The Bible, Race, and Indigeneity: A Response

Andie Alexander closes out our series on indigeneity–part of a conversation on “The Bible and Race in the USA.” See the rest of the discussion to explore other contexts and analyses.

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I thoroughly enjoyed having the opportunity to read these essays which explored issues of race, scripture, and religion by analyzing discourses around issues of spirituality, indigeneity, and identity for Native Americans in relation to the Bible. As noted by each of the authors, discourses on scripture and indigeneity are anything but simple or obvious—these issues are often fraught with contest, tension, oppression, and struggle. With that in mind, I think each of the authors were quite successful in beginning to highlight the complexity of these issues. Of course, only so much can be said in a short piece, but I think that all of the essays work quite well to start a dialogue on issues and constructions of identity for indigenous groups.

In Twila McAdams essay “The Sioux Nation’s Soft Territorialism,” we learn about contests over land with the Sioux Nation currently battling the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). I think this is an excellent topic to begin looking at contests regarding land and identity. Not only is it an extremely timely topic with ample source material—more appearing daily—but also is a fantastic way to being looking at issues of identity as they relate to space and borders. As borders are often invoked in terms of identity (e.g., nation-states), this contest between DAPL and the Sioux Nation is a very fascinating example at how social groups create and patrol their borders and then how those borders help to reinforce certain notions of individual and group identity, e.g., as an indigenous person, as a member of the Sioux Nation, as an outsider to the US, etc. And while I would caution McAdams against the use of generalized terms such as “the Native Americans” and would suggest to qualify and nuance some of that language, I think that the essay is an excellent starting point. While not explicitly stated, McAdams seems to argue for a sacrality of land. It would be interesting to see more about how the “sacred” is created—not just from prayer, but what sort of language is used to establish this land as sacred, as opposed to just land? I think McAdams does a good job in beginning to analyze the discourse of land and borders as a way of constructing identity. Contests and protests are just one of the ways in which identity is constructed—what sort of rhetoric do the protests draw on, how do these actions help to reify group cohesiveness and identity, what sort of rhetoric about land is used to construct Sioux identity against that of American identity perhaps? This essay works well to critically analyze the concept of land and space, which can often be taken for granted. But it is in these moments of contest for space where the scholar of religion can see what sort of rhetorical work is being done to establish place and identity in very particular ways, i.e., what agendas are being promoted, by whom, and to what end. There are so many questions this argument could explore, and I would love to see these ideas developed further.

In Maya Aphornsuvan’s essay on the Pledge of Allegiance, we learn about the use of scripture in establishing one’s identity by exploring current issues surrounding participation in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Aphornsuvan does well in highlighting the ways in which the notion scripture (which itself is quite varied) works to help create or break down certain social identities. By recognizing that people bring their own experiences and biases to interpreting scripture, Aphornsuvan notes the constructed nature of its significance, i.e., it is quite contingent on a number of factors and not self-evidently or universally significant. While I would caution against generalized terms and suggest that these relationships between Native Americans, Christians, missionaries, etc., are in fact quite complicated and require much more nuance. That said, I think this essay addresses some very productive theoretical questions. For one, Aphornsuvan, I think, correctly argues that scripture—in this case, the Pledge of Allegiance—works to establish a certain type of identity and history for the United States. Consequently, as addressed in the history of the Pledge, this scripture works to establish a normative identity, thereby excluding certain groups of people. To make that point further, Aphornsuvan asks why this is even newsworthy material. By continuing to display the “non-status-quo” as subversive or problematic, the status-quo is maintained, or the scripture continues to shape identity in a particular way. For further exploration, I think it would be very interesting not only to look at the rhetoric of the scripture, but also to then look at the discourses surrounding it. That is to say, not just to enter into the debate of whether this construction of scripture is good or bad, but instead to look at the ways it is being discussed and addressed by those supporting it and those speaking against it. By looking at these sorts of discourses, rather than just the debate itself, we can learn a lot about the ways in which identity is being created and constructed through the referencing of this scripture so to then look at the potential effects of these discourses on national identity in the U.S. That is, what are the effects of these discourses in establishing a certain type of identity as the right kind of American identity and how do they work to maintain the dominance of certain social groups while continuing to marginalize others? By exploring the contingent nature of scripture and interpretation, this essay works well to start a productive conversation regarding how these interpretations are used to construct or complicate notions of identity.

In Madi Dodge’s essay, we learn about the complexity and tension surrounding the construction of a monument to Chief Crazy Horse in the Black Hills Mountains. This is certainly a complex issue and there’s no simple solution. I think Dodge does a nice job in highlighting the discussed tensions between Native American groups and the United States. Dodge asserts that the construction of such a monument can be viewed by some as more disrespectful than reverential. That said, I would like to offer some pushback: as stated above, it is best to avoid broad generalizations where nuance is needed; also, while I appreciate the advocacy of the essay, I think that a shift in the argument would really strengthen this essay. Rather than generalizing about how different Native American groups regard land and religion, I think that shifting the focus of this essay to the discourses on how indigenous peoples regard land would be quite fascinating. By providing a more critical analysis of Warrior, Tinker, and Means, this essay could explore the ways in which scholars are shaping indigenous identity. What sort of ideas and assumptions does work perpetuate in terms of Native American identity, and how does that shape present interests? Rather than joining in that debate, I would love to see more analysis of the assertions they make. I think it would really strengthen what is already a good essay. And by shifting the conversation from the good/ill debate of the monument to the discourses on Native American spirituality in the US (i.e., how these different social groups navigate and negotiate space and religion), this essay could explore what sort of work these discourses do and how they shape and create identity for indigenous people in the US. I think this is an excellent start and would love to see how it develops.

Andie Alexander HeadshotAndie Alexander is a second-year M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focuses on the discourses on belief, practicality of definition, identity construction, and distinction of public and private with regard to issues and constructions of religious freedom in the U.S. She also contributes to the Studying Religion in Culture Grad blog. Read her posts here.

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