Absence as Advantage

A response to “What do we mean by Indigenous Religion(s)” with Bjorn Ola Tafjord and Arkotong Longkumer

by Liudmila Nikanorova

The interview conducted by David Robertson from the Religious Studies project with Bjørn Ola Tafjord (University of Tromsø) and Arkotong Longkumer (University of Edinburgh) explores the meanings, challenges and various usages of the increasingly popular notion of Indigenous Religion(s). Both Tafjord and Longkumer, based on their extensive academic expertise in the field of Indigenous Religion(s) and many years of field work experiences, share their own perspectives and ways of working with the category of Indigenous Religion(s).

The interview begins with the very category of Indigenous religion(s) being challenged. Tafjord asserts that the very idea of classifying Indigenous Religion(s) as a category of religion is just one of the numerous ways of looking at the notion. The difficulty with categorizing Indigenous Religion(s) as Longkumer says is that ‘there is no set paradigm of what Indigenous Religion(s) is/ are’.

So, how to approach this uncomfortable category of Indigenous Religion(s) that are so often assumed to just be ‘all the rest’ or, ‘the other’ religions? Is the emergence of the Indigenous Religion(s) just a politically correct re-naming of the Primitive Religions category, or does it have potential to empower previously looked down upon religions and traditions by colonial scholars? Tafjord and Longkumer name a few arguments that can contribute to this discussion.

First, the relative success of the indigenous rights movements stemming from 1970s. Globalization of the Indigenous Religion(s), where United Nations functions as a platform that supports indigenous rights create a positive environment where indigenous populations can address their needs and challenges. Robertson brought up an excellent example of an indigenous group in Canada that first claimed to be an “indigenous religion” when oil drilling started in their territories. In response some questions occurred such as “Why weren’t these indigenous people claiming rights for their religion before?”. This example shows the reaction of indigenous groups to the oil-drilling, where indigenous populations used the available tools to protect their land and simply communicated it in a recognizable legal way for the oil-companies’ to understand. Both Tafjord and Longkumer stress the importance of communication and translation, when they argue that in order for indigenous people to be understood and respected, their views have to be translated into a recognizable unit for policy-makers, which the framework of international indigenous rights movements offered in its turn. Thus, the connection between the emergence of the notion of Indigenous Religion(s) has a tight common history with the movement of human rights, in particular the rights of indigenous peoples.

Second, pluralisation of religions and the loss of the hegemonic power to define what is  religion by some of the world religions. Bringing the case of the Bribri people, Tafjord argues for the shift that occurred within just a few decades in Talamanca, when the Catholic Church in Costa Rica lost its previously hegemonic position of defining, what is religion and what are superstitions. Thus, the rise of Indigenous Religion(s) in the public sphere also had to do with the decline of the position of the Catholic Church, which would otherwise have classified the religion of Bribri as primitive or idolatry. The paradigm of ‘world religion’ was shaken and more room was made available for Indigenous Religion(s) not only in Talamanca, but in many other places worldwide. Despite the fact that Indigenous Religion(s) are still often grouped into the category of ‘the rest of the religions’, their position became more equalized with the other big religions. Whether such equalization causes more benefits or conflicts, varies too widely to conclude with any reasonable claim.

Another important issue raised by Longkumer, was whether Christianity can be an Indigenous Religion? Can indigenous people be Christians? If yes, does that make Christianity an Indigenous Religion? And can non-indigenous people practice indigenous religion? If yes, will it still be an indigenous religion? Here it is helpful according to Tafjord to pay attention on what word the emphasis falls on, to the adjective indigenous or the noun religions. When and how does religion becomes indigenous? When and how do indigenous traditions become religions? To what consequences and results do these shifts and transformations bring? There is no one answer for these questions, instead what Tafjord and Longkumer encourage is the need to challenge the western academic concepts and be aware of their limitations.

Lastly, almost everybody that has met the term Indigenous Religion(s) already has their own assumptions, whether it is a tourist at the festival or, a religious studies student. Does Indigenous Religion have to be something exotic? When it is not exotic, is it still interesting, worth visiting and doing research on? As Longkumer reminds, if our previously set expectations are not met at the field and it is no longer possible to distinguish indigenous people by their clothing or by certain behaviours. Then, this serves more as an alarm for created colonial images that are still strong in public, than for arguments criticizing Indigenous Religion(s) as inauthentic, not worthy of visiting or doing research. I agree that Indigenous Religion(s) are alive and dynamic, and, therefore, the argument of authenticity is irrelevant and disempowering. However, claims for the authenticity made by various actors can reveal more about the power-structures and interest groups.

Perhaps by looking at the absence of an Indigenous Religion(s) paradigm or definition as an advantage, rather than problem, we might shed some positive light on approaching the concept. After all, it is the flexibility and the inclusiveness to various audiences and usages, that positions Indigenous Religion(s) as an opportunity “out there” for those who wish to use it.

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