Native American Religious Freedom: An Interview with Tisa Wenger

Paul Harvey

My colleague in the Young Scholars in American Religion program, Tisa Wenger, has had quite a year. First she had baby Dylan; then she (as of the last month) gave birth to her long-awaited new book; and this fall, she will be having a new job: as Assistant Professor of American Religious History at Yale University Divinity School!! Congratulations to Tisa on all three counts.

Earlier we had posted a preliminary notice for her (then) forthcoming book We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (University of North Carolina Press, 2009); now that it has forthcome, I'm happy to post this blog interview with the author, who discusses her background growing up in Africa, her interests in the field of religious studies, and her work on Native American religions.

(on a related note, here's a great slide show on Native artists and art during the New Deal era in Santa Fe, from an exhibition last year).


1) Tisa, you have an unusual background, as I recall as a "missionary kid" in Southern Africa. Can you say something about your background and how it has influenced your scholarly choices in terms of topics, approaches, or whatever?

Being a missionary kid has absolutely shaped my work, from the decision to go to graduate school in religious studies to the kinds of questions that I am working on today. I was born in Sierra Leone, in West Africa, where my parents taught English for three years, although we returned to the U.S. when I was only two. Most of my early childhood memories are from the small country of Swaziland, where my family lived when I was five to eleven years old (from 1975 to 1981). We were very aware of the politics of apartheid in neighboring South Africa; as Mennonite missionaries with a reputation for opposing apartheid my parents could not obtain visas, so we never visited, but the responsibility of the church to act against apartheid was a constant topic of discussion. My father's primary assignment in Swaziland was to provide training and leadership development for the Swazi independent churches, and I will never forget attending all-night services with what seemed like endless sermons, prayers, and most of all the singing and dancing that is so characteristic of African churches. Midway through our time there the Swaziland Council of Churches invited my father to become its General Secretary, a position he tried to refuse on the grounds that it should be held by a Swazi person. The Anglican bishop, a Swazi man, informed him that since he had come to serve the churches in Swaziland he must now do as he was told. He took the position, but I remember his discomfort with doing this as a white American. We left Swaziland a year earlier than planned because he realized that this was the only way that the council would make a serious search for a suitable replacement, and he was very gratified when the council chose a well qualified Swazi woman for the position. After I left home my parents returned to Africa, spending six years in Tanzania with the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and then six more in Mozambique with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). In all of these assignments my parents were very conscious of the legacy of missionary involvement in colonialism, and of the ongoing racism and global systems of inequity that placed them in positions of power. In line with the current policies of the Mennonite agencies they did their best to undercut these dynamics by serving only at the invitation of African churches; as MCC country representatives in Mozambique they worked with local church organizations who wanted missionary teachers, doctors, nurses, agricultural workers, etc.

My interests in topics of missionary history, race and religion, and religion and politics developed through these experiences. For various reasons I wanted to situate my own research within the United States, looking at these dynamics within American culture and the complex relationship of racism, colonialism, etc. with American Christianity. Methodologically I suppose these experiences have made me very concerned with presenting the full complexity of any given story. Like most missionaries my parents never fit the negative stereotype of missionaries, and there is almost always more going on than the familiar narrative of missionary complicity in colonial and imperial projects would suggest.

2) How did you become interested in the topic of your book WE HAVE A RELIGION? Take us through your process, from initial conceptualization to finished book.

WE HAVE A RELIGION is a major revision of my dissertation (Princeton University, 2002), which began with a question about how missionaries and anthropologists represented Native American religion. This topic brought together my growing engagement in the cultural history of the study of religion (investigating the social contexts and implications of developing conceptions of "religion") with my ongoing research interests in the intersections of religion, race, and colonialism. Rather than asking this question in general I wanted to ground it in a very specific historical case, and was looking at the American southwest as a region mostly neglected in U.S. religious history. I finally decided to focus on the Pueblo Indians because the amount of attention they had received over the years from both anthropologists and missionaries created a very interesting story and meant there was a rich set of sources.

Early in my research I ran across the Pueblo dance controversy of the 1920s and determined that this little-known yet historically important dispute would allow me to address all my theoretical concerns in a focused and compelling way. As I worked on the topic I became more and more interested in the perspectives of the Pueblo Indians themselves in these events, and was able to find Pueblo voices from that time in the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, the New Mexico state archives, various reform agencies, and the Doris Duke American Indian Oral History Project (completed in the 1970s). The Pueblos' resourcefulness in a very tough situation deserves recognition, and the implications of their appeal for religious freedom became one of the most interesting aspects of the story. More and more the book became about the difficulties for Native Americans of gaining religious freedom, and about the cultural bias of the religious freedom ideal. Religious freedom is based on conceptions of religion-- as a matter of individual conscience, and as something separable from other spheres of life-- that really do not make sense for Native American traditions. WE HAVE A RELIGION shows the impact of these notions of religion on the Pueblo Indians at a time when, in order to protect their ceremonial traditions from government suppression by appealing to religious freedom guarantees, they increasingly spoke of these traditions as a religion (for various reasons they had not done so previously, as my first chapter explains).

Secularism and secularization are themes that emerged rather unexpectedly in my writing. The anthropologists and artists who romanticized Pueblo religion and fought for Indian religious freedom in the 1920s were also fighting against a virtual Protestant establishment that had long dominated Indian affairs, and they sought to replace Christianity with secular/scientific sources of authority. They were eventually successful in that effort, though it was a very gradual process, and an important step was their valorization of Indian traditions as religions just as legitimate as Christianity. But I also came to see that the new more "secular" regime maintained many of the same cultural biases regarding religion as an individual and non-political sphere of life. By the 1930s the government formally recognized Indian ceremonies as religion with the right to constitutional protection, but in many ways this recognition only strengthened the pressures to "modernize" other aspects of Indian life by clearly separating this newly identified religion (now the designated repository of tradition) from tribal governance and other aspects of tribal life.

3) Religion in the Southwest is certainly, I think, a neglected topic in the more general field of religious history. The establishment of Santa Fe, after all, preceded Jamestown and Boston. Can you say something about how you conceptualize studying religion in the very specific and unique historical context of the current-day American Southwest?

Religion in the U.S. west as a whole has not received much attention either from religious studies or from the burgeoning field of western history, which has tended to focus on economic and environmental questions without much acknowledgement of the importance of religion to those topics or for its own sake. The southwest is a distinctive region in its own right, given its long history as part of New Spain and then Mexico, and its ongoing status as a borderland between the U.S. and Mexico. As such it raises a set of crucial issues for the study of American religion. Some of these are faced by all American historians: to the extent that we conceive of our field as "American history," our narratives perhaps necessarily focus on the formation and development of the United States, starting with the British colonies and the patterns set in the early republic. How then can we do justice in survey texts and courses to the distinctive histories of regions that were relatively late additions to the union? As a field we are still struggling to shape new narratives that do not reinscribe the old grand narrative of white Protestants moving westward to "conquer" a continent, but convey something of the scope and diversity of experiences and actors that have made America what it is. Some of the answer may be in the trend in American studies away from the focus on the nation, to look at issues of transnationalism and globalization; perhaps a rich history of the southwest that is not exclusively oriented around U.S. nationhood is another side of that trend. The nation is far from irrelevant, but surely there are other stories to tell as well.

Studying religion in the southwest requires us to abandon the assumption of Protestant dominance, although the role of Protestants in the nation as a whole remains an important part of the story. Catholics have a much longer history here, and there are many layers of Catholic presence (Spanish, Native American, Mexican-American, European immigrants moving west) that have never been adequately studied. Racial dynamics and racial categorizations are also quite different here than in most of the country: Native Americans are far more visibly present than in many other areas, Asian Americans are very important especially in California, and of course Hispanics were here long before "Anglos." Thinking about the intersections of race and religion in the southwest therefore requires thinking beyond (without losing sight of) the black-white duality that is otherwise so important in American racial formations.

Many people in Arizona, where I have lived for the past five years, are recent arrivals; in many ways the region epitomizes the transient and immigrant qualities of the country as a whole. It would seem important then to look at the significance of religion in the context of this transience, and how people may construct religious identities and seek out religious communities to address feelings of instability and unrootedness, while others quite happily leave formal religious affiliation behind but may find meaning in alternative or individualized spiritualities. At the same time there are the much longer and deeper histories of Native Americans and Hispanics in the region, histories of which many of the newer arrivals seem blissfully unaware. Whether or not our work focuses specifically on the west or the southwest, it would seem extremely important to integrate these dimensions into our general narratives of American history and religion, not just as a "regional" story but as crucial and revealing parts of the larger whole.

4) One big interest of yours is the category of "religion" itself -- how it has been defined historically, and the problematic nature of those definitions. Can you say something about how your background in Religious Studies influences your focus on religion as a category of analysis in your scholarship?

Yes, many of us in religious studies have been engaged recently in these questions about the category of religion, and in many ways WE HAVE A RELIGION is intended as an intervention in that debate. Most important in my thinking was a series of works, most importantly Talal Asad's GENEALOGIES OF RELIGION, arguing that there can be no final definition of religion because the category of religion itself is the product of a specific historical context, that what is considered "religion" changes over time, and that every configuration of this category has political implications. The concept of religion emerged in Europe as part of a cluster of social/cultural configurations associated with modernity, and the very identification of religion implied a separation of that newly identified religion from other spheres of life (politics, art, education, economics, etc). The effort in western modernity—-and arguably this has always been more of an ideological programme than an accomplished reality--has been to define religion as a private and individual affair, the realm of tradition, that must be kept strictly separated from (and is implicitly irrelevant to) "modern," "public," and "secular" affairs of government and business. (Some like Bruce Lincoln have taken the current backlash from Islamists and fundamentalist Christians against such concepts of religion as evidence that only a privatized religion is workable for western democracies. I would argue instead that the effort to privatize religion created the conditions for such a backlash, and that longer-term solutions will require alternative configurations of religion and its relationship to other spheres of life.)

One of my interventions in this book is to point out the rather obvious fact that although "religion" may originally have been a Western construct, many groups of people around the world have made it their own. Religion may not have been an indigenous category centuries ago, but Native Americans in the United States today certainly do understand and describe their indigenous traditions as religion. They began to do so for obvious reasons, in part to claim constitutional protection from government suppression under the First Amendment, and more broadly because identification as religion provides a certain legitimacy and status in America's cultural and legal systems. This happened at different times for different tribes across the United States, and WE HAVE A RELIGION looks specifically at how this process occurred among the Pueblo Indians of the early twentieth century. I tried to convey the full complexity and ambivalence of the process: on the one hand the Pueblos successfully defended their dance ceremonies; on the other hand the conceptual apparatus of religion and religious freedom only exacerbated a variety of "modernizing" pressures on tribal life. More specifically, government officials increased their demands that the Pueblos treat ceremonial participation as a matter of individual conscience and choice rather than as community obligation, and that they generally separate ceremonial life from tribal governance. Their story provides a glimpse into the process of cultural change in colonial conditions. But it is important to see that Native Americans have also made the concept of "religion" their own and in many ways have used it to their own advantage. Such conceptual categories are always shifting and multivalent, and I think it's a mistake on many levels to suggest that "religion" is inherently or universally a tool of colonial control or of western domination.

5) Like the work of Emma Anderson featured previously on our blog, your topic has painful contemporary application, particularly in terms of Native religious practices that are either unprotected by law, or are commodified, or both. To what degree did these kinds of more present-day concerns impact your work?

The final chapter of the book traces a few of the major religious freedom battles waged by Native Americans over the course of the twentieth century, asking how dominant conceptions of religion and religious freedom have affected these struggles, and to some extent how useful these categories have been to larger indigenous quests for sovereignty and self-determination. WE HAVE A RELIGION did not start with present-day concerns in mind, and my research was entirely historical, but I have become more and more aware of the contemporary importance of these issues and was careful to consider how my work might impact Indian religious freedom struggles today. I was very careful, for example, NOT to imply that the constructed nature of the categories made Indian religion or religious freedom claims somehow illegitimate. On the contrary, I would advocate for more expansive understandings of religion in order to strengthen such claims, but also would support efforts (and many already exist) to look beyond religious freedom for additional legal and cultural tools that might improve the status and living conditions of Native Americans today.

5) More generally, what do you think Religious Studies scholars have to teach historians, and vice-versa?

In my experience, religious studies scholars are necessarily conversant with a variety of approaches to religion, and so they tend to have a broader theoretical and methodological toolbox and spend more time problematizing the concepts and categories with which they work. Not all historians have this level of interdisciplinary theoretical engagement, and especially those interested in any dimension of the study of religion can learn from religious studies in this way. On the other side, folks in religious studies sometimes need to be reminded to keep their work carefully grounded in historical context, and to avoid treating religion as if it somehow existed in isolation from other cultural, social, economic, and political developments.

6) What kinds of future plans/writing projects do you have in mind?

I have pondered a series of possible topics for the next book, such as the role of religion in developing notions of whiteness in American history, or the significance of American Protestant home missions for cultural formations of race, religion, and pluralism. But what I've started working on now is the issue of religious freedom in nineteenth and twentieth century America. A familiar narrative of progress charts the expansion of religious freedom from the time of the Pilgrims, to the founding of the new republic and its guarantee of religious liberty to all, to the gradual inclusion of Jews, Catholics, and eventually (at least in theory) adherents of any of the world's religions. I have no desire to disprove this narrative as such, but I do want to make the picture more complex by showing some of the contradictions and limitations of the religious freedom ideal. Ironically, for example, America's very self-identification as the bastion of liberty (along with Protestant certainties about the Protestant origins of liberty) often provided ideological justification for the marginalization of religious minorities, particularly of Catholics, who were repeatedly condemned as the enemies of liberty, as well as for imperial conquests and invasions around the world. Further, as I've shown for Native Americans in WE HAVE A RELIGION, the very ideal of religious liberty carries cultural assumptions about the very nature of religion, assumptions that have continued to push religious minorities to fit into the dominant mold. Religious liberty is of course a laudable ideal and I would not want to abandon it, but we need to grapple with the problems of bias and exclusion that may actually be intrinsic to its historical and theoretical formulations.


rjc said…
What a great interview! Thanks to both Paul and Tisa for this.
Paul Harvey said…
Thanks goes to Tisa, actually; I just posed mundane questions, she gave great and provocative answers.
Anonymous said…
looks like a fantastic book; can't wait to read it!

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