Traditional belief of Native Americans can be difficult for non-Natives to follow, in part because of its holistic framework. Culture, life — all of it is properly religious. Calvinists have a vague sense of this. So one cannot blame Bobby Ross Jr. for wondering about the the state of Native American Religion, particularly on the Blackfeet reservation. In reacting to fine article in the New York Times, he wonders
After reading the lede, I wanted to understand how and why many residents see the land as “sacred.” The story proved a disappointment in that regard.
Instead, the Times skirts at the edges of those crucial questions:
To find the opposing view, one needs only to drive five miles west from Browning, past the casino, heading straight toward the mountains, and pull off at the red gate on the right. There, on a recent summer afternoon, over mugs of horsemint tea, Pauline Matt and a handful of Blackfeet women were trying to find a way to persuade the tribal leaders to stop the drilling.
“It threatens everything we are as Blackfeet,” she said.
What exactly does that “everything” encompass? Does it relate to these tribal members’ view of their Creator and place in this world?
As I said, I don’t blame him for the confusion.
The one element left off is how native religious beliefs are intimately tied with tribal identities as well as being emblematic of sovereign tribal nations. This confluence of identity and religion means that issues regarding land resonate with particular force. In recent years the resurgence of Traditional practices (e.g. learning of language) is often linked to the recovery of Traditionalist religious beliefs — both of these pointing to the question of sovereignty as a people, and more personally as Native. I take the question of Sovereignty as being the central concept, and with it who controls the land and its resources.
Traditional practices then acquire not only a religious element but often function in what we might think of as political. These are struggle about identities. With the rise of Native sovereignty, the further question of relation to the Euro-American society becomes central, particularly with the history of missions, thus making religious practices a useful demarcation: in or out. Thus the importing of industry brings to mind the notorious record of treaty violations and even more, the failure of trust policies: Religion then becomes the tool to push back, to not sell out.
All this is to say, I was not surprised at the Traditionalists asserting a claim to the land. But as others have noted, there is something of an artifice at work here. The difficulty in speaking of native religious belief arises from how many of the distinctives of the older ways have been washed away, leaving behind a sort of soft animism. At the same time that this re-emergent faith relates to the land, many more in urban settings (the actual reality for most native people) use traditionalist beliefs in a more cultural frame. This link with culture means that behaviors may or may not be religious depending on who does it. E.g. does one smudge or not? Inhale or not? Is it one thing on the Rez but different in the City?