Freedom of Religion

One of the highly touted liberties in the United States is freedom of religion.  It’s easy to believe this is true when you can walk down any “Church Street” in many mid-size towns and go shopping for a theology that fits your outlook.  What remains hidden here, however, is that the freedom is largely restricted to the “Judeo-Christian” tradition.  (Yes, I know “Judeo-Christian is a disputed category, but it classifies several belief systems that share a basis in the Bible.)  For religions that don’t necessarily agree with the premises of the biblical religions the story is quite different.  That’s because, at least in part, our culture is based on the Bible and its limited worldview.  Colonists, convinced by centuries of Christian hegemony, had assumed the rightness of the Christian outlook.  The indigenous religions they encountered were, from their point of view, heathen.

The word “heathen” covers basically the same territory as “pagan.”  Both mean a religion outside Christianity (and, grudgingly, Judaism).  I’ve recently read that the etymology of heathen goes back to those who live in the heath, or country dwellers.  Although this etymology is uncertain, it does make a great deal of sense.  Christianity became an urban religion fairly early on.  Not only that, it shook hands with empire and became the basis for capitalism.  So much so that the two are now teased apart only with great difficulty.  This also means that indigenous religions have never really had a place at the table.  Especially when they challenged the dictates of the capitalistic outlook.

American Indian religion is closely tied to the land.  As Vine Deloria made abundantly clear in God Is Red, any religion committed to ideas outside those of Christianity will lose when the two come into contact.  One of the reasons is that secular science is based on a Christian worldview.  Indians believe in sacred land.  Since “objective” science is based on the Christian doctrines of creation, there can be no holy land apart from “the holy land.”  At its very root the basic ideas of other religions are dismissed and therefore treated as if they aren’t religions at all.  The Supreme Court continues to make decisions that violate the free practice of Indian religion.  The recent fiasco with the Trump administration should show just how dangerous such thinking is.  Like it or not, religious liberty means you have (for the time being) the right to be the brand of Christian you wish.  Beyond that freedom has a very different meaning.

Shifting the Narrative

Wide ranging.  That’s a phrase that comes to mind to describe Vine Deloria Jr.’s book God Is Red: A Native View of Religion.  Another phrase is very important.  I know this book has been available for several years and it’s been on my reading list for many of those.  What is it about?  Some books are just difficult to summarize, but the basic answer is that it’s an American Indian view of how Christianity has distorted the world.  An accomplished academic, student of law, and activist, Deloria knew of what he wrote.  His book explains articulately the view of Christianity from the outside and what a religion that reverences the earth really looks like.  What makes the book so fascinating is that Deloria had theological training and could engage with the Christian worldview over a considerable range of topics.

Controlling the narrative is of primary importance and the fact is white men have controlled the narrative and normalized one view of history, science, and our place in the universe.  First nations peoples had, and some still have, a radically different outlook.  Deloria makes the crucial point that even our science developed out of our religion.  That science, in turn, supports the worldview that created it.  It is possible to look at things differently.  In fact, for much of human history those alternate views were predominant.  The triumphalist view of Christianity claims it’s successful because it’s right.  A native view takes a longer view, saying “we’ll see.”

Very concerned about the state of the planet brought on by the Christian/capitalist partnership, Deloria advocated for not only Indian rights, but environmental protection s well.  Not only is the environment central to Indian spirituality, the concept of sacred spaces is very real.  Many of us not raised with indigenous points of view have experienced this as well.  Some places are special to us.  We hesitate, because of that very science created by the Christian worldview and its view of God, to call such spaces objectively sacred.  Even the “objectively” part is determined by a Christian perspective.  Deloria ends up by asking whether this form of religion has improved the state of the world.  There’s no doubt that some of Christianity’s achievements have lessened human suffering.  It is also true that science has achieved great things.  If I understand correctly, Deloria isn’t disputing this.  His point of view is much more essential.  Is this the only way to live on this planet?  From the indigenous point of view, which is far more important that we want to admit, the question is—is this the only way to see it?

Religion’s Trickster

I’m not sure I’ve read any fiction by Native American writers before.  Owl Goingback has established a reputation among horror writers for his blending of Indian concepts and the horror genre.  Coyote Rage is a novel that blends worlds.  Coyote is, of course, a trickster figure.  Upset with human abuse of the world and our indiscriminate killing of animals, he decides to wipe out the human race.  Since all animals, including humans, plead their causes in the council in Galun’lati, the original world, he decides to take humans out by killing their last representative on the council, an elderly Native American in a nursing home.  The fact that his victim has a daughter unaware of her heritage, means that Coyote has two people to hunt.  As a shapeshifter able to travel between worlds, Coyote is a formidable enemy.

I don’t want to put any spoilers here, but it is worth considering the spiritual aspects of the story and how they blend so well into horror.  I’ve commented before on how religion plays into the genre.  Here is yet another example.  Galun’lati is presented as reality.  Not only do the animals talk there, it is a place that has its own dangers.  It’s a forest world, appropriate to Native American experience and context.  It’s very much a natural, supernatural world.  The novel splits its time between Galun’lati and the New World—this world—as humans try to prevent their own extinction while most people have no idea there’s even any threat.  Oblivious, we carry on.   Religion can play into horror that way.  While there are plenty of examples of purely secular horror, in my experience tales that have supernatural sources of threat are the scariest.

It may come back to the issue of ultimate concern.  When our spiritual wellbeing is taken into account, we often approach it with some trepidation.  The physical world feels so real and occupies much of our time.  If, however, we need to add spiritual concerns on top of everything else, it can become overwhelming.  What if physical threats, such as the coronavirus, and any other of a myriad of dangers, are only part of the picture?  What if there is another entire world in which we also have a stake?  If that world is beyond normal perception, we must rely on those who understand it.  Much effective horror knows to tap into this area of natural uncertainty.  Owl Goingback uses it remarkably well in crafting a horror tale that makes you think.


ManitousOne of the yearly autumnal rituals we’ve established is the watching of Escanaba in da Moonlight. It is a silly, crude, and profound movie that revolves around Native American lore—namely, the creature known as the bearwalk. Despite the high level of interest in monsters on the internet, the bearwalk continues to be elusive. Robert C. Wilson wrote a novel, Crooked Tree, about this Ojibwa legend, but academics have seldom explored it. The few resources I found pointed me to the wendigo. Wendigos are frightening spirits of the forest, sometimes presented as skinwalkers, or shape-shifters, who prey on unwary human beings. Some writers call them werewolves, but this isn’t exactly correct. Frustrated at finding no solid information, I picked up a copy of Basil Johnston’s The Manitous: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway. Johnston, who is Anishinaabe, writes to preserve the heritage of his people.

Manitous don’t have a direct equivalent in English. Some have been inclined to designate them as gods or spirits, but they inhabit that strange realm that overlaps with humans as well. The Ojibwa viewed the world as more animate than western science allows. People were part of this larger universe, but were not the sole end of intelligent life. The tales in this book map out an unseen territory where manitous may be found in lakes and streams, in the hearts of trees, in the early prototypes of humankind, and yes, in the wendigo. The wendigo (also spelled windigo or weendigo) is a representation of excessive acquisitiveness. They often begin life as humans, but become cannibals. As they eat other people their hunger grows, along with their bodies, and they cannot be satisfied. The more they eat the more their hunger remains. They are, therefore, extremely destructive, roaming the woods seeking human victims.

Throughout The Manitous, Johnston gives little in the way of editorial comment. One of his stories is a parable for the coming of Europeans and their subsequent treatment of Native Americans, but most of the tales are of the natural world. The wendigo occupies the last chapter of his book. Before putting the matter to rest, however, Johnston makes a poignant and valid point. Although the Ojibwa no longer believe in a literal wendigo, the treatment of the earth by corporations has taken its place. Always hungry, excessively greedy for more to be taken from the earth, industrialists have made the wendigo look as if it were an amateur slaughterer. Living lightly on the land, the Native Americans tried to take only what they needed. Europeans, on the other hand, created new things in order to keep the hunger going. And those who constantly create new needs grow wealthier and wealthier. Instead of naming this inherently destructive system the wendigo, we call it progress and happily invite it to live among us.

Heilige Geist

Poltergeist is one of those movies that evokes mixed emotions. Sure, it was one of the really scary ones when it just came out, and the rumors of a curse after the tragic early death of Heather O’Rourke probably added to the mystique. I actually didn’t see the movie until over a decade had passed since its release. It came out when I was in college, and I didn’t often splurge to see a movie in those days. VCRs were still expensive and your only real option was to rent a movie. In any case, a few years back I bought a cheap DVD and, after having seen many horror movies, it felt a little tame. And the ending was over-the-top. I have a theory that being unemployed makes you vulnerable to suggestion. Over the weekend I was looking for a movie I could watch for free on Amazon Prime, when Poltergeist II showed up. I hadn’t even realized that there had been a sequel, and after watching it, I think I understand why the movie was buried.


Poltergeist II: The Other Side picks up where the original left off. An added character, Taylor, a Native American shaman, brings good spirits to the Freeling family as the original poltergeists start to haunt Diane’s mother’s house, where they are staying. Interestingly, the ghosts are revealed to be those of a traveling, apocalyptic preacher and his followers. The preacher, Henry Kane, led his group to the desert where they awaited the end of the world and then died after it did not come. They were apparently the ghosts haunting the original Freeling house, and not those of the “Indian burial ground” that the first movie touted. Taylor brings the healing, Native American spirits into the conflict and they win out over the Christian sect ghosts. All of this was becoming more unbelievably campy until Carol Anne was rescued by her now deceased grandmother, in the form of an angel. This mythological cocktail left me feeling a bit dizzy.

Some interesting subtexts floated through this film. Native Americans were now good, rather than the haunting spirits of the first movie. Kane’s sect, which had to be a veiled reference to the Latter Day Saints, showed Christian millennialists as the truly dangerous otherworldly residents. Kane is a preacher (and Mezcal worm) that doesn’t really want to pass over into the light. Why he travels all the way to Phoenix to try to pick up a nine-year-old girl isn’t really clearly explained. Horror movies, of course, frequently make use of religion as a vehicle for what truly frightens. Often it is religion misunderstood. Kane was not a believable character, in this case, without the abject cynicism of an unholy ghost who traveled to the desert southwest to set up a new religion. Once Mormonism breaks into the mainstream, perhaps I’ll have the stomach to watch Poltergeist III and see where the evil shifts the next time.

Alternate Reality

Recall a time when you did something bad. We have all done it now and again. Even the memory possesses the power to churn the stomach and lower the brow. I just finished reading Native Voices: American Indian Identity and Resistance, edited by Richard A. Grounds, George E. Tinker, and David E. Wilkins. The essays in this volume are about Native Americans by Native Americans. Many of us are taught to believe that the United States government had found some way to deal peacefully, after some bloody battles, with those hostile to the arrival of Europeans, but the truth is much sadder and more sordid. While some may say the essays in this book dismiss academic standards, I have been on the receiving end of academic standards enough to know that even highly educated people can sometimes only cower and the reality is how you feel. That is what comes through every page of this book: what it feels like to be misrepresented, demonized, caricatured, forgotten. European colonizers stole what they could in the name of Christianity and left a legacy of tears.

I nevertheless learned a great deal from this book. Here, I came to understand, not everyone agrees with the standards that Euro-Americans use to measure the world. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Native American critique of science. Those of us trained in this method feel a knee-jerk reaction when it is questioned, but those willing to consider, to ponder, will realize that a scientific worldview is a culturally conditioned form of interpretation. Other forms exist, although they have frequently been silenced. There is more than one way of knowing. In many Native American religious traditions the land itself is sacred. Being removed from tribal lands was tantamount to being separated from tribal divinity. We might be better able to dismiss it all as ancient history were it not for the fact that the oppression continues to this day.

Comparison with another oppressed religion came to mind. Ancient Israel is understood only imperfectly, but we know that the land was crucial to Israel’s sense of identity. We should, as heirs of the Judeo-Christian tradition, be sympathetic to Indigenous American sensitivity to the bond between land and religion. In the former case, the United States supported the re-formation of Israel in the 1940s. We still keep our own indigenous people out of sight and use their land with impunity. Reading Native Voices raises some very troubling specters indeed. The colonizing religion here was Christianity, a religion that says it is more blessed to give, but is more than willing to take. And to invent a tortured theological justification for the action; it’s manifest destiny—whatcha gonna do? It is time we confront what was done to the people who were here first. I have no solution, but reading Native Voices is an appropriate way to start the discussion.

California State of Mind

California, it is sometimes said, is a state of mind. I leave today after a few days in Santa Barbara with a bag of mixed impressions of one of our nations great schools. My first impression on the University of California Santa Barbara campus was almost a physical one. Literally. I had no idea of the bicycle culture and nearly stepped into a bike lane with the flow of a New Jersey storm drain during a Nor’easter. California is a culture of wheels. I’d never been to a campus before that has four traffic lanes for non-motorized travel: two bike lanes going opposite directions, a skateboard lane, and the humble pedestrian walkway. There are so many skateboards here that the counter-culture has become conformist. Sorry, Bart, it’s true. And concern for the environment is palpable. Reclaimed rainwater feeds the lush plant life, every possible recycled item is sorted and sent to the correct facility, students bicycle instead of drive, smart cars are very evident for the two-wheel impaired, and almost nobody smokes. And as I ate my supper alone in the student union two separate groups of Christian students were having very vocal conversations about their faith. Free spirits not realizing that they’re trapped.

One conversation with a Native American specialist stayed with me. She spoke of how missionary work has damaged indigenous cultures irreparably. I listened in fascination as she told me about the local history. How an historic Spanish mission was publicly adorned with the skull of a murdered Native American and how it took years of persuading to get them to take it down, even in the late twentieth century. Across campus students are praying to Jesus for the courage to continue witnessing. In Newark, I suspect, a couple of guys are still laughing.

On a brief respite from my busy day of meetings, I walked the Lagoon (sorry, I can never see or say that word without thinking of Gilligan’s Island) Trail. Emphasizing the environmental features of this wetland habitat, the trail leads down to the ocean where flocks of pelicans and egrets fly overhead, unperturbed on the shores of the vast Pacific. In 1969 what had been to date the worst US waters oil spill took place from Platform A, still visible in the distance from the beach. My thoughts turn from Gilligan’s Island to Deepwater Horizon. My laughter to tears. The Lagoon Trail winds through the headland to a labyrinth. In today’s resurgence of interest in the labyrinth, it is viewed as a spiritual journey. Labyrinths appear in churches as early as the Roman Empire, but nobody knows what they mean. I silently stand beside the maze. What does it mean? Platform A leers from the ocean. Christian undergrads look to convert the world. And under the cross is not the skull of Adam, but that of an anonymous Native American. What does it mean?

Who Are the Wolves?

Last week I finished reading The Wolf at Twilight by Kent Nerburn. To be transparent here, I’d picked up the book at a Borders’ closing sale based largely on the subtitle: An Indian Elder’s Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows. It sounded like a good book for autumnal reading. The first chill breezes of fall swept through Manhattan last week, and I curled up with the book on the bus. I’m not sure what I expected, but what I found was nothing short of epiphanic. Those of us who’ve spent long years in religious studies, no matter what specific branch, know of the deeply spiritual writings of Native Americans. Black Elk Speaks is a classic often required in Religion 101 and it is still as potent today as it was back when first penned. The danger, which Nerburn clearly states, is in assuming a mystical kind of stereotype for a very real people who have continually been—and still are—hidden away as an embarrassment of the United States’ melting pot image.

The Wolf at Twilight is a follow-up to Nerburn’s Neither Wolf nor Dog, a book that I have not read. In that original narrative, Nerburn describes his encounters with “Dan,” a Native American, Lakota elder. The Wolf at Twilight is the story of how Dan finds closure in locating the resting place of his sister, from whom he was separated at childhood. The journey, spiritual though it may be, is a wrenching one. Speaking from my experience, many children grow up in America learning only cursory pieces of the large and tragic mosaic of how the Native Americans were treated by own government. The story of Dan is one of clashing worldviews where any system that stands against the ideal of private ownership—sadly embodied in the Christian settlers of this nation—is inevitably shredded, and, if embarrassing enough, hidden from future generations. Our ancestors did a great disservice to our fellow human beings, in the name of religion. Manifest destiny had an overly healthy dose of the divine right of Christians in it. An idea poisonous to anyone who might challenge the concept of personal gain.

As a neophyte in this field of reading, I was sickened by much of what I read here. It will take more than a single post to outline some of the more poignant inconsistencies between Christian practice and preaching perpetrated upon those who were here before us. A people forcefully converted to a religion that was openly oppressive to them reveals the dark underbelly of missionary zeal and the truth of the evils religion can hide. Or even justify. Often Dan decries the religion that believes all the answers are in a black book. What was done to his own family in the name of Christianity led to several restless nights for this reader. Kent Nerburn writes with the conviction of a man haunted by an experience of rough reconciliation. From the title, I had expected maybe werewolves or specters to roam this book, but instead what I found was much more terrifying. It was the naked lust for personal gain—a monster that no crucifix or prayer ribbon can ever banish or dispel.

Ipse Dixit Dragon

Confession time: I have little patience for scholars who have already made up their minds before examining the evidence. Anyone who has put themselves through the ordeal of reading my academic publications will know that I do not advocate sloppy research or slipshod thinking. Nevertheless, if we are to be honest about our world, we must follow the evidence. It is for this reason that I sometimes read unconventional material. I am well aware that untrained amateurs sometimes misinterpret what they see (so do trained professionals), but when evidence exists, why deny it? I just finished reading Archie Eschborn’s The Dragon in the Lake. Chalk this up to my having lived for many years in southern Wisconsin, and maybe a touch of nostalgia. I first learned of Eschborn’s book while teaching for a year in the Anthropology and Religion Department at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. The chair of the Anthropology Department had me in his office one day and showed me this book by a “crackpot” amateur underwater explorer who really believed the claims that Rock Lake – between Madison and Milwaukee – actually housed underwater Native American structures.

I visited Rock Lake during my years in Wisconsin, along with the nearby prehistoric site of Aztalan State Park. There is no doubt that Aztalan was a major settlement of Native American mound builders. The structures there, while not quite rivaling Cahokia in southern Illinois, are quite impressive. Aztalan is three miles east of Rock Lake. Rumors of “pyramids” in Rock Lake have circulated for many, many years. The lake, however, is clouded with marine growth and sediment, and although there are undoubtedly underwater features the official line is that they are glacial artifacts rather than human constructions. Eschborn’s book is an attempt to demonstrate the artificial nature of these features. At his own expense and effort, the author built up a small research society, purchased a boat, and spent several early springs and late falls (when the water is clearest) sending divers and sonar scanners into the water to document what is there. While the book was self-published (and could have used some professional editorial attention) it nevertheless lays out solid evidence that Rock Lake does house a mystery worthy of exploration.

While I can’t accept all of Eschborn’s conclusions, I would insist that his evidence demands the attention of those who deny it is even worth investigation. This is less a struggle of evidence versus absence of evidence than it is a struggle against academic arrogance: professionals know better and need not be bothered with evidence. I have personally witnessed this in my own field many, many times. It is what Eschborn calls “ipsi dicit” [sic]; ipse dixit, “he himself said it,” is the assumption that a well-respected authority may be accepted as uttering the truth in principle, based on reputation. Many professionals in this country make their living based on this faulty premise. Eschborn died prematurely shortly after his book was published, before he could launch the next phase of his investigations. While his interpretation of the data may reach too far, the world suffers for the loss of a truly open mind, and the establishment ruling, as usual, still stands.