On the Dangers of Homogenizing Anything; And, Why You Shouldn't Say Stupid Things When Drinking Sazeracs in New Orleans

Going to conferences a little out of one’s field is always an interesting anthropological exercise, and helps to alert one to the absurdities that go on at conferences in one’s own field to which one is unaware because one is in the thick of it -- or something. Anyway, I just returned from the American Society of Ethnohistory meeting, where I had the pleasure of some good New Orleans chow with two of my blog compatriots, Lin Fisher (who was mightily unimpressed with southern grits, but did enjoy his beignets) and Mike Pasquier (who gave us a slightly unintentional tour of the Garden District as we walked right by the street where we were supposed to turn and just kept on going -- but it was a beautiful fall evening in New Orleans, so all good). [By the way, if you’re going there anytime soon, the Flying Burrito on Magazine and St. Andrews serves up some great chow and $1 PBR cans.]

A lot of good stuff at the meeting, albeit I was too busy woofing down beignets to attend some of it. Our blog contributor Mike Pasquier had organized a session on “Reassessing the Ethnohistory of Religious Experience in the Americas,” including papers by himself, Lin Fisher, Michael Gueno (ABD at Florida State), and two Latin Americanists who were giving papers about the Inquisition in Western Mexico and about cofradias (fraternal orders) in 17th-century Peru.

I thought here I would briefly summarize the papers by Mike, Lin, and Michael Gueno and then post my comments , which were not really about the specifics of the papers but just more general reflections on what an outsider to the field could learn from ethnohistorical approaches. If Lin and Mike find a bit of time, hopefully they’ll post some reflections here as well, and any of you early Americanists who want to chime in, please feel free. I’m going to pass over, for the purposes of this blog post, the two papers on Mexico and Latin America.

Lin’s paper, “Christian Indians? On the Dangers of Homogenizing Indians’ Religious Experiences in Colonial New England,” inspired the title of my own comments, “On the Dangers of Homogenizing Anything,” which I also thought about titling, “Nobody Knows Anything.” Lin’s paper was a short essay about some of the major concepts that inform the book he will publish a couple of years from now with Oxford University Press, “An Indian Great Awakening.” Contemporary scholars have inserted Native American stories into the narrative of the Great Awakening, but Lin will suggest that those stories are much more complicated than we have understood. Scholars have focused primarily on paradigmatic figures such as Samson Occom, but when we cast our net wider, we find a much broader spectrum of response, not at all like the general narrative which finds a dramatic break and acceptance of the Great Awakeners’ message among some New England Indians beginning the in 1740s. Lin concludes, “At the most basic level, I argue that placing the Awakening in these much wider contexts makes Indian involvement in the Great Awakening look less like a momentous point of disjuncture for Indians—that is, the giving up ancestral religion and converting to Christianity—and merely another step in the ongoing, dialectical, tentative engagement with European cultural offerings as one of several possible ways to navigate the colonial world. In this dialectical narrative, the end is completely undetermined—each individual and community narrative is crafted by the perceived needs of the moment.

Michael Gueno’s paper, “Contact Religion: Encounter and Variation in Colonial Nuevo Mexico,” revisited the story of the Franciscans and the Puebloans in the 17th and 18th Century. In conversation with Michael later, I said something to the effect that the sources had been mined on topics such as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, and that he must be using the same sources but taking a fresh look at them. Au contraire! Michael responded, for if one casts one’s research horizons wider, documents are waiting there for analysis. As usual, I exposed my own provincialism as a North Americanist in that comment, for Michael described how his research in the Mexico City archives (slow and frustrating though it was!) uncovered wonderful documents that had escaped Nuevo Mexico when the friars had fled in 1680 (or in some cases were always in the colonial capital and never in the remote northern provinces) that cast significant light on the Franciscan-Puebloan relationship. Why had I not realized that before? Maybe (probably) I'm just stupid, or maybe in addition I share certain provincial blindnesses that North Americanists tend to have, and need to get over already.

Those documents sounded a lot like the kinds of stuff one finds more typically in books about the California missions -- discussions of music especially, which played a big part in mission life. Gueno’s paper focused on a spectrum of religious variation in 17 th century New Mexico and the years after the revolt and Reconquista, in which Catholicism, Spanish folk religions, Mexican practices that had taken root among missionaries and others born in the New World, and Puebloan practices all mingled in a spectrum of religious variation that suggests religions that found plenty of points of common assumptions, mechanisms of power, and practices.

Finally, Mike presented a terrific short lecture and powerpoint on the “Tunica Treasure,” a huge archaeological find dug up by a Louisiana treasure hunter about 30 years ago, that casts light on Native religious practice in 18th century Louisiana. Why do we know so little about this otherwise? Simple -- we don’t have the Jesuit Relations for Louisiana -- indeed, in the classic Rueben Thwaites volumes, The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, the “Allied Documents” reference refers basically to the seven -- count ‘em, seven -- documents we have from the Jesuits in Louisiana; the rest come from New France, mostly in the northern reaches, and of course form the single most mined source for Native religious practice in the colonial era. The archaeological evidence provided by the Tunica Treasures provide another set of sources, and therefore another set of questions we can ask. I’ll let Mike post about this further if he wants; suffice to say that the story of French governors (probably Bienville, well memorialized in New Orleans today, including in the elevators that we took up to the 15th floor of the Hotel Monteleone) taking on Native body art is pretty cool.

Below are my comments for anyone interested; I make brief references to the papers, but mostly throw out a few thoughts for consideration on what religious historians have to learn from ethnohistorians, and vice versa. Thus, I hope these thoughts might be of interest even if you don't have the specific papers in hand. Laissez le bon temps roulez.


What we see running through all these papers is this theme: the dangers of homogenizing anything, and the scholarly joys that ensue when we observe that all that is solid melts into the air. We see Native peoples in New England converting and unconverting depending on what meets their needs; we see French priests and governors tattooing themselves with snakes whose tongues appear to slither towards licking parts of the body I’ll forebear mentioning here since this is a family conference; we see New World-born missionaries in Nueva Espana deliberately appealing to pre-Christian traditions with saints who could fit a hybridized worldview, and we see Puebloans easily accepting parallel religious traditions and embracing the Christian God as “an important deity within a cosmos rich with such divinities; we see a variety of strange holy men wandering around the western internal frontiers in New Spain, “self-styled hermits” who were the objects of religious veneration as well as suspicion from the authorities of the Inquisition; and we see members of Peruvian cofradias manipulating the language of racial power to fight for whatever degree of autonomy they could achieve in the colonial system.

In short, surveying these short papers and presentations as a whole, we have quickly surveyed a vastly diverse, impossibly complicated colonial world in which all categories dissolve and melt. So many of these people must have felt that “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.” Even something that appears as solid as the Inquisition melts into the air when we see that there was basically one Inquisition sheriff to police the popular religious heresies of a Mexican state the size of West Virginia, and that sheriff just really wanted to hang up his gun, retreat to a hermitage, and commune with God rather than deal with the dreary academic committee work to which he had been assigned. I hear you, Fray Munoz!

Here, the center cannot hold, and yet it’s not mere anarchy that’s loosed upon the world, because something holds these worlds together, and it’s that something that we’re struggling to figure out a language for. The more contemporary terminology adopted by historians of this era in order to move beyond the obviously inaccurate language of the past – so “encounter” replaces “discovery,” and “contact zone” replaces “settlement,” and the like – is challenged by a number of our presenters today. Several of them suggest that the more contemporary language that has arisen in order to give agency to Native peoples during the colonial era, instead has effectively “dehumanized our subjects by denying them the ability to engage and be engaged by one another.” And in Lin’s paper, a concept such as “indigenized Christianity” is still borrowing from a “conversion” model that has questionable relevance to the worldview of Natives in New England. And in Mike’s Pasquier’s paper, religion seems to be absent because the dead missionaries on whom even contemporary scholars rely are absent; they aren’t writing the Jesuit Relations of Louisiana. Mike ends by asking “who’s controlling whose religious experiences in Native America? And what are we as historians comfortable calling religious.”

I would add another question, one derived not from scholarship but from Aretha Franklin: who’s zooming whom? There is so much here that speaks of people trying to figure out how to get what they want, which usually means adopting something of the language or symbology or another group, and there seems to be constant negotiations and manipulations involved with that.

I have neither the time nor expertise to comment on the specifics of the papers, and the scholars here are too much expert in their subjects to need any amateur commentary on my part. So what I want to do for a minute is raise a few big questions, hopefully for the purpose of discussion. I’m a religious historian so I am reading these papers in part in order to think about what ethnohistory has to teach religious history. The main item on that list is this: religious history, and religious studies ultimately, comes out of a deeply (if increasingly hidden) Protestant background of academia, and that has fundametnally informed the questions we have pursued, and now it informs the questions that we’re trying to reformulate or put behind us. The bête noire of American religious history – maybe of Latin American as well, but I’m just not sure – has been the reliance on the text and an implicit demand that subjects submit to some kind of doctrinal statement before they will meet our standards of religious behavior. This of course is not how “religion” has functioned for most societies in human history, but instead has been shaped by the early modern Reformation/Counter-Reformation debates extended forward into modern scholarly language. So what I take first and foremost from these presentations is the ethnohistorical emphasis on religious practice rather than religious words as being fundamental to how we understand these historical subjects.

And what may ethnohistorians take in reverse? What may ethnohistorians learn from religious historians and religious studies folk? These categories blend and merge, of course, so my distinction here is artificial, but just for the purposes of discussion let me separate them and see where we would end up in this conversation. The answer here to me is expressed best by Mike Pasquier, but is a common theme in several of the papers: “It’s in this type of fluid field of social interaction that people produce new moralities -- . . . where small groups of people experiment with novel and potentially volatile modes of behavior and interaction, and where there is the likelihood for the alteration and transformation of religion as it is understood and practiced in colonial settings by both newcomers and natives.” The fact that these papers do seem to borrow from religious studies and historical models – which increasingly see religious practice as an ever-evolving process rather than a fixed endpoint – is why words and concepts that have come out of ethnohistory, such as “contact” and “indiginezed Christianity,” are called into some question here.

I’m reminded of the recent book by my friend Tisa Wenger, WE HAVE A RELIGION. Looking at Puebelo dances in the 1920s, Wenger shows how cultural modernists allied with Indian tribes in defining their dances as cultural traditions to be preserved, and as their “religion,” a separate category that, when separated that way, fell under the protections of the First Amendment. But of course those who wanted to opt out of those “religions” had the protection of the Amendment as well, meaning that when defined as “religion” Pueblo dances could not be stamped out (as missionaries had previously tried to do) but could not serve the same communal functions as before. This was the cost of defining “religion” within a nation state that implicitly accepted Protestant models for defining what “religion” was.

We have our own modern-day model that still implicitly orders what we’re doing here. I’d say that model is summed up in the following cliché: spiritual but not religious. Much of what we se ehere falls under the category of spirituality, which tends to get valorized; and what is “religious” are the doctrine definers and enforcers who are far less popular. I do think those contemporary assumptions have affected study of religion in the past, and there are some reasons to be on guard there.


J. Stapley at: October 5, 2009 at 10:52 AM said...

Thanks for the write-up. I enjoyed Micheal MA thesis and am glad to see that he is continuing his great research. The entire session appears quite interesting.

fatedplace at: October 5, 2009 at 3:13 PM said...

Fantastic post. Your comments about the intersection of religious history and ethnohistory will be running around in my head for some time.

Christopher at: October 7, 2009 at 9:24 AM said...

Thanks for this, Paul. Great stuff.

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