Decoloniality article

Taking a Critical Indigenous and Ethnic Studies Approach to Decolonizing Religious Studies

An Indigenous sovereignty protest in Washington, D.C. on January 20, 2017. Photo Credit: Flickr user Mobilus In Mobili.

As religious studies scholars, it is critical for us to explore the racialized perceptions of non-western religious traditions and peoples as well as to trace how these peoples continue to be structurally dispossessed as a result of those perceptions. Decolonizing religious studies means making the hierarchies that exist materially among peoples and their knowledge systems legible. It also means reclaiming and re-centering Indigenous epistemologies, given their historically violent subjugation. While the field has acknowledged its complicity with primitivist and Orientalist discourses, it continues to ignore how structural racism may be operating within it, namely by dismissing the use of decolonial and Indigenous methodologies.

Native American and Indigenous religious traditions were, until fairly recently, perceived by anthropologists and scholars of religion as failed epistemologies, the “primitive” knowledge systems of less complex societies. Categorized as “animism,” their views were framed as childish, superstitious, and cited as clear evidence that they lacked the rationality to govern themselves or lay legitimate claims to their own lands. Indigenous peoples in the Americas were understood to be not only without reason, but also without true religion, making their full humanity suspect. Settler colonial projects relied upon these ideologies to justify Indigenous enslavement, genocide, and dispossession. These ideologies produced legal structures like the Doctrine of Discovery, a series of papal bulls that declared lands not inhabited by Christians open to seizure by right of “discovery” (theft), becoming one of the most enduring tools of Indigenous dispossession. Indigenous peoples in the Americas continue to live with both the material and ontological legacies of this dispossession. The two are intimately tethered. Scholars of religion must take seriously the real material effects of their contributing to constructions of Indigenous peoples as anything less than fully cogent, agentive, and as having rights to their lands.

While liberation operates as a critical theme in religious studies, the field does not necessarily center projects of liberation—whether from social, spiritual, or even existential constraints. I entered the field of religious studies to research the links between social and religious/spiritual liberation among Native American and Tibetan peoples, given the violent inequities created by settler colonialism. Discourses of liberation in theory and praxis are often left to philosophy of religion or theology. Religious studies sought to differentiate itself from theology by taking historical, sociological, and even anthropological approaches to the study of religion. Liberation theologians recognized material inequities and sought to ameliorate them through a preferential treatment of the poor as an expression of faith. Liberation theology as a praxis is directed at both religious and material liberation and has since been taken up by Black, Indigenous, and other theologians of color to explore the roles of race, gender, and sexuality to these ends, for instance through the exploration of Black, Womanist, and Queer theology. Although resonant with these approaches, a decolonial framework articulates clear critiques of colonial power at the level of epistemology, visibilizing the need for Indigenous knowledge reclamations. As a Chicana scholar of Apache descent, a decolonial approach was ultimately more resonant with the aims of my project in general and Indigenous sovereignty in particular.

While decolonial discourses have been present in activist circles since the nationalist movements of the middle 20th century, they have begun to enter mainstream academia in the last few years. Decolonial thought in the U.S. has overlapping but distinct genealogies. One, referred to as decolonial theory, is situated among Latin American theorists, represented in the work of Aníbal Quijano and Walter Mignolo, and is in conversation with post-colonial, critical, and anti-colonial theorists like Frantz Fanon. The other, focused on decolonial praxis, emerged from the work of U.S.-based women of color feminists, such as Emma Perez and Chela Sandoval, in conversation with postmodern and post-colonial thinkers like Homi Bhaba.

Like settler colonial theory, decolonial theory makes the superstructures of colonial inequities in places like Latin America and the Caribbean visible. Decolonial theorists argue that western imperialism operates at the level of epistemology and that modernity could be better understood as coloniality, since modern social structures were determined and continue to operate through colonial projects and their mechanisms, such as racialization. Decolonial theory challenges coloniality’s hierarchies of power/knowledge by denaturalizing the white western world’s monopoly on legitimate knowledge production, who is considered an authoritative voice, and importantly for the field, the ways religious and racial discourses operated together to redefine personhood in the new world.

The latter work on decolonial praxis emerged from the intersectional discourses of women of color working in feminist and ethnic studies activist/scholar spaces. Like liberation theology, ethnic studies is an insurgent body of scholarship forged in the late 1960s that aimed to achieve philosophical and material liberation by enacting a “radical agency against empire, conquest, criminalization, and enslavement” (2) that operates on the global stage. Ethnic studies became the academic space where African-American, Asian-American, Pacific, Latinx, and Native American epistemologies and histories were researched, reclaimed, and re-centered. More recently critical ethnic studies has articulated overlapping links among the multiple intellectual traditions represented in ethnic studies to colonial logics such as heteronormativity, racial capitalism, and white supremacy. The aim of making such links is to distinguish itself from the domesticating discourse of liberal multiculturalism within academia. Like decolonial theory, critical ethnic studies discourses visiblize the structural legacies of colonialism but in settler colonial contexts. Settler colonial theory is mostly applied in white settler contexts, such as the U.S., Canada, and Australia; however, its application in other regions of the worlds, such as Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean is now being explored.

Native American studies co-emerged with ethnic studies and eventually joined with Indigenous studies in order to mobilize towards philosophical and material liberation, which meant explicitly advocating for Native American and Indigenous sovereignty. Here, decolonization is explored as both an end goal in the form of “land back”—the reallocation of Indigenous lands to Indigenous peoples—and the radical praxis that supports this end. Native American and Indigenous studies (NAIS) challenged the colonial legacy of knowledge production on Indigenous peoples by developing Indigenous methodologies, which take an endogenous approach to Indigenous life, essentially deferring to Native peoples as the foremost experts of their own experience and knowledge systems. As a result, new ethical protocols for research have been articulated, given the ways Indigenous peoples and their epistemologies have been delegitimized, misappropriated, and pathologized in the service of white supremacy/racial capitalism. Critical Indigenous studies takes an internationalist approaches to Indigeneity as a global discipline that includes, for example, both Native and Māori studies. In addition, this critical intervention can be understood as an intersectional approach that privileges gender, sexuality, and feminist studies perspectives in its emancipatory project of Indigenous sovereignty, since gender and sexuality are “core constitutive elements of imperialist-colonialist state formations” (6). Theories of decolonial praxis rooted in Indigenous and critical Indigenous studies frameworks help us understand how we, Indigenous peoples and those of Indigenous descent, get free from coloniality—how we break the ontological spells we have internalized and become liberated, how we assert and step into our full humanity.

I take a critical ethnic/Indigenous studies approach to understanding Indigenous religious life by using critical readings from Native scholars or those that center the voices and views of Indigenous peoples. In essence, I center Indigenous epistemologies and assert them as epistemologies in their own right, as opposed to theologies. This not only challenges the assumption that theology is a universal category but also that Indigenous religious worlds are just “beliefs,” subservient to western knowledges. I do this to think beyond the normative assumptions embedded in religious studies, such as history of religion approaches, that may seek to universalize or reimagine these complex worlds through wholly western categories.The work of Charles LongTomoko Masuzawa and more recently, critiques by Mallory Nye, remind us that the field was built upon colonial misreadings of the Other. It has done so, as Nye points out, through its “text-focused orientalist scholarship associated with philology, the thematic (and speculative) approaches of Edward Tylor, the functionalism of sociology, the ethnographic and particularist approaches of anthropology, or the contemporary phenomenology that was popularized by Ninian Smart in the 1960s and 70s” (43). These theories are not only mired in primitivism (and Orientalism), but in a western Christian materialist framework that is generally perceived as neutral and even “objective.”

Theories of decolonial praxis rooted in Indigenous and critical Indigenous studies frameworks help us understand how we, Indigenous peoples and those of Indigenous descent, get free from coloniality—how we break the ontological spells we have internalized and become liberated, how we assert and step into our full humanity.

While on the job market, I received critiques that my work was “too theological,” which is a field-specific dog whistle suggesting that an endogenous approach is uncritical, biased, and illegitimate scholarship—”isn’t considering Indigenous perspectives and voices just sharing narratives from an insider’s perspective?” In addition, the normative claims I make in my work in support of Native sovereignty (liberation) may be perceived as taking an “insider’s” stance. Another critique was that my research is more representative of “ethnic studies than religious studies,” as if exploring the intersections of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and religious praxis as decolonial praxis are beyond the appropriate purview of the field. These critiques are directed at my own racialized body, the evaluation of my competence as a scholar of Native descent, and my work as an inherent critique of western-centered knowledge. They are additionally linked to the ways Indigenous knowledges have been framed as a foil to European superiority in the academy.

While there is a general awareness that the field contributed discursively to colonial projects, few scholars consider how their training colors their own perceptions of how research with non-western/non-Christian religious traditions should be done, much less with the non-white scholars that study them. In other words, they don’t recognize how structural racism is operating in the field or within themselves. There is a struggle around the role of “objectivity” in the field of religious studies, an assumption that one can and must teach and publish about religions from an objective and neutral perspective. Travis Warren Cooper argues that this struggle is rooted in the Protestant secular, or the ways in which Protestantism divides the world into two domains, the public (secular) and private (religious). These divisions remain and continue to structure the way that religious studies as a field operates, particularly disciplining non-Christian work that falls outside of what the Protestant secular defines as objective.

Given the field’s colonial history, we need to interrogate the colonialist assumptions that determine who can make truth claims about non-western/non-Christian religions and how, as well as who has the right to determine what constitutes legitimate scholarship. A critical step in this direction is to recognize that there is no neutral position. As scholars, we are always speaking from a particular place, laden with varying degrees of power and interest. One of the problems of labeling the endogenous study of non-Christian/western traditions as theological is that it assumes, a.) that a secular/religious binary is universal, b.) that an endogenous study is uncritical, emic, and ultimately subjective, and c.) that there is only one epistemological position from which one can properly pursue the study of religion. When we dehumanize Indigenous peoples at the level of epistemology, the endogenous study of Indigenous knowledge is rendered illegible. Even impossible. When we ignore the role of colonial/Christian theological logics still operating in the field, we marginalize and silence the work of the most vulnerable among us. Decolonizing the field means religious studies scholars can no longer make ahistorical assessments of nonwestern/non-Christian scholarship and ignore their political histories, as if those political histories do not directly correlate to how knowledge is produced, and power is waged.

Natalie Avalos
Natalie Avalos is an Assistant Professor in the Ethnic Studies department at University of Colorado Boulder. She is an ethnographer of religion whose research and teaching focus on Native American and Indigenous religions in diaspora, healing historical trauma, and decolonization. She received her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of California at Santa Barbara with a special focus on Native American and Indigenous Religious Traditions and Tibetan Buddhism and is currently working on her manuscript titled The Metaphysics of Decoloniality: Transnational Indigeneities and Religious Refusal, which explores urban Indian and Tibetan refugee religious life as decolonial praxis. She is a Chicana of Apache descent, born and raised in the Bay Area.

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