be happy to have such
response either privately or publicaly. Thanks.

Below is the first draft of an article based on last year's discussion of the
teaching of Native
American religions. Participants in that discussion are invited to send
responses, suggestions,
etc., directly to me so that I may incorporate them before submitting the
article for publications. Thanks. RG

Teaching Native American Religions

Ronald L. Grimes
Wilfrid Laurier University


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. 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-
The statement with which I initiated the discussion was as

I am submitting this query to invite reflection on three

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. 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 about 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
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.)

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
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:

being taught about in the academy;
being taught by outsiders, that is, persons with no
social or emotional commitment to the traditions; or
being construed as religion rather than as spirituality
(or vice-versa).

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
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
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

All this criticism is just White-academic bashing.
[Therefore, since it is so indiscriminate, one should not
take it seriously.]
Whites who argue for restraints on teaching Native American
religions are just being politically correct. [Therefore,
their positions are not seriously held; they are mere fads.]
Indians who argue against the teaching of indigenous
religions by non-Native academics typically lack strong
tribal roots. [Therefore, take their opinions with a grain
of salt.]
Belonging to some group (e.g., being a Native American) is
no guarantee of superior knowledge. [Therefore Whites can
teach as well as Indians.]
There is no ethnic purity anyway--only the blurring of
cultural identities--so an "ethnic cleansing" of the
teaching profession by Indians is impossible. [Since there
are no pure Indians, there is no one to legislate against or
otherwise constrain non-Indian scholars.]
The split between non-Indians who study and Indians who
are studied is a "false binary," since many Indians
have mixed identities anyway.
Indians don't understand their forebears any better than
White people understand their 17th century ancestors, so
they have no privileged point of view.
Native intellectuals need to understand how complicated the
issue of who studies whom really is. [If they did, they
would be less likely to criticize White intellectuals who
understand such complexities.]
Who can say what lands are sacred and what texts are
forbidden to the white man? [If no one can say, the Indians
have no right to legislate what White scholars can study.]
White angst is paralyzing: "If you didn't do the deed, don't
take the blame." [Whether one is guilty is not the issue.
What effect guilt feelings have is the real issue.]
Indians sometimes depend on ethnographic literature
collected by Whites in order to know more about their
heritage. [So Indians have no right to complain about such
Indians don't all agree on whether non-Indians should teach
Native American religions. [Therefore non-Indians are free
to make up their own minds about whether they will or won't
If Indians are free to become Christian priests, then Whites
should feel free to become shamans [and thus have authority
to teach Native American religions].
The real issue [for Indians] is control. The debate is
really about politics, not about religion. [Therefore,
Whites need not worry about the possibility of desecration.]
"Stand your ground." "Fight back and damn the torpedoes."
[This is a war, not a debate.]

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

the sanctity, privacy, feelings, and clan rights religion
are respected;
the topic is taught critically and contextually, that is, in
view of the history of oppression and in dialogue with those
whom such teaching might offend;
teachers work outside of class to rectify imbalances, for
instance, by lobbying to hire indigenous faculty, helping
protect native land, or defending native rights;
the larger economy and prevailing politics is less
oppressive to Native Americans;
there is a multiplicity of interacting voices;
native voices are heard in class, for example, by
reading native authors, inviting native speakers,
collaborating with native colleagues, and attending to
native students' concerns;
learning is from and with, not just about, Indians;
attention is repeatedly called to the limits of one
Native views are allowed to challenge the dominant worldview
and question European American values, resulting in
"indigenous critiques of world religions."
the products of research are valued by Indians and are not
for the benefit of scholars alone; research results should
be "offered for Native American use;"
the object of study (for example, a myth, symbol, or rite)
is not currently in use;
the presentation is comparative and/or cross-cultural;
European-American teachers admit their mistakes publicly,
and continue and learn from them;
the aim and effect is tolerance and/or appreciation;
[however, contrast: if the aim is not mere appreciation]
the aim goes beyond mere appreciation;
knowledge of Native religions is not held separate from
knowledge is for the sake of decision and action;
the teacher is respectful;
the teacher doesn't try to be Indian.

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
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
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 some
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? So 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. At 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


Ron Grimes
Department of Religion & Culture
Wilfrid Laurier University
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3C5
E-mail address until 8/1/94: grimes@spot.colorado.edu
after 8/1/94: rgrimes@mach1.wlu.ca