Native American Religions

David J. Silverman

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online December 2012 | | DOI:
Native American Religions

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
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There are two different bodies of scholarship on American Indian religion, separated by academic discipline and period of focus. Archeologists and anthropologists make up the first group and train their attention on Indian life before the era of European colonization. For the most part, their data comes from archeological excavations supplemented by Indian oral histories, written accounts of Indian life from the post-Columbian era, and the comparison of different tribal societies. This scholarship tends to concentrate on centralized Indian societies, such as the Mayas, Aztecs, Incas, and Moundbuilders, because of the archeological mark those societies left. The second body of scholarship consists of historical explorations of Indian religious life under colonialism. Historians, literary scholars, and social and cultural anthropologists make up this field. Generally, their work focuses on Indians and European missionaries. Here, too, the sources drive the content. Historians rely upon written records to ply their trade, and missionaries had more to say about Indian religion, particularly Indian Christianity, than any other group of record keepers. Both of these scholarly camps have been shifting their emphasis in recent years. Some of the best recent work on Indian life before colonization has broadened its scope from the study of Indian material life to the interplay of religion and social and political hierarchy. Put another way, it has examined how Indians produced ideology—systems of belief, ritual, symbolism, and everyday behavior—that made social structures seem God-given or natural. Historical scholarship has changed, too. It was once common to question whether Indian conversion to Christianity was genuine, and to assume that missionaries were either altruistic or, in the case of scholarship after the late 1960s, wolves in sheep’s clothing. Today’s scholarship has little to do with these debates. For instance, increasing numbers of scholars of Indian Christianity avoid the term “conversion” because, they argue, it reflects the missionaries’ perspective and not the experience of Indians themselves. Instead, these scholars focus on how Native people “adopted” Christianity and used their own traditions to make it meaningful for themselves. They treat Indian evangelization of other Indians as well as colonial missionary work. Historians are also increasingly aware that many missionaries, despite their promotion of a colonial agenda that was ultimately hostile to Indian interests, often served as the best friends Indians had in an exploitative colonial regime. Some missionaries made genuine efforts to understand their charges, if only to undermine their beliefs.

Article.  7854 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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