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Complications and Contradictions in the Usage of ‘Indigenous Religions’

A Response to David G. Robertson’s Interview of Bjørn Ola Tafjord and Arkotong Longkumer

Claire S. Scheid

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Absence as Advantage

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

by Liudmila Nikanorova

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What do we mean by Indigenous Religion(s)?

question-2309042_960_720We talk a lot about the World Relgions Paradigm at the Religious Studies Project, and this discussion looks more closely at one of the ancillary categories, Indigenous Religion. What exactly does this term refer to? Does it refer to specific religions (plural) or a kind of religion (singular)? What makes some religions indigenous and not others? What are the political implications? Bjorn Ola Tafjord & Arkotong Longkumer outline some of the language games that involve Indigenous Religion.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below

What Do We Mean by Indigenous Religion(s)?

Podcast with Bjørn Ola Tafjord and Arkotong Longkumer  (2 October 2017)

Interviewed by David Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Tafjord_-_Longkumer_-_What_do_we_mean_by_indigenous_relgion(s)_1.1

David Robertson (DR): We talk about the world religions paradigm a lot here on the Religious Studies Project. And one of the things we’ve pointed out, on several occasions, is that you’ve got the Big Five , or sometimes the Big Six,  and it depends on who’s editing the particular book what those are. But you’ll often get these additional categories stuck on, you know: new religions and, increasingly, indigenous religions. And that’s what we’re here to talk about today. It’s not always very clear what it is we’re talking about when we talk about indigenous religions. To discuss that today we’re joined by Bjørn Ola Tafjord of Tromsø University. Welcome back.

Bjørn Ola Tafjord (BT): Thanks David.

DR: And we’re also joined by Arkotong Longkumer of the University of Edinburgh. His first time on the Project itself, although a long-term friend of the Project. So, welcome to you!

Arkotong Longkumer (AL): Thank you.

DR: Let’s start . . . . Bjørn, you’ve talked about the idea of indigenous religions as a kind of language game. Maybe you could explain to us a little bit what you mean when you say that?

BT: I think it’s interesting to look at how people use the phrase indigenous religions in different ways: how academics use it different ways to do different jobs in their different academic projects. I think it’s interesting to see how non-academicians use the phrase in order to do jobs in their different political social and cultural (whatever) projects. And, by paying attention to that, I think it becomes clear quite quickly that it’s a phrase that is used in ways that vary a lot, and that this variation creates troubles sometimes – both for academicians and for others, in terms of understanding each other – but also, that these are creative processes that also open new possibilities both within research and explorations of different cases. But also in other projects, as non-academicians tap into the discourses of academicians.

DR: And in some ways this whole conversation goes back to the earliest days of Religious Studies – doesn’t it? – and the idea of classifying religions, full stop. You know, with Tiele and Müller and people like that. Because you can’t have indigenous religion without this idea of religion itself, right?

BT: I think one of the ways that Religious Studies scholars think about indigenous religion – often its the first way we think of it – is as a class of religion. So, all the rest: all the other religions than those that fit in the world religions paradigm. All the rest, when we take out also the “new religions” or the “popular religions”, or whatever we want to call that very varied group. So, yes. I think that has been one typical way of thinking about it. But it has always, it seems, been one of these categories that sits uncomfortably in the scheme of the discipline.

AL: Can I just add . . . ? What I think is interesting is that we’re looking at indigenous peoples and how they actually practise religions. So I think that if we are to approach indigenous religions as a category and try to find that across, say, Africa, or in Asia, or in Latin America, then I think we might have a problem. Because there is no set paradigm of what indigenous religion is. And I think it varies according to context. So, I think what I’m interested in is how indigenous peoples understand or practise this thing called religion. So I think, in that sense, the category indigenous religions is not a primary factor. (5:00) It’s something that comes out of us looking at indigenous peoples so, in that sense, I think it’s slightly different from, say, the traditional scholar trying to find out what a kind of religion is.

DR: That’s an interesting point. Sometimes these kinds of categories do come out of a very good thing, in our attempt as scholars to more accurately represent what’s going on. But, at the same time, we need to kind-of play the game of the field a little bit, in order for our work to fit in and be understood anywhere. Would you agree with that?

AL: Yes. And that presents us with several problems, I think. I think if we have an assumption of what indigenous religion is in the academic environment, then  it’s interesting also how that kind of understanding can play itself in the field. So, for example, much of my work is in the North East of India. And I’m interested in how the Hindutva, or the Hindu Nationalists, co-opt this idea of indigenous religions, to actually include this fringe marginalised non-Christian or non -Muslim group into the fold of indigenous religions – by arguing that Hinduism is a kind of indigenous religion. So here, I think, we have a problem of how the academic term of indigenous religions is used quite effectively by the Hindu nationalists to propagate their idea of assimilation and inclusion.

DR: Yes. And Hinduism is a really interesting case because when you have more, sort-of, formal academic attempts at presenting some sort of definition of what indigenous religion is – I mean Jim Cox’s definition is probably the most commonly encountered nowadays – you immediately run into problems when you start trying to apply it. Because Hinduism is, by any of those categories really, an indigenous religion.

BT: I think, often, it can be worthwhile to pay attention to the two different words in the phrase. That in some projects – in the typical projects of Religious Studies, where you try to classify religions – then the emphasis will almost always be on the latter word, on  religion, and the adjective indigenous becomes a sort of classifier to say that this is a different religion: it’s from the other classes of religions. But in many uses that are not part of  religious studies – but also some of the uses that are part of religious studies – the emphasis can also be on the adjective. And then it’s not about classifying religions, at least not primarily. Then it becomes one about classifying peoples, often, or other objects or things, that are seen as belonging to particular kinds of peoples. It becomes shorthand for indigenous peoples, so it becomes the religion of indigenous peoples. Which can be used both to sort-of create groups, and demand rights, and all these kinds of applications. But it can also be used to discriminate, of course: to talk about “we” and “the other” and to exclude . . . .

DR: I think there is an implicit distinction that goes on with that sort of language game, though. I’ll give you an example that I came across recently. In the undergrad course, here in Edinburgh, they’re given the task of visiting the museum and describing religious objects. And we got to talking about the way that indigenous religious things were presented. And the example was given of a bolt with a painting of a sea deity on it, which was interpreted as a religious act.(10:00) And I said “Are we maybe over-reading into that that ‘it’s obviously religion, because there are primitive people’? If a truck drove past you on the A9, in Scotland, and it had the St Andrew’s Cross on the front of it, would we interpret that as a religious act by the truck driver, to ensure a safe journey?” It might be in some way, but it’s also many other things. It’s just a particular language that people do, and there are national uses to that symbol as well. But because it’s in an exoticised, indigenous culture, we kind-of read religion in there in a different way. We assume this primitiveness. Would that be fair to say?

AL: Yes. I think part of the whole discourse of indigenous religions . . . . I think there are a couple of challenges here. People who study indigenous peoples and their cultures and religions, I think, are trying to say to the academic world: “You have to take us seriously!” And I think, because of that, sometimes we classify ourselves as people who do indigenous religions in order to compete with the other kinds of religions out there. But in terms of actual engagement, in terns of research with people, we’re not really trying to isolate categories out by saying,”This is a kind of religious act.” Or, “This is a political act or an economic act.” I think a lot of the people that we are working with tend to think about these categories in kind-of overlapping terms. So I think part of the challenge is – and I think what we as scholars have to do is – that we have to speak a certain kind of language in order to communicate our ideas. It could be in the classroom, you know, it could be in a conference, etc.  But I think at the same time we are also trying to destabilise theses categories, and I think that’s where the challenge is. Because, to a certain extent, we are in a Western academic environment and of course we’re also in Religious Studies, so we have to try and articulate that, but at the same time I think we have to be wary of the limitations of these categories. So the kind-of national, political and religious intertwine.

BT: I also think that – those of us who study what we commonly call indigenous religions in religious studies – I think one way that we might have something to contribute to the larger field is that most of us do fieldwork. Many who do other religions often go straight for the religion. If you do Islam you go straight for the Islam; if you do Christianity you go straight to study Christianity. Whereas when we do fieldwork we are forced to sit around a lot, and be in places. And one of the things we discover is that it’s not all about religion all the time. Actually, religion happens, religion is an act that is done in different degrees and different ways, but in different circumstances. But I think it also makes us aware that religion is not around all the time. That’s one way that we can be a group of scholars who remind the rest of the field about not exaggerating  the importance of religion. We tend to send our students out in the world to find religion and of course they come back with religion. So the whole field exaggerates the importance of religion.

AL: And I think that also ties in the point about how primitiveness is often associated with how the people are so close to  nature, and to Gods, and spirit, and all of that, right?

BT: Right

AL: And I think, to a large extent, that’s not really the case. Because a lot of the indigenous peoples that we are working with have mobiles, wear jeans – you know – are engaged in social media. So, I mean, all of these practices are happening and I think that sometimes destabilises our notion of what indigenous peoples are. (15:00) So, this one thing that I’m kind-of working on is trying to understand festivals. And there’s a festival that I’ve been researching a lot and its called the Hornbill festival, which happens annually in Nagaland, which is the Indian state. What you often get is, the tourists that come from the West  – say, primarily from Europe and North America – have a certain notion of what this festival is about. So it’s about this indigenous subject  who still dresses in their traditional clothes, or they’re naked, or carry spears. And they have this visual image because this image has been passed on from the colonial times. And when they come to the festival they find out that “Oh! All of them are dressed like us!” And they carry mobile phones etc. So that kind of image, I think, is quite prevalent. And I wonder if, to a certain extent, that’s what happens with our students: that they have a certain exotic image of what indigenous religions are, and if you don’t give them that image then probably they say, “Oh well, it’s not interesting is it?” So that’s the challenge that we as scholars – and especially in indigenous religions – are trying to tackle, I think.

BT: There’s also widespread assumptions that indigenous peoples have indigenous religions. And I think where I study,  in Talamanca in Costa Rica, one of the things I was told and have been told repeatedly is that,”before the arrival of the Missionaries, before the Christians and the Baha’is came in the 1960s, we didn’t have religion.” And still the word “religion” is usually reserved to point at those traditions that came in the 1960s: various versions of Christianity and the Baha’i faith. And it’s only recently that some of the younger generation there has started to talk about what they used to call “indigenous tradition”. Now they’ve started to talk about it as an “indigenous religion”. And those who do it most are those who have gone to university, who have probably learned from Religious Studies scholars, or anthropologists, or others, that religion is something that exists everywhere, in all societies, at all times and that indigenous peoples have a certain kind of religion. And then they return home, or they turn their gaze towards their own community and start to translate indigenous traditions into indigenous religions. Which I think is quite interesting.

DR: It’s very interesting. And it’s a very good example of why the conversations about how these categories operate is not just academic navel-gazing. These categories feed back into the world and have very real legal ramifications for people. They exist as legal entities, people begin to construct their own religious and ethnic identities around these categories that we’ve give n them, basically. Yes. I wondered if you wanted to reflect on that, because indigenous religion is not only an academic religious category or a practitioner category but a legal, ethnic kind of category as well.

AL: Yes. And I think that is happening increasingly. We had the case of the local indigenous religions, as it were – you could be in Africa, you could be in Asia, you could be in Latin America – but we’re increasingly seeing the globalisation of indigenous religions as well. Especially if we are fighting for national identity, or sovereignty, or trying to safeguard ethnic identity within nation states. So the platform that really affords that kind of space is the United Nations and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is advanced a lot by the UN. So, here you enter into another arena of how these terms are actually quite positive and quite useful and quite empowering as well. (20:00) And, I think, couched in that is the very important idea of human rights: that having any kind of indigenous identity is intrinsically related to human rights issues. And,  of course,  protecting your religion, your culture, your traditions, is also tied in with human rights. So in the kind-of broader global sense, the term indigenous, or the term indigenous religions has a lot of purchase.

BT: And in order to gain something from it  you have to translate you traditions, your practices, your narratives into recognisable units, in order to be recognised as an indigenous people, or as an indigenous religion. You have to make it come across in a way that makes the judges in the courtroom – or whoever it is, the politicians  that make the decisions – they have to recognise this as an indigenous religion or as indigenous people. And that sort-of forces actors also to play into these expectations that are floating around now.

 AL: Yes. And I think to translate those kind of experiences, I think you tap into again, the academic and intellectual discourses out there on what exactly is culture, what exactly is heritage, or religion, or politics, and all of that. Yes, the cycle of the exchange of these ideas and categories are both local and global and they feed each other, I think.

DR: A couple of maybe slightly more critical takes on that . . . . I mean, one is that it’s very interesting that in an increasingly globalised political system, that indigenous religion becomes one more aspect of an increasing sort of identity politics. So it’s seeking national, religious, ethnic identity. You can also relate it to LGBT and all these different interest groups, rather than national representatives. But also there’s the way that religion becomes one more card to play in power relations. So, whilst sometimes yes – absolutely, it does have to do with human rights, other times it’s much more cynical. There’s the case of the Canadian indigenous population who had no interest in promoting their practices as being an indigenous religion until an oil company wanted to drill there. At which point, by claiming indigenous status they were able to prevent the drilling from taking place, because the land was now seen as sacred by the UN, or protected , rather, by the UN. So that’s a very good example of the sort of post-colonial legacy of this category of indigenous religion. It goes over to these other people who then use it in the same power plays which they’ve been gifted, if you like.

BT: I also think that  history has to be taken into account: the history of religions, not as a field of study, but as something in society . [Going] back to the Costa Rican context, for example:  the power and the position of the Catholic Church, just a decade to two ago, was so strong they were able to dominate the discourse and to decide what was legitimate religion or not. I think the main reason why people have said “we have no religion” is to keep it way from missionaries who would say, “ If you have an indigenous religion then that’s superstition, or a false religion, or idolatry.” So maybe what has happened also in international politics in recent years is that some sorts of religions have lost their hegemonic position, whereas other kinds of religions have got more space. I certainly think that in the Costa Rican context there has been a pluralisation of the religious field. And as indigenous culture and indigenous peoples have gotten more attention, and they have been looked upon more positively from the outside, so has their religion. (25:00) So there’s a sort of return of indigenous religion to the public sphere. Or, the rise of indigenous religions in the public sphere also has to do with the decline of the kind of discourse that before would immediately classify it as a superstition, or idolatry, or something that has to be fought, or primitive religion.

AL: Or even primal. So I mean, all of theses academic terms like primitive, primal, superstitious . . . of course I think people are also trying to reclaim a kind of identity. And I think the whole question of identity politics is interesting. And of course identity politics exists and I think a lot of indigenous activists are also aware of that, and they take advantage of that. Because they’re also making choices in the immediate present for their own communities against, say, exploitation, or oil drilling – which happens – or dam creations. So, they’re trying to protect their land. They’re also using these categories effectively and I think that’s important. So it’s not that all indigenous peoples are so close to nature and they’re all aloof, and they’re all having a great time. But also on the other hand, I think – as Bjørn was articulating – is that the term indigenous religions is also quite empowering. It’s about reclaiming a kind of identity. And they’re using the tools available. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

DR: No, of course. It’s exactly the same as happens everywhere. The point of bringing that up is an attempt to collapse that distinction: we can see it being used cynically on both sides – that’s human nature, and the nature of religion. Just one further . . . .Do you want to [say something else] before I change the subject?

BT: It made me think also . . . again, returning to Talamanca and the Costa Rican context, I think indigenous religion – or religión indígena as they say in Spanish – is sometimes used as a foreign relations tool towards an audience of outsiders, like us: academicians and politicians and others. But sometimes it also creates internal tensions. For example, when indigenous traditions are recast as indigenous religions.  When indigenous religions are being taught at school, parents who are Christians – Pentecostals in particular – often say,  “My children should not take those classes.” So they’re pulled out of those classes that they were fine with – as long as these issues were not enacted or articulated as religion, but as culture. So bringing religion into the mix sort of changes a whole lot of situations, and relations, and the ways things are talked about.

AL: Also, just one final point, I think.  If we are looking at indigenous peoples practising a kind of religion, then are we also open to what kind of religion  indigenous peoples are practising? So, I mean it could be say, Christianity. So, in that sense, is Christianity an indigenous religion? And I think, the common perception is that indigenous religions are largely non-Christian. And I think that’s an interesting thing. Because, if we have a formal definition of what indigenous religion is, then I think it might problematise some of the ways we tend to think about indigenous religions.

DR: Yes, absolutely. And that kind-of relates, actually, to the question that I was going to raise, in an unexpected way. So I was going to ask about . . . there’s a sort-of time element in this. We don’t, for instance, tend to see New Age practices in the West as an indigenous religion. Is that just because of the newness? Or is it the colonial power aspect? Or is it a hangover to the hegemony of Christianity, for instance? (30:00) But here in Scotland – just to take it as an example, because that’s where we are – Christianity is only 58% or something, at present. And that’s just people who identify, not necessarily people who are practising in any kind of meaningful sense. So as you say, actually, once we start looking, the further down we go these distinctions get more and more blurry.

AL: Yes. Absolutely and I think the term indigenous . . . well, I’m not sure about the academic discipline of indigenous religions, how that came about. I think people like Jim Cox has written about this transition from primal to indigenous and all of that. And I think, as far as I can recall – and you can correct me on this – I think it was from the ’70s or the ’80s that indigenous religions was seen as a category in its own right.

DR: Yes

AL: It’s curious how the term indigenous is not really popular in, say, Europe. I think in Canada it is. And of course in North America it is, and in Latin America it is. But in Europe, it’s quite interesting that it’s not. I mean, we can perhaps easily see that actually Christianity is an indigenous religion of Scotland. So yes, I’m interested in that kind of idea as well. And what makes something indigenous and what doesn’t.

DR: Well one example I’ve mentioned before is . . . there’s an example in Jim’s book (and incidentally, for the history of the emergence of the term, in Bjørn’s previous interview with the RSP we go into that in a bit more detail). But there’s an example where he talks about Zulus in South Africa being an indigenous tradition. But the Zulus migrated into South Africa from the Sahara, what 7-800 years ago? Whereas, the Dutch arrived there about 400 years ago. So, the choice of which of those is indigenous is entirely temporal.

BT: Again, I think this has to do with [the fact that] there are different language games being played here. I think the emergence of the international indigenous people’s movement and its success, since the 1970s and onwards, has made the word indigenous take on primarily the meaning of the reference to indigenous peoples. That’s what most people associate with it today. That’s the dominant use of it in most contexts. Whereas, the old use of the adjective indigenous would be something like the opposite of exogenous. So it’s a relational concept, or relational category, that could be applied to all kinds of things. But usually we associate . . . . Today, because of the relative success of the international indigenous people’s movement, it has become this tag or emblem for indigeneity, for indigenous peoples: shorthand for indigenous peoples. But it can be used in many other ways, and it is used in other ways. But then the discussions tend to be . . . I think many misunderstandings arise from  . . .

DR: Talking around each other, instead of to each other.

AL: But, it could be also be a case of the dominant group not categorising or associating themselves with indigenous religions, say. And it could be that the category indigenous religions is applying to only the marginalised communities. Which incidentally, it’s not always the case. Because, speaking with Afe , in Nigeria [for example]  indigenous religions is the dominant kind of group in certain areas. So of course, that again throws up . . .  and if you want to look at Hinduism as an indigenous religion, then what happens to the category, but also the way we conceive of indigenous religions? I guess that is the term that I’m looking for, yes.

DR:  (35:00) Thank you both. This has been a really interesting discussion and we’ve covered most of the different ways this terms been defined and understood. But, as you’re hearing this term and engaging with this term, just bear some of these ideas in mind and try to unpick which of the usages is being used in whatever source you’re looking at, at any given time. So thanks, again, to both of you for taking part in the Religious Studies Project today.

BT: Thank you for having us.

AL: Thanks, David.

Citation Info:  Tafjord, Bjørn Ola, and Arkotong Longkumer  2017. “What do we mean by indigenous religion(s)?”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 2 October 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 19 September 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/what-do-we-mean-by-indigenous-religion(s)/

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“Religion in Peru” — conference report, 2015

The conference, “Religion in Peru : Research itineraries from the social sciences,” was held at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Lima-Peru, 24 September 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Sidney Castillo.

Opening session. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

Opening session. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

The study of religion has deep roots in the South American country of Peru. Over twenty years ago, one of this country’s most eminent scholars of religion, the late Manuel Marzal, (1996) wrote an article detailing a century of religious studies in Peru. Since the dawn of social sciences in Peruvian academia, scholars from different schools of thought and institutions have applied their own perspectives to religion, from indigenism to Marxism—and of course the catholic church. These scholars wanted to get a grip on what means to be religious in Peru in order to better understand its people, however they also differed in key ways. For example, some have been concerned with religion as it may relate to establishing enduring political structures, to gain more adherents, or for good old fashioned criticism. Peru is a country rich with not only religious tradition, but also religious innovation. For example, we have both our equivalent of the Popol Vuh, the Dioses y hombres de Huarochirí [1] manuscript from the sixteenth century, and also a Peruvian new religious movement, the Asociación Evangélica de la Misión Israelita del Nuevo Pacto Universal from the twentieth century  as examples; this is why the conference presented different approaches to the study of religious phenomena, and discussed its relevance in the 21st century.

The conference was organized by the Master’s Degree in Sciences of Religion of the Faculty of Social Sciences from Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, represented by its Coordinator, Jaime Regan and myself (Sidney Castillo) as organizer, in collaboration with the Students Center of Anthropology of the same university (CEAN in Spanish) and the Peruvian Academy of the Sciences of Religion (APECREL also in Spanish). The conference featured anthropological researches based on case study and comparative religion approaches, as well as sociological research in the field of secularism and state regulations, and the sciences of religion itself as an academic field. The scholars who participated in the event were Luis Millones (Professor Emeritus of Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos), Diego Huerta (University of Helsinki), Marco Huaco (University of Strasbourg) and Dorothea Ortmann (University of Rostock).

From left to right: Huaco, Castillo, Millones, Ortmann and Huerta. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

From left to right: Huaco, Castillo, Millones, Ortmann and Huerta. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

For myself, as an organizer, it was particularly fulfilling to see the conference auditorium packed and the scholars ready to take the lead on the subject that was of our interest. And it was also fulfilling because we had a lot of competition that day: three academic events in the same faculty at pretty much the same time! We can say then, that people is really getting interested in learning about religion outside mainstream means e.g. churches.

Luis Millones’s talk was about Apostle Santiago and the Moors (Millones : 2015). He presented his latest research done in San Lucas de Colan, a small town within the Paita province in the coastal part of Piura region. His ethnographic research provided an insiders appreciation of the festival offered to Santiago Apostle’s horse, Felipe, in which the image of the patron saint observes the symbolic representation of the horse battling against the Moors. The festival commands both a huge participation on money and coordination from the brotherhood of the saint. Millones viewed this as a means of obtaining prestige among the townsfolk. Interestingly, these kind of festivities are a staple in many different rural and urban places. Particularly, as it’s a way of recreating social bonds with fellow members of the community (or former communities since a lot of people that participate in these celebrations are migrants) by venerating the patron saint and having a huge party lasting several days.

In the second talk, Diego Huerta used a comparative approach in discussing two religious phenomenons comprising some of his past research: the pilgrimage of the Christ of Huamantanga in the outer part of Lima, in the Canta district ; and the (neo)paganism in the urban parts of Lima (Huerta : 2012). His aim was to put into question the factual realization of the secularization process in Peru, in order to examine folk religion and new religious movements as manifestations of an alternative religiosity. Huerta suggested that while the former is more related to popular interpretations of Catholicism, the latter stems more from a product of globalization, embedded in a culture of media driven information on different religious traditions. I found his presentation as indicating that not even tradition is written in stone, tradition changes.

Lawyer, Marco Huaco. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

Lawyer, Marco Huaco. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

In the third presentation, Marco Huaco’s discussed the policy of laicidad, a.k.a. secularism in church-state relations (Huaco : 2013). He detailed the historical trajectory of the Peruvian constitutions, demonstrating their evolution, developing from constitutions of doctrinal confessionality towards constitutions of historical-sociological confessionality, finally arriving to the present day constitution. This constitution acknowledges the Catholic Church an important element of Peruvian society, and allows the State to take part in partnership with other religious denominations. This is highlighted by the 1980 Agreement between the Holy See and Peru, which he explained, has important consequences in the ordering of public policies (e.g., birth control and lgbt rights) and primary education.

The closing presentation was delivered by Dorothea Ortmann. In it, she presented how the Sciences of Religion was first established in Peru (Ortmann: 2002). Ortmann traced the beginnings of this development from the researches of Julio C. Tello, Rafael Larco Hoyle and Luis Válcarcel, where they tried to explain the syncretism process, noting the economic and political implications of these mixtures on many Andean deities. For example, the Lanzon of Chavin de Huantar and the Teja Amaru[2]. Ortmann discussed how researchers utilized the tools from different disciplines to explain this process (e.g. archaeology, linguistics and anthropology), in order to gain a wider overview of the Andean societies.

The variety of research that was presented at the conference allowed Peru’s academic community to gather a comprehensive entry into what the academic study of religion was and is, noting future possibilities for research. In echoing Ortmann’s sentiments, the academic study of religion in Peru has existed, at least to date, due to the personal interests and dedication of lone researchers (largely at their own costs) and not due to established monetary support from institutions. However, while some valuable research has been supported at religiously affiliated institutions (e.g., Centro de Estudios Teológicos de la Amazonía, Instituto de Pastoral Andina with the Allpanchis journal, Instituto Bartolomé de las Casas, Centro de Estudios y Publicaciones) other perspectives are needed, and at further distance from pastoral inspiration. Shedding some level of ties with the insider perspectives often provided via religious institutions will allow Peruvian academics to study religious phenomena from a variety of fresh perspectives[3].

 

That this conference took place at the National University of San Marcos was quite inspiring. This was the first university on the continent with a theology and arts faculty during the second half of the sixteenth century. Now, almost five hundred years later, Peruvian academics still have an interest in studying religion. However, our current perspectives and methodologies are far more diverse, and ever broadening. I remain optimistic that, in the near future, the academic study of religion in Peru will be as widespread and supported as other research areas. No doubt, this will be due in large part to the dedication and interest of Peruvian scholars, as this conference exemplifies.

References

Marzal, Manuel. (1996). “Un siglo de investigación de la religión en el Perú”. Anthropologica. Lima, volumen 14, número 14, pp. 7-28. Accesed on: november 29, 2015. http://revistas.pucp.edu.pe/index.php/anthropologica/article/view/1876/1809

Millones, L. (2015). “Las muchas caras de Santiago, por Luis Millones”. El Comercio. Lima, 01 of August. Accesed on: 04 de agosto de 2015. http://elcomercio.pe/opinion/columnistas/muchas-caras-santiago-luis-millones-noticia-1829935

Huaco, M. (2013). Procesos constituyentes y discursos contra-hegemónicos sobre laicidad, sexualidad y religión: Ecuador, Perú y Bolivia.  Buenos Aires: CLACSO. Accesed on: november 28, 2015.

http://biblioteca.clacso.edu.ar/clacso/sur-sur/20121108040727/ProcesosConstituyentes.pdf

Ortmann, D. (2002). Ciencias de la religión en el Perú. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. Accesed on: november 29, 2015. http://sisbib.unmsm.edu.pe/bibvirtual/libros/sociologia/c_religion/indice.htm

Huerta, D. (2012). De eclécticos e iniciados o una aproximación etnográfica a la práctica del (neo) paganismo en Lima. Licenciate thesis on Social Sciences with mention in Anthropology. Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Faculty of Social Sciences.

 

[1] Gathered by Francisco de Avila around 1598, and then translated from quechua to spanish by Jose Maria Arguedas in the middle of the tweinthieth century, it’s the only text that accounts for the mainstream fundational mythos of Peru, prior to the spaniards arrival.

[2] The first deity refers to a monolith of 4.5 meters located in the Temple of Chavin. It depicted a zooantropomorphic god with feline and avian features (animals found in the jungle and andes respectively), and was the main deity of the Chavin culture (1000 B.C.). The second one refers to a clay shaped tile representing the Amaru god with features of a otorongo (the peruvian feline), symbolizing the resistance of the spanish influence on andean culture. Some of these tiles were found in southern andean part of Peru and date from the early XIX century.

[3] Many scholars of religion like the late Fernando Fuenzalida, Harold Hernández, Jaime Regan, Juan Ossio and our own speakers of the conference have been doing innovative work in this manner, since they have provided great insights regarding new religious movements, andean and amazonian religion, and the relationship of religion and politics.

Sámi Shamanism – Up Close and Personal

In his RSP interview, David Gordon Wilson tells us why he started studying spiritualism and shamanism, his relation to shamanism now, and general problems one may face while studying these subjects.

Like Dr. Wilson, I believe there are multiple ways of defining shamanism, a task that many have pursued and one that I am not willing to take up here. The term “shaman” will be mentioned; however, due to the space limits of this essay, I will not spend time on definition, nor will I explain why I have chosen one definition opposed to another. Instead I will focus on describing my personal experience with Sámi shamanism at an indigenous festival in the north of Norway with hopes that it will be of interest to the RSP audience.

The Sámi

The Sámi are an indigenous group in Norway, Sweden, Finland and north-western Russia. The history between the Sámi and the Norwegian government has left a stain on the Sámi for generations:

 The Norwegianization policy undertaken by the Norwegian government from the 1850s up until the Second World War resulted in the apparent loss of Sami language and assimilation of the coastal Sami as an ethnically-distinct people into the northern Norwegian population. Together with the rise of an ethno-political movement since the 1970s, however, Sami culture has seen a revitalization of language, cultural activities, and ethnic identity (Brattland 2010:31).

Personal Insight

I grew up in the north of Norway and was taught from a very young age to be cautious of certain objects in nature: specific stones, trees, and areas. For example, certain rituals had to be performed when we travelled past a big rock called “Stallo.” Some would bow their heads three times as they passed “Stallo,” while others laid down coins at his feet. I was told to greet the rock out loud as we passed by his side. My mother always reminded my brother and me of this, and told us why it was important for good luck and a safe journey. She spoke of the rock as if he was alive and had power to do both good and bad. If we didn’t greet him, he could get cross and we could get hurt. Or so she told us.

At the time, I had no idea that this was an old Sámi custom. It was not until I started studying religion at the university that I realised I have Sámi roots. I confronted my mother and she informed me that my grandparents had rejected the Sámi language and culture. The reason for this, she said, was that they were ashamed of their origins and, sadly, they were not the only ones.

Little Storm on the Coast

My story is far from unique in Norway. In fact there is even a festival in the north of Norway that was founded by people with similar stories. The festival is called “Riddu Riđđu” which means “little storm on the coast.” Riddu Riđđu was created by a group of youths who sought answers to why the elders in the community spoke a different language, a language they were not allowed to learn. In other words, the festival started as a rebellion against those who had refused the Sámi society. The festival program has a wide variety of music, cultural performances, and workshops held by indigenous people from Norway and other parts of the world.

Riddu Riddu in the Summer of 2010

Riddu Riddu in the Summer of 2010

Indigenous Performance at Riddu Riddu in 2013

Indigenous Performance at Riddu Riddu in 2013

My Thesis, My Journey

I had barely heard of the festival when I started my master’s degree in religion and society at the University of Oslo in 2009. I had heard that, from its beginning, Riddu Riddu has been important for the Sámi population as a meeting place as well as for people who have lost their connection to the Sámi and wish to learn. I had also heard that there were shamans at the festival, Sámi shamans and others from around the world. Naturally, having just learnt of my Sámi background, I was intrigued, and chose, therefore, Riddu Riddu as my main topic for my master’s thesis, focusing on Sámi religion and identity.

According to one of the founders of Riddu Riđđu, Lene Hansen, the festival is almost like a religious gathering – people meet both spiritually and socially, and experience ethnic bonding and communality[1]. I had my focus on shamanism and found that, like David Gordon Wilson, speaking to individuals was the best approach.

Sámi Shamanism

Dr. Graham Harvey tells us in Shamanism: A Reader (2003) that the word ”shaman” is being used within several languages today. However, he warns us that the use of the terms ”shaman” and ”shamanism” can generalise a number of people as there are numerous local words for shamans (Harvey 2003:1). For example a Sámi shaman can be known as a noaide.

I spoke to a man, let´s call him “Tor”, at Riddu Riddu who is Sámi and a shaman, but refused to be called a noaide. Tor explained that while the word ”shaman” means ”the one who knows,” the word noaide means ”the one who sees” (directly translated from Norwegian) and refers to the ritual expert in the old Sámi society. According to Tor, the noaide was the most feared and at the same time the most respected person in the old Sámi community. If one happened to be on the bad side of a noaide, he or she could put a curse(gaine) on you. On the other side, Tor told me that the noaide was the person one sought out in crisis, as he or she was the only one who had direct contact with the spirit world and therefore had healing powers.

Enjoy The Drumming

Tor invited me and a few others to participate in a drum journey inside a gamme (see picture below). At the time, we had just learned that a bomb had gone off in Oslo and there were several casualties. Tor suggested that it was a good time to do a drum journey and we all agreed.

A picture I took at Riddu Riđđu in 2013. The one on the right is a gamme. The others are lavvu (traditional Sámi tent).

A picture I took at Riddu Riđđu in 2013. The one on the right is a gamme. The others are lavvu (traditional Sámi tent).

Inside the lavvu, he built a fire and we were asked to lie down on the reindeer pelt. He started drumming in a slow rhythm and after a while he started joiking (traditional Sámi form of song). The experience was calming, in my opinion, and quite enjoyable. Mostly because I was able to focus on enjoying the moment right there and then. This, I was told later, was the shamans’ main purpose for that particular drum journey: to be truly present for a moment. After the drum journey I spoke briefly to Tor about shamanism. He emphasized that shamanism consists of getting in touch with one’s feelings, internal life, and soul. For me, this remark seems to be quite universal when it comes to speaking of shamanism, however I am not trying to compare what Tor told me to what other shamans believe. It is just an observation.

It has taken several years for the Sámi to turn their shame of being Sámi into proudness. I believe Riddu Riđđu has played a role in that turning point by offering a positive place for Sámi and other indigenous people from around the world to meet, compare and differentiate between them.

Like Dr. Wilson, I started with an outsiders’ perspective, but, as the years went by, I ended up as an insider. I find Riddu Riđđu to be a place to learn about shamanism, the Sámi and even about my self.

Myself in a Sámi dress, standing in front of a lavvu (traditional Sámi tent) at Riddu Riđđu in 2013.

Myself in a Sámi dress, standing in front of a lavvu (traditional Sámi tent) at Riddu Riđđu in 2013.

References

Brattland, Camilla 2010: Mapping Rights in Coastal Sami Seascapes, In: Arctic Review on Law and Politics, vol. 1, 1/2010 p. 28–53.

Harvey, Graham 2003: Shamanism: A Reader. New York: Routledge.

Henriksen, Marianne V.2011: “Å bli same”. En religionsvitenskapelig studie av Riddu Riddu Festivala i et rituelt perspektiv. MA thesis, the faculty of theology, University of Oslo. Reprosentralen. http://www.duo.uio.no/

Pedersen, Paul and Viken, Arvid 2009: ”Globalized Reinvention of Indigenuity. The Riddu Riddu Festival as a Tool for Ethnic Negotiation of Place,” In: Nyseth, Torill and Viken, Arild 2009: Place Reinvention: Northern Perspective. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

 

[1] Founder of Riddu Riddu, Lene Hansen quoted in Perdersen and Viken 2009:193

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Response by James Cox to Bjørn Ola Tafjord on the Classification ‘Indigenous Religions’

Bjorn Tafjord begins his interview for the Religious Studies Project helpfully by outlining three usages of the term Indigenous Religions: 1) as a class or classification into which certain characteristics fit or they do not fit; 2) as a relational, historically conditioned term; 3) as an ethno-political category that has been used, for example, in land claims by indigenous peoples. He does not see these as contradictory ways of speaking of Indigenous Religions, but in many ways as complementary, although towards the conclusion of his interview, he appears to be advocating for a relational-historical use of the term. He makes it clear that how the category is used depends on the context of those employing it, whether academics, colonial or post-colonial powers or indigenous peoples themselves. In other words, no language use is neutral; it always has implications both for those doing the describing and that which is being described.

Bjorn Tafjord claims that one consequence of the way I have defined Indigenous Religions, first in my book From Primitive to Indigenous and then in my own article in my edited book Critical Reflections on Indigenous Religions,as restricted to communities that are kinship-orientated and identified by location or place, is that I have ‘boxed’ them in, or trapped them in a rigid conceptual framework. Only in one sense is this correct, since my intention was to identify unambiguously the meaning of a term about which so much loose language has been employed that in some cases it is impossible to know what content is being conveyed when it is used. We seldom allow such imprecise language in ordinary speech as we do when we employ the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religion’. I am not referring here just in terms of popular understandings or even how the terms are used in the media, but I am drawing attention to the common practice even among academics where frequently the meaning of these terms is simply taken for granted, or at the very least remains entirely implicit. I have argued that we need to begin by stating what we mean by the language we employ, not as a final or definitive claim to have circumscribed a category, but as a pragmatic way of beginning dialogue by being absolutely explicit about our meanings and intentions. Rather than ‘boxing in’ the category ‘Indigenous Religions’ this opens it up by encouraging scholars to clarify their denotative and connotative uses of terms and thereby make it possible to debate their interpretations analytically and critically.

What I find most confusing about Bjorn’s argument, which he makes towards the conclusion of the interview is when, after complaining that the term Indigenous Religions has been reified, he then calls ‘dangerous’ the assumption that Indigenous Religions are the religions of indigenous peoples. He seems to suggest that we need to dissociate the category ‘Indigenous Religion’ from the people who can fit into this classification. This is like saying ‘Christianity’ is a religion devoid of Christians. This doubly confuses the situation by moving the historical study of religion backward at least a century while at the same time re-enforcing the ‘world religions paradigm’. What I think Bjorn wants to suggest is not that we divorce a religion from its adherents, but that for historical and even political reasons we do not imply that indigenous peoples cannot be indigenous if they adhere to Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or other religions with cosmologies that are non-local and that we do not ignore the dynamic interactions that historically have transformed the global and local interactions when religious adherents meet and mutually influence one another. This is how I understand the meaning of the late Kwame Bediako, a leading African theologian, when he claimed that Christianity is Africa’s new indigenous religion. He meant that Christianity had been so transformed in Africa that it had taken on indigenous roots, but at the same time had transformed traditional indigenous world-views. In this sense, of course, the academic study of Indigenous Religions cannot exclude Christian, Buddhist or other historical and relational contexts, but this is not the same as saying that the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religions’ do not refer to those who practise the traditions under study.

This then brings me back to my own definition, which I have always insisted provides a starting-point for discussion. I am fully aware that the study of Indigenous Religions is not a study of ‘disappearing’ peoples. This idea was held quite firmly by early anthropologists such as Baldwin Spencer in Australia who studied the central desert peoples as living remnants of a ‘Stone Age’ people soon to become extinct. By defining Indigenous Religions as focused primarily on ancestors and as rooted in location, I have restricted the term in a way that then opens up wide permutations of ancestral and localised traditions as they are affected by modernity, globalisation, travel and mass communication, including indigenous people living in diaspora and those who, as in the case of the Yoruba of Nigeria, have transmitted their traditions around the world almost as missionaries by providing a universal source of healing and well-being.

I want to add just one last word on the overall interview (not attributable entirely to Bjorn Tafjord), which, if left unstated, would leave the persistent barrage against belief in religion still unchallenged. The current reaction against the role belief plays in religion is built somewhat naively on the assumption that scholars of religion continue to depict, describe and teach religion as if it were obtained from a textbook on systematic Christian theology. This, of course, could be said to characterise flawed earlier books written about the religions of the world, but this does not mean that the cognitive side of religion should be dismissed as irrelevant or unimportant. For example, it would be impossible for a spirit medium to go into a trance and for the assembled community to speak to the spirit directly if an underlying belief in the power of spirits to influence human circumstances were not present. It simply would not happen. What we believe affects how we experience the world and how we behave in it. Of course, this is not just a one-directional dynamic: experiences influence beliefs and behaviours, just as behaviours have an impact on our experiences and beliefs. Nonetheless, the current tendency to debunk beliefs as a Protestant left-over is too obvious and does not take into account the complex relationships between cognitions, experiences and actions, as is being shown increasingly within the cognitive science of religion and has been evident in cognitive-behavioural psychology for a very long time.

Podcasts

Complications and Contradictions in the Usage of ‘Indigenous Religions’

A Response to David G. Robertson’s Interview of Bjørn Ola Tafjord and Arkotong Longkumer

Claire S. Scheid

Read more

Absence as Advantage

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

by Liudmila Nikanorova

Read more

What do we mean by Indigenous Religion(s)?

question-2309042_960_720We talk a lot about the World Relgions Paradigm at the Religious Studies Project, and this discussion looks more closely at one of the ancillary categories, Indigenous Religion. What exactly does this term refer to? Does it refer to specific religions (plural) or a kind of religion (singular)? What makes some religions indigenous and not others? What are the political implications? Bjorn Ola Tafjord & Arkotong Longkumer outline some of the language games that involve Indigenous Religion.

This podcast is sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes (Masters and PhD) in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of the RSP team have been through the Edinburgh RS programme, which comes highly recommended. Find out more here.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Wu Tang swag, fidget spinners, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below

What Do We Mean by Indigenous Religion(s)?

Podcast with Bjørn Ola Tafjord and Arkotong Longkumer  (2 October 2017)

Interviewed by David Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Tafjord_-_Longkumer_-_What_do_we_mean_by_indigenous_relgion(s)_1.1

David Robertson (DR): We talk about the world religions paradigm a lot here on the Religious Studies Project. And one of the things we’ve pointed out, on several occasions, is that you’ve got the Big Five , or sometimes the Big Six,  and it depends on who’s editing the particular book what those are. But you’ll often get these additional categories stuck on, you know: new religions and, increasingly, indigenous religions. And that’s what we’re here to talk about today. It’s not always very clear what it is we’re talking about when we talk about indigenous religions. To discuss that today we’re joined by Bjørn Ola Tafjord of Tromsø University. Welcome back.

Bjørn Ola Tafjord (BT): Thanks David.

DR: And we’re also joined by Arkotong Longkumer of the University of Edinburgh. His first time on the Project itself, although a long-term friend of the Project. So, welcome to you!

Arkotong Longkumer (AL): Thank you.

DR: Let’s start . . . . Bjørn, you’ve talked about the idea of indigenous religions as a kind of language game. Maybe you could explain to us a little bit what you mean when you say that?

BT: I think it’s interesting to look at how people use the phrase indigenous religions in different ways: how academics use it different ways to do different jobs in their different academic projects. I think it’s interesting to see how non-academicians use the phrase in order to do jobs in their different political social and cultural (whatever) projects. And, by paying attention to that, I think it becomes clear quite quickly that it’s a phrase that is used in ways that vary a lot, and that this variation creates troubles sometimes – both for academicians and for others, in terms of understanding each other – but also, that these are creative processes that also open new possibilities both within research and explorations of different cases. But also in other projects, as non-academicians tap into the discourses of academicians.

DR: And in some ways this whole conversation goes back to the earliest days of Religious Studies – doesn’t it? – and the idea of classifying religions, full stop. You know, with Tiele and Müller and people like that. Because you can’t have indigenous religion without this idea of religion itself, right?

BT: I think one of the ways that Religious Studies scholars think about indigenous religion – often its the first way we think of it – is as a class of religion. So, all the rest: all the other religions than those that fit in the world religions paradigm. All the rest, when we take out also the “new religions” or the “popular religions”, or whatever we want to call that very varied group. So, yes. I think that has been one typical way of thinking about it. But it has always, it seems, been one of these categories that sits uncomfortably in the scheme of the discipline.

AL: Can I just add . . . ? What I think is interesting is that we’re looking at indigenous peoples and how they actually practise religions. So I think that if we are to approach indigenous religions as a category and try to find that across, say, Africa, or in Asia, or in Latin America, then I think we might have a problem. Because there is no set paradigm of what indigenous religion is. And I think it varies according to context. So, I think what I’m interested in is how indigenous peoples understand or practise this thing called religion. So I think, in that sense, the category indigenous religions is not a primary factor. (5:00) It’s something that comes out of us looking at indigenous peoples so, in that sense, I think it’s slightly different from, say, the traditional scholar trying to find out what a kind of religion is.

DR: That’s an interesting point. Sometimes these kinds of categories do come out of a very good thing, in our attempt as scholars to more accurately represent what’s going on. But, at the same time, we need to kind-of play the game of the field a little bit, in order for our work to fit in and be understood anywhere. Would you agree with that?

AL: Yes. And that presents us with several problems, I think. I think if we have an assumption of what indigenous religion is in the academic environment, then  it’s interesting also how that kind of understanding can play itself in the field. So, for example, much of my work is in the North East of India. And I’m interested in how the Hindutva, or the Hindu Nationalists, co-opt this idea of indigenous religions, to actually include this fringe marginalised non-Christian or non -Muslim group into the fold of indigenous religions – by arguing that Hinduism is a kind of indigenous religion. So here, I think, we have a problem of how the academic term of indigenous religions is used quite effectively by the Hindu nationalists to propagate their idea of assimilation and inclusion.

DR: Yes. And Hinduism is a really interesting case because when you have more, sort-of, formal academic attempts at presenting some sort of definition of what indigenous religion is – I mean Jim Cox’s definition is probably the most commonly encountered nowadays – you immediately run into problems when you start trying to apply it. Because Hinduism is, by any of those categories really, an indigenous religion.

BT: I think, often, it can be worthwhile to pay attention to the two different words in the phrase. That in some projects – in the typical projects of Religious Studies, where you try to classify religions – then the emphasis will almost always be on the latter word, on  religion, and the adjective indigenous becomes a sort of classifier to say that this is a different religion: it’s from the other classes of religions. But in many uses that are not part of  religious studies – but also some of the uses that are part of religious studies – the emphasis can also be on the adjective. And then it’s not about classifying religions, at least not primarily. Then it becomes one about classifying peoples, often, or other objects or things, that are seen as belonging to particular kinds of peoples. It becomes shorthand for indigenous peoples, so it becomes the religion of indigenous peoples. Which can be used both to sort-of create groups, and demand rights, and all these kinds of applications. But it can also be used to discriminate, of course: to talk about “we” and “the other” and to exclude . . . .

DR: I think there is an implicit distinction that goes on with that sort of language game, though. I’ll give you an example that I came across recently. In the undergrad course, here in Edinburgh, they’re given the task of visiting the museum and describing religious objects. And we got to talking about the way that indigenous religious things were presented. And the example was given of a bolt with a painting of a sea deity on it, which was interpreted as a religious act.(10:00) And I said “Are we maybe over-reading into that that ‘it’s obviously religion, because there are primitive people’? If a truck drove past you on the A9, in Scotland, and it had the St Andrew’s Cross on the front of it, would we interpret that as a religious act by the truck driver, to ensure a safe journey?” It might be in some way, but it’s also many other things. It’s just a particular language that people do, and there are national uses to that symbol as well. But because it’s in an exoticised, indigenous culture, we kind-of read religion in there in a different way. We assume this primitiveness. Would that be fair to say?

AL: Yes. I think part of the whole discourse of indigenous religions . . . . I think there are a couple of challenges here. People who study indigenous peoples and their cultures and religions, I think, are trying to say to the academic world: “You have to take us seriously!” And I think, because of that, sometimes we classify ourselves as people who do indigenous religions in order to compete with the other kinds of religions out there. But in terms of actual engagement, in terns of research with people, we’re not really trying to isolate categories out by saying,”This is a kind of religious act.” Or, “This is a political act or an economic act.” I think a lot of the people that we are working with tend to think about these categories in kind-of overlapping terms. So I think part of the challenge is – and I think what we as scholars have to do is – that we have to speak a certain kind of language in order to communicate our ideas. It could be in the classroom, you know, it could be in a conference, etc.  But I think at the same time we are also trying to destabilise theses categories, and I think that’s where the challenge is. Because, to a certain extent, we are in a Western academic environment and of course we’re also in Religious Studies, so we have to try and articulate that, but at the same time I think we have to be wary of the limitations of these categories. So the kind-of national, political and religious intertwine.

BT: I also think that – those of us who study what we commonly call indigenous religions in religious studies – I think one way that we might have something to contribute to the larger field is that most of us do fieldwork. Many who do other religions often go straight for the religion. If you do Islam you go straight for the Islam; if you do Christianity you go straight to study Christianity. Whereas when we do fieldwork we are forced to sit around a lot, and be in places. And one of the things we discover is that it’s not all about religion all the time. Actually, religion happens, religion is an act that is done in different degrees and different ways, but in different circumstances. But I think it also makes us aware that religion is not around all the time. That’s one way that we can be a group of scholars who remind the rest of the field about not exaggerating  the importance of religion. We tend to send our students out in the world to find religion and of course they come back with religion. So the whole field exaggerates the importance of religion.

AL: And I think that also ties in the point about how primitiveness is often associated with how the people are so close to  nature, and to Gods, and spirit, and all of that, right?

BT: Right

AL: And I think, to a large extent, that’s not really the case. Because a lot of the indigenous peoples that we are working with have mobiles, wear jeans – you know – are engaged in social media. So, I mean, all of these practices are happening and I think that sometimes destabilises our notion of what indigenous peoples are. (15:00) So, this one thing that I’m kind-of working on is trying to understand festivals. And there’s a festival that I’ve been researching a lot and its called the Hornbill festival, which happens annually in Nagaland, which is the Indian state. What you often get is, the tourists that come from the West  – say, primarily from Europe and North America – have a certain notion of what this festival is about. So it’s about this indigenous subject  who still dresses in their traditional clothes, or they’re naked, or carry spears. And they have this visual image because this image has been passed on from the colonial times. And when they come to the festival they find out that “Oh! All of them are dressed like us!” And they carry mobile phones etc. So that kind of image, I think, is quite prevalent. And I wonder if, to a certain extent, that’s what happens with our students: that they have a certain exotic image of what indigenous religions are, and if you don’t give them that image then probably they say, “Oh well, it’s not interesting is it?” So that’s the challenge that we as scholars – and especially in indigenous religions – are trying to tackle, I think.

BT: There’s also widespread assumptions that indigenous peoples have indigenous religions. And I think where I study,  in Talamanca in Costa Rica, one of the things I was told and have been told repeatedly is that,”before the arrival of the Missionaries, before the Christians and the Baha’is came in the 1960s, we didn’t have religion.” And still the word “religion” is usually reserved to point at those traditions that came in the 1960s: various versions of Christianity and the Baha’i faith. And it’s only recently that some of the younger generation there has started to talk about what they used to call “indigenous tradition”. Now they’ve started to talk about it as an “indigenous religion”. And those who do it most are those who have gone to university, who have probably learned from Religious Studies scholars, or anthropologists, or others, that religion is something that exists everywhere, in all societies, at all times and that indigenous peoples have a certain kind of religion. And then they return home, or they turn their gaze towards their own community and start to translate indigenous traditions into indigenous religions. Which I think is quite interesting.

DR: It’s very interesting. And it’s a very good example of why the conversations about how these categories operate is not just academic navel-gazing. These categories feed back into the world and have very real legal ramifications for people. They exist as legal entities, people begin to construct their own religious and ethnic identities around these categories that we’ve give n them, basically. Yes. I wondered if you wanted to reflect on that, because indigenous religion is not only an academic religious category or a practitioner category but a legal, ethnic kind of category as well.

AL: Yes. And I think that is happening increasingly. We had the case of the local indigenous religions, as it were – you could be in Africa, you could be in Asia, you could be in Latin America – but we’re increasingly seeing the globalisation of indigenous religions as well. Especially if we are fighting for national identity, or sovereignty, or trying to safeguard ethnic identity within nation states. So the platform that really affords that kind of space is the United Nations and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is advanced a lot by the UN. So, here you enter into another arena of how these terms are actually quite positive and quite useful and quite empowering as well. (20:00) And, I think, couched in that is the very important idea of human rights: that having any kind of indigenous identity is intrinsically related to human rights issues. And,  of course,  protecting your religion, your culture, your traditions, is also tied in with human rights. So in the kind-of broader global sense, the term indigenous, or the term indigenous religions has a lot of purchase.

BT: And in order to gain something from it  you have to translate you traditions, your practices, your narratives into recognisable units, in order to be recognised as an indigenous people, or as an indigenous religion. You have to make it come across in a way that makes the judges in the courtroom – or whoever it is, the politicians  that make the decisions – they have to recognise this as an indigenous religion or as indigenous people. And that sort-of forces actors also to play into these expectations that are floating around now.

 AL: Yes. And I think to translate those kind of experiences, I think you tap into again, the academic and intellectual discourses out there on what exactly is culture, what exactly is heritage, or religion, or politics, and all of that. Yes, the cycle of the exchange of these ideas and categories are both local and global and they feed each other, I think.

DR: A couple of maybe slightly more critical takes on that . . . . I mean, one is that it’s very interesting that in an increasingly globalised political system, that indigenous religion becomes one more aspect of an increasing sort of identity politics. So it’s seeking national, religious, ethnic identity. You can also relate it to LGBT and all these different interest groups, rather than national representatives. But also there’s the way that religion becomes one more card to play in power relations. So, whilst sometimes yes – absolutely, it does have to do with human rights, other times it’s much more cynical. There’s the case of the Canadian indigenous population who had no interest in promoting their practices as being an indigenous religion until an oil company wanted to drill there. At which point, by claiming indigenous status they were able to prevent the drilling from taking place, because the land was now seen as sacred by the UN, or protected , rather, by the UN. So that’s a very good example of the sort of post-colonial legacy of this category of indigenous religion. It goes over to these other people who then use it in the same power plays which they’ve been gifted, if you like.

BT: I also think that  history has to be taken into account: the history of religions, not as a field of study, but as something in society . [Going] back to the Costa Rican context, for example:  the power and the position of the Catholic Church, just a decade to two ago, was so strong they were able to dominate the discourse and to decide what was legitimate religion or not. I think the main reason why people have said “we have no religion” is to keep it way from missionaries who would say, “ If you have an indigenous religion then that’s superstition, or a false religion, or idolatry.” So maybe what has happened also in international politics in recent years is that some sorts of religions have lost their hegemonic position, whereas other kinds of religions have got more space. I certainly think that in the Costa Rican context there has been a pluralisation of the religious field. And as indigenous culture and indigenous peoples have gotten more attention, and they have been looked upon more positively from the outside, so has their religion. (25:00) So there’s a sort of return of indigenous religion to the public sphere. Or, the rise of indigenous religions in the public sphere also has to do with the decline of the kind of discourse that before would immediately classify it as a superstition, or idolatry, or something that has to be fought, or primitive religion.

AL: Or even primal. So I mean, all of theses academic terms like primitive, primal, superstitious . . . of course I think people are also trying to reclaim a kind of identity. And I think the whole question of identity politics is interesting. And of course identity politics exists and I think a lot of indigenous activists are also aware of that, and they take advantage of that. Because they’re also making choices in the immediate present for their own communities against, say, exploitation, or oil drilling – which happens – or dam creations. So, they’re trying to protect their land. They’re also using these categories effectively and I think that’s important. So it’s not that all indigenous peoples are so close to nature and they’re all aloof, and they’re all having a great time. But also on the other hand, I think – as Bjørn was articulating – is that the term indigenous religions is also quite empowering. It’s about reclaiming a kind of identity. And they’re using the tools available. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

DR: No, of course. It’s exactly the same as happens everywhere. The point of bringing that up is an attempt to collapse that distinction: we can see it being used cynically on both sides – that’s human nature, and the nature of religion. Just one further . . . .Do you want to [say something else] before I change the subject?

BT: It made me think also . . . again, returning to Talamanca and the Costa Rican context, I think indigenous religion – or religión indígena as they say in Spanish – is sometimes used as a foreign relations tool towards an audience of outsiders, like us: academicians and politicians and others. But sometimes it also creates internal tensions. For example, when indigenous traditions are recast as indigenous religions.  When indigenous religions are being taught at school, parents who are Christians – Pentecostals in particular – often say,  “My children should not take those classes.” So they’re pulled out of those classes that they were fine with – as long as these issues were not enacted or articulated as religion, but as culture. So bringing religion into the mix sort of changes a whole lot of situations, and relations, and the ways things are talked about.

AL: Also, just one final point, I think.  If we are looking at indigenous peoples practising a kind of religion, then are we also open to what kind of religion  indigenous peoples are practising? So, I mean it could be say, Christianity. So, in that sense, is Christianity an indigenous religion? And I think, the common perception is that indigenous religions are largely non-Christian. And I think that’s an interesting thing. Because, if we have a formal definition of what indigenous religion is, then I think it might problematise some of the ways we tend to think about indigenous religions.

DR: Yes, absolutely. And that kind-of relates, actually, to the question that I was going to raise, in an unexpected way. So I was going to ask about . . . there’s a sort-of time element in this. We don’t, for instance, tend to see New Age practices in the West as an indigenous religion. Is that just because of the newness? Or is it the colonial power aspect? Or is it a hangover to the hegemony of Christianity, for instance? (30:00) But here in Scotland – just to take it as an example, because that’s where we are – Christianity is only 58% or something, at present. And that’s just people who identify, not necessarily people who are practising in any kind of meaningful sense. So as you say, actually, once we start looking, the further down we go these distinctions get more and more blurry.

AL: Yes. Absolutely and I think the term indigenous . . . well, I’m not sure about the academic discipline of indigenous religions, how that came about. I think people like Jim Cox has written about this transition from primal to indigenous and all of that. And I think, as far as I can recall – and you can correct me on this – I think it was from the ’70s or the ’80s that indigenous religions was seen as a category in its own right.

DR: Yes

AL: It’s curious how the term indigenous is not really popular in, say, Europe. I think in Canada it is. And of course in North America it is, and in Latin America it is. But in Europe, it’s quite interesting that it’s not. I mean, we can perhaps easily see that actually Christianity is an indigenous religion of Scotland. So yes, I’m interested in that kind of idea as well. And what makes something indigenous and what doesn’t.

DR: Well one example I’ve mentioned before is . . . there’s an example in Jim’s book (and incidentally, for the history of the emergence of the term, in Bjørn’s previous interview with the RSP we go into that in a bit more detail). But there’s an example where he talks about Zulus in South Africa being an indigenous tradition. But the Zulus migrated into South Africa from the Sahara, what 7-800 years ago? Whereas, the Dutch arrived there about 400 years ago. So, the choice of which of those is indigenous is entirely temporal.

BT: Again, I think this has to do with [the fact that] there are different language games being played here. I think the emergence of the international indigenous people’s movement and its success, since the 1970s and onwards, has made the word indigenous take on primarily the meaning of the reference to indigenous peoples. That’s what most people associate with it today. That’s the dominant use of it in most contexts. Whereas, the old use of the adjective indigenous would be something like the opposite of exogenous. So it’s a relational concept, or relational category, that could be applied to all kinds of things. But usually we associate . . . . Today, because of the relative success of the international indigenous people’s movement, it has become this tag or emblem for indigeneity, for indigenous peoples: shorthand for indigenous peoples. But it can be used in many other ways, and it is used in other ways. But then the discussions tend to be . . . I think many misunderstandings arise from  . . .

DR: Talking around each other, instead of to each other.

AL: But, it could be also be a case of the dominant group not categorising or associating themselves with indigenous religions, say. And it could be that the category indigenous religions is applying to only the marginalised communities. Which incidentally, it’s not always the case. Because, speaking with Afe , in Nigeria [for example]  indigenous religions is the dominant kind of group in certain areas. So of course, that again throws up . . .  and if you want to look at Hinduism as an indigenous religion, then what happens to the category, but also the way we conceive of indigenous religions? I guess that is the term that I’m looking for, yes.

DR:  (35:00) Thank you both. This has been a really interesting discussion and we’ve covered most of the different ways this terms been defined and understood. But, as you’re hearing this term and engaging with this term, just bear some of these ideas in mind and try to unpick which of the usages is being used in whatever source you’re looking at, at any given time. So thanks, again, to both of you for taking part in the Religious Studies Project today.

BT: Thank you for having us.

AL: Thanks, David.

Citation Info:  Tafjord, Bjørn Ola, and Arkotong Longkumer  2017. “What do we mean by indigenous religion(s)?”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 2 October 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 19 September 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/what-do-we-mean-by-indigenous-religion(s)/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts  are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

 

“Religion in Peru” — conference report, 2015

The conference, “Religion in Peru : Research itineraries from the social sciences,” was held at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Lima-Peru, 24 September 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Sidney Castillo.

Opening session. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

Opening session. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

The study of religion has deep roots in the South American country of Peru. Over twenty years ago, one of this country’s most eminent scholars of religion, the late Manuel Marzal, (1996) wrote an article detailing a century of religious studies in Peru. Since the dawn of social sciences in Peruvian academia, scholars from different schools of thought and institutions have applied their own perspectives to religion, from indigenism to Marxism—and of course the catholic church. These scholars wanted to get a grip on what means to be religious in Peru in order to better understand its people, however they also differed in key ways. For example, some have been concerned with religion as it may relate to establishing enduring political structures, to gain more adherents, or for good old fashioned criticism. Peru is a country rich with not only religious tradition, but also religious innovation. For example, we have both our equivalent of the Popol Vuh, the Dioses y hombres de Huarochirí [1] manuscript from the sixteenth century, and also a Peruvian new religious movement, the Asociación Evangélica de la Misión Israelita del Nuevo Pacto Universal from the twentieth century  as examples; this is why the conference presented different approaches to the study of religious phenomena, and discussed its relevance in the 21st century.

The conference was organized by the Master’s Degree in Sciences of Religion of the Faculty of Social Sciences from Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, represented by its Coordinator, Jaime Regan and myself (Sidney Castillo) as organizer, in collaboration with the Students Center of Anthropology of the same university (CEAN in Spanish) and the Peruvian Academy of the Sciences of Religion (APECREL also in Spanish). The conference featured anthropological researches based on case study and comparative religion approaches, as well as sociological research in the field of secularism and state regulations, and the sciences of religion itself as an academic field. The scholars who participated in the event were Luis Millones (Professor Emeritus of Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos), Diego Huerta (University of Helsinki), Marco Huaco (University of Strasbourg) and Dorothea Ortmann (University of Rostock).

From left to right: Huaco, Castillo, Millones, Ortmann and Huerta. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

From left to right: Huaco, Castillo, Millones, Ortmann and Huerta. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

For myself, as an organizer, it was particularly fulfilling to see the conference auditorium packed and the scholars ready to take the lead on the subject that was of our interest. And it was also fulfilling because we had a lot of competition that day: three academic events in the same faculty at pretty much the same time! We can say then, that people is really getting interested in learning about religion outside mainstream means e.g. churches.

Luis Millones’s talk was about Apostle Santiago and the Moors (Millones : 2015). He presented his latest research done in San Lucas de Colan, a small town within the Paita province in the coastal part of Piura region. His ethnographic research provided an insiders appreciation of the festival offered to Santiago Apostle’s horse, Felipe, in which the image of the patron saint observes the symbolic representation of the horse battling against the Moors. The festival commands both a huge participation on money and coordination from the brotherhood of the saint. Millones viewed this as a means of obtaining prestige among the townsfolk. Interestingly, these kind of festivities are a staple in many different rural and urban places. Particularly, as it’s a way of recreating social bonds with fellow members of the community (or former communities since a lot of people that participate in these celebrations are migrants) by venerating the patron saint and having a huge party lasting several days.

In the second talk, Diego Huerta used a comparative approach in discussing two religious phenomenons comprising some of his past research: the pilgrimage of the Christ of Huamantanga in the outer part of Lima, in the Canta district ; and the (neo)paganism in the urban parts of Lima (Huerta : 2012). His aim was to put into question the factual realization of the secularization process in Peru, in order to examine folk religion and new religious movements as manifestations of an alternative religiosity. Huerta suggested that while the former is more related to popular interpretations of Catholicism, the latter stems more from a product of globalization, embedded in a culture of media driven information on different religious traditions. I found his presentation as indicating that not even tradition is written in stone, tradition changes.

Lawyer, Marco Huaco. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

Lawyer, Marco Huaco. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

In the third presentation, Marco Huaco’s discussed the policy of laicidad, a.k.a. secularism in church-state relations (Huaco : 2013). He detailed the historical trajectory of the Peruvian constitutions, demonstrating their evolution, developing from constitutions of doctrinal confessionality towards constitutions of historical-sociological confessionality, finally arriving to the present day constitution. This constitution acknowledges the Catholic Church an important element of Peruvian society, and allows the State to take part in partnership with other religious denominations. This is highlighted by the 1980 Agreement between the Holy See and Peru, which he explained, has important consequences in the ordering of public policies (e.g., birth control and lgbt rights) and primary education.

The closing presentation was delivered by Dorothea Ortmann. In it, she presented how the Sciences of Religion was first established in Peru (Ortmann: 2002). Ortmann traced the beginnings of this development from the researches of Julio C. Tello, Rafael Larco Hoyle and Luis Válcarcel, where they tried to explain the syncretism process, noting the economic and political implications of these mixtures on many Andean deities. For example, the Lanzon of Chavin de Huantar and the Teja Amaru[2]. Ortmann discussed how researchers utilized the tools from different disciplines to explain this process (e.g. archaeology, linguistics and anthropology), in order to gain a wider overview of the Andean societies.

The variety of research that was presented at the conference allowed Peru’s academic community to gather a comprehensive entry into what the academic study of religion was and is, noting future possibilities for research. In echoing Ortmann’s sentiments, the academic study of religion in Peru has existed, at least to date, due to the personal interests and dedication of lone researchers (largely at their own costs) and not due to established monetary support from institutions. However, while some valuable research has been supported at religiously affiliated institutions (e.g., Centro de Estudios Teológicos de la Amazonía, Instituto de Pastoral Andina with the Allpanchis journal, Instituto Bartolomé de las Casas, Centro de Estudios y Publicaciones) other perspectives are needed, and at further distance from pastoral inspiration. Shedding some level of ties with the insider perspectives often provided via religious institutions will allow Peruvian academics to study religious phenomena from a variety of fresh perspectives[3].

 

That this conference took place at the National University of San Marcos was quite inspiring. This was the first university on the continent with a theology and arts faculty during the second half of the sixteenth century. Now, almost five hundred years later, Peruvian academics still have an interest in studying religion. However, our current perspectives and methodologies are far more diverse, and ever broadening. I remain optimistic that, in the near future, the academic study of religion in Peru will be as widespread and supported as other research areas. No doubt, this will be due in large part to the dedication and interest of Peruvian scholars, as this conference exemplifies.

References

Marzal, Manuel. (1996). “Un siglo de investigación de la religión en el Perú”. Anthropologica. Lima, volumen 14, número 14, pp. 7-28. Accesed on: november 29, 2015. http://revistas.pucp.edu.pe/index.php/anthropologica/article/view/1876/1809

Millones, L. (2015). “Las muchas caras de Santiago, por Luis Millones”. El Comercio. Lima, 01 of August. Accesed on: 04 de agosto de 2015. http://elcomercio.pe/opinion/columnistas/muchas-caras-santiago-luis-millones-noticia-1829935

Huaco, M. (2013). Procesos constituyentes y discursos contra-hegemónicos sobre laicidad, sexualidad y religión: Ecuador, Perú y Bolivia.  Buenos Aires: CLACSO. Accesed on: november 28, 2015.

http://biblioteca.clacso.edu.ar/clacso/sur-sur/20121108040727/ProcesosConstituyentes.pdf

Ortmann, D. (2002). Ciencias de la religión en el Perú. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. Accesed on: november 29, 2015. http://sisbib.unmsm.edu.pe/bibvirtual/libros/sociologia/c_religion/indice.htm

Huerta, D. (2012). De eclécticos e iniciados o una aproximación etnográfica a la práctica del (neo) paganismo en Lima. Licenciate thesis on Social Sciences with mention in Anthropology. Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Faculty of Social Sciences.

 

[1] Gathered by Francisco de Avila around 1598, and then translated from quechua to spanish by Jose Maria Arguedas in the middle of the tweinthieth century, it’s the only text that accounts for the mainstream fundational mythos of Peru, prior to the spaniards arrival.

[2] The first deity refers to a monolith of 4.5 meters located in the Temple of Chavin. It depicted a zooantropomorphic god with feline and avian features (animals found in the jungle and andes respectively), and was the main deity of the Chavin culture (1000 B.C.). The second one refers to a clay shaped tile representing the Amaru god with features of a otorongo (the peruvian feline), symbolizing the resistance of the spanish influence on andean culture. Some of these tiles were found in southern andean part of Peru and date from the early XIX century.

[3] Many scholars of religion like the late Fernando Fuenzalida, Harold Hernández, Jaime Regan, Juan Ossio and our own speakers of the conference have been doing innovative work in this manner, since they have provided great insights regarding new religious movements, andean and amazonian religion, and the relationship of religion and politics.

Sámi Shamanism – Up Close and Personal

In his RSP interview, David Gordon Wilson tells us why he started studying spiritualism and shamanism, his relation to shamanism now, and general problems one may face while studying these subjects.

Like Dr. Wilson, I believe there are multiple ways of defining shamanism, a task that many have pursued and one that I am not willing to take up here. The term “shaman” will be mentioned; however, due to the space limits of this essay, I will not spend time on definition, nor will I explain why I have chosen one definition opposed to another. Instead I will focus on describing my personal experience with Sámi shamanism at an indigenous festival in the north of Norway with hopes that it will be of interest to the RSP audience.

The Sámi

The Sámi are an indigenous group in Norway, Sweden, Finland and north-western Russia. The history between the Sámi and the Norwegian government has left a stain on the Sámi for generations:

 The Norwegianization policy undertaken by the Norwegian government from the 1850s up until the Second World War resulted in the apparent loss of Sami language and assimilation of the coastal Sami as an ethnically-distinct people into the northern Norwegian population. Together with the rise of an ethno-political movement since the 1970s, however, Sami culture has seen a revitalization of language, cultural activities, and ethnic identity (Brattland 2010:31).

Personal Insight

I grew up in the north of Norway and was taught from a very young age to be cautious of certain objects in nature: specific stones, trees, and areas. For example, certain rituals had to be performed when we travelled past a big rock called “Stallo.” Some would bow their heads three times as they passed “Stallo,” while others laid down coins at his feet. I was told to greet the rock out loud as we passed by his side. My mother always reminded my brother and me of this, and told us why it was important for good luck and a safe journey. She spoke of the rock as if he was alive and had power to do both good and bad. If we didn’t greet him, he could get cross and we could get hurt. Or so she told us.

At the time, I had no idea that this was an old Sámi custom. It was not until I started studying religion at the university that I realised I have Sámi roots. I confronted my mother and she informed me that my grandparents had rejected the Sámi language and culture. The reason for this, she said, was that they were ashamed of their origins and, sadly, they were not the only ones.

Little Storm on the Coast

My story is far from unique in Norway. In fact there is even a festival in the north of Norway that was founded by people with similar stories. The festival is called “Riddu Riđđu” which means “little storm on the coast.” Riddu Riđđu was created by a group of youths who sought answers to why the elders in the community spoke a different language, a language they were not allowed to learn. In other words, the festival started as a rebellion against those who had refused the Sámi society. The festival program has a wide variety of music, cultural performances, and workshops held by indigenous people from Norway and other parts of the world.

Riddu Riddu in the Summer of 2010

Riddu Riddu in the Summer of 2010

Indigenous Performance at Riddu Riddu in 2013

Indigenous Performance at Riddu Riddu in 2013

My Thesis, My Journey

I had barely heard of the festival when I started my master’s degree in religion and society at the University of Oslo in 2009. I had heard that, from its beginning, Riddu Riddu has been important for the Sámi population as a meeting place as well as for people who have lost their connection to the Sámi and wish to learn. I had also heard that there were shamans at the festival, Sámi shamans and others from around the world. Naturally, having just learnt of my Sámi background, I was intrigued, and chose, therefore, Riddu Riddu as my main topic for my master’s thesis, focusing on Sámi religion and identity.

According to one of the founders of Riddu Riđđu, Lene Hansen, the festival is almost like a religious gathering – people meet both spiritually and socially, and experience ethnic bonding and communality[1]. I had my focus on shamanism and found that, like David Gordon Wilson, speaking to individuals was the best approach.

Sámi Shamanism

Dr. Graham Harvey tells us in Shamanism: A Reader (2003) that the word ”shaman” is being used within several languages today. However, he warns us that the use of the terms ”shaman” and ”shamanism” can generalise a number of people as there are numerous local words for shamans (Harvey 2003:1). For example a Sámi shaman can be known as a noaide.

I spoke to a man, let´s call him “Tor”, at Riddu Riddu who is Sámi and a shaman, but refused to be called a noaide. Tor explained that while the word ”shaman” means ”the one who knows,” the word noaide means ”the one who sees” (directly translated from Norwegian) and refers to the ritual expert in the old Sámi society. According to Tor, the noaide was the most feared and at the same time the most respected person in the old Sámi community. If one happened to be on the bad side of a noaide, he or she could put a curse(gaine) on you. On the other side, Tor told me that the noaide was the person one sought out in crisis, as he or she was the only one who had direct contact with the spirit world and therefore had healing powers.

Enjoy The Drumming

Tor invited me and a few others to participate in a drum journey inside a gamme (see picture below). At the time, we had just learned that a bomb had gone off in Oslo and there were several casualties. Tor suggested that it was a good time to do a drum journey and we all agreed.

A picture I took at Riddu Riđđu in 2013. The one on the right is a gamme. The others are lavvu (traditional Sámi tent).

A picture I took at Riddu Riđđu in 2013. The one on the right is a gamme. The others are lavvu (traditional Sámi tent).

Inside the lavvu, he built a fire and we were asked to lie down on the reindeer pelt. He started drumming in a slow rhythm and after a while he started joiking (traditional Sámi form of song). The experience was calming, in my opinion, and quite enjoyable. Mostly because I was able to focus on enjoying the moment right there and then. This, I was told later, was the shamans’ main purpose for that particular drum journey: to be truly present for a moment. After the drum journey I spoke briefly to Tor about shamanism. He emphasized that shamanism consists of getting in touch with one’s feelings, internal life, and soul. For me, this remark seems to be quite universal when it comes to speaking of shamanism, however I am not trying to compare what Tor told me to what other shamans believe. It is just an observation.

It has taken several years for the Sámi to turn their shame of being Sámi into proudness. I believe Riddu Riđđu has played a role in that turning point by offering a positive place for Sámi and other indigenous people from around the world to meet, compare and differentiate between them.

Like Dr. Wilson, I started with an outsiders’ perspective, but, as the years went by, I ended up as an insider. I find Riddu Riđđu to be a place to learn about shamanism, the Sámi and even about my self.

Myself in a Sámi dress, standing in front of a lavvu (traditional Sámi tent) at Riddu Riđđu in 2013.

Myself in a Sámi dress, standing in front of a lavvu (traditional Sámi tent) at Riddu Riđđu in 2013.

References

Brattland, Camilla 2010: Mapping Rights in Coastal Sami Seascapes, In: Arctic Review on Law and Politics, vol. 1, 1/2010 p. 28–53.

Harvey, Graham 2003: Shamanism: A Reader. New York: Routledge.

Henriksen, Marianne V.2011: “Å bli same”. En religionsvitenskapelig studie av Riddu Riddu Festivala i et rituelt perspektiv. MA thesis, the faculty of theology, University of Oslo. Reprosentralen. http://www.duo.uio.no/

Pedersen, Paul and Viken, Arvid 2009: ”Globalized Reinvention of Indigenuity. The Riddu Riddu Festival as a Tool for Ethnic Negotiation of Place,” In: Nyseth, Torill and Viken, Arild 2009: Place Reinvention: Northern Perspective. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

 

[1] Founder of Riddu Riddu, Lene Hansen quoted in Perdersen and Viken 2009:193

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Response by James Cox to Bjørn Ola Tafjord on the Classification ‘Indigenous Religions’

Bjorn Tafjord begins his interview for the Religious Studies Project helpfully by outlining three usages of the term Indigenous Religions: 1) as a class or classification into which certain characteristics fit or they do not fit; 2) as a relational, historically conditioned term; 3) as an ethno-political category that has been used, for example, in land claims by indigenous peoples. He does not see these as contradictory ways of speaking of Indigenous Religions, but in many ways as complementary, although towards the conclusion of his interview, he appears to be advocating for a relational-historical use of the term. He makes it clear that how the category is used depends on the context of those employing it, whether academics, colonial or post-colonial powers or indigenous peoples themselves. In other words, no language use is neutral; it always has implications both for those doing the describing and that which is being described.

Bjorn Tafjord claims that one consequence of the way I have defined Indigenous Religions, first in my book From Primitive to Indigenous and then in my own article in my edited book Critical Reflections on Indigenous Religions,as restricted to communities that are kinship-orientated and identified by location or place, is that I have ‘boxed’ them in, or trapped them in a rigid conceptual framework. Only in one sense is this correct, since my intention was to identify unambiguously the meaning of a term about which so much loose language has been employed that in some cases it is impossible to know what content is being conveyed when it is used. We seldom allow such imprecise language in ordinary speech as we do when we employ the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religion’. I am not referring here just in terms of popular understandings or even how the terms are used in the media, but I am drawing attention to the common practice even among academics where frequently the meaning of these terms is simply taken for granted, or at the very least remains entirely implicit. I have argued that we need to begin by stating what we mean by the language we employ, not as a final or definitive claim to have circumscribed a category, but as a pragmatic way of beginning dialogue by being absolutely explicit about our meanings and intentions. Rather than ‘boxing in’ the category ‘Indigenous Religions’ this opens it up by encouraging scholars to clarify their denotative and connotative uses of terms and thereby make it possible to debate their interpretations analytically and critically.

What I find most confusing about Bjorn’s argument, which he makes towards the conclusion of the interview is when, after complaining that the term Indigenous Religions has been reified, he then calls ‘dangerous’ the assumption that Indigenous Religions are the religions of indigenous peoples. He seems to suggest that we need to dissociate the category ‘Indigenous Religion’ from the people who can fit into this classification. This is like saying ‘Christianity’ is a religion devoid of Christians. This doubly confuses the situation by moving the historical study of religion backward at least a century while at the same time re-enforcing the ‘world religions paradigm’. What I think Bjorn wants to suggest is not that we divorce a religion from its adherents, but that for historical and even political reasons we do not imply that indigenous peoples cannot be indigenous if they adhere to Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or other religions with cosmologies that are non-local and that we do not ignore the dynamic interactions that historically have transformed the global and local interactions when religious adherents meet and mutually influence one another. This is how I understand the meaning of the late Kwame Bediako, a leading African theologian, when he claimed that Christianity is Africa’s new indigenous religion. He meant that Christianity had been so transformed in Africa that it had taken on indigenous roots, but at the same time had transformed traditional indigenous world-views. In this sense, of course, the academic study of Indigenous Religions cannot exclude Christian, Buddhist or other historical and relational contexts, but this is not the same as saying that the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religions’ do not refer to those who practise the traditions under study.

This then brings me back to my own definition, which I have always insisted provides a starting-point for discussion. I am fully aware that the study of Indigenous Religions is not a study of ‘disappearing’ peoples. This idea was held quite firmly by early anthropologists such as Baldwin Spencer in Australia who studied the central desert peoples as living remnants of a ‘Stone Age’ people soon to become extinct. By defining Indigenous Religions as focused primarily on ancestors and as rooted in location, I have restricted the term in a way that then opens up wide permutations of ancestral and localised traditions as they are affected by modernity, globalisation, travel and mass communication, including indigenous people living in diaspora and those who, as in the case of the Yoruba of Nigeria, have transmitted their traditions around the world almost as missionaries by providing a universal source of healing and well-being.

I want to add just one last word on the overall interview (not attributable entirely to Bjorn Tafjord), which, if left unstated, would leave the persistent barrage against belief in religion still unchallenged. The current reaction against the role belief plays in religion is built somewhat naively on the assumption that scholars of religion continue to depict, describe and teach religion as if it were obtained from a textbook on systematic Christian theology. This, of course, could be said to characterise flawed earlier books written about the religions of the world, but this does not mean that the cognitive side of religion should be dismissed as irrelevant or unimportant. For example, it would be impossible for a spirit medium to go into a trance and for the assembled community to speak to the spirit directly if an underlying belief in the power of spirits to influence human circumstances were not present. It simply would not happen. What we believe affects how we experience the world and how we behave in it. Of course, this is not just a one-directional dynamic: experiences influence beliefs and behaviours, just as behaviours have an impact on our experiences and beliefs. Nonetheless, the current tendency to debunk beliefs as a Protestant left-over is too obvious and does not take into account the complex relationships between cognitions, experiences and actions, as is being shown increasingly within the cognitive science of religion and has been evident in cognitive-behavioural psychology for a very long time.