Decolonizing Religious Studies and Its Layers of Complicity
Podcast with Natalie Avalos (17 August 2019).
Interviewed by David McConeghy
Transcribed by David McConeghy
Audio and transcript available at:
decolonization, indigenous studies, Native American Studies, power,
David McConeghy (DM) 00:00
My name is David McConeghy and I’m delighted to be with Dr. Natalie Avalos today. Dr. Avalos is Assistant Professor in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Colorado, Boulder, affiliated with the Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies, the Religious Studies Department and the Tibet Himalaya initiative. She’s the author of numerous articles and book chapters on comparative Indigenous Studies, critical Indigenous pedagogy, and specifically decoloniality. Her manuscript in production is entitled The Metaphysics of Decoloniality, Transnational Indignities and Religious Refusal. And it’s our great pleasure to have her speaking today to continue the conversation that we ended last season with Malory Nye about decolonizing Religious Studies. Dr. Avalos, thank you so much for joining me today.
Natalie Avalos (NA) 00:58
Thank you for inviting me. It’s so nice to be able to chat with you, especially about this pretty timely topic.
It is extremely timely. You and I are speaking on July 5, just after President Trump has had a major incident at Mount Rushmore where there were Native American protests to his presence there and all kinds of opinion pieces. It really is just such a perfect moment for us to assert the importance of decolonizing Religious Studies. So I think for listeners that this might be new to them, or they’re relearning maybe what they learned in graduate school and trying to figure out its importance, can you help us by explaining what decolonizing means to you and what decolonization means in the work that you do?
This is a really complicated concept because it’s floating around in multiple contexts. I think in the middle of 20th century, it signaled a state project, one of sovereignty, where a former colonized nation becomes independent. But I think since that time, the term has been percolating in nationalist movements in the 60s and 70s. And, in particular, in the US , women of color feminist circles, third world women of color literature, and it really can represent how one begins to undo colonization whether that is in their community structures, whether that is in their own views of their own history, reclamation of their own history, reclamation of their own knowledges. Those things that had been marginalized, stigmatized pathologized through colonial orders and through colonial forms of knowledge production. We could think that most knowledge production in the first world is colonial knowledge production.
So the way that I started to understand it in my teens really just kind of reading some of that literature whether it was like Cherríe Moraga, bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa thinking about the ways in which those that have been colonized can come to know themselves again through a new lens. Setting aside, interrogating, [and] challenging the colonial conceptions that have been projected onto us, onto colonized peoples and really rearticulating our worlds and in ourselves in those worlds. So decolonization has been now critiqued, “Well, it’s not just about decolonizing your mind,” but the process of decolonizing your mind is critical. Because people have internalized colonial ideologies, they’ve internalized ideas about themselves that maybe they’re less intelligent, less valuable, less capable, all these things.
Decolonization can mean interrogating those assumptions. It can mean in the academy, especially, rewriting our histories, challenging racist assumptions and ideologies, more specifically in Native American Indigenous Studies, really challenging the primitivist frameworks that had been used for decades to understand Indigenous peoples. So those are just some of the ways in which I understand decolonization. That really now we can think of it as a methodology and one that’s been operating for decades, actually, in religious studies, but in subfields, like Native American Indigenous Studies, or, you know, Indigenous religious traditions and the ways in which they overlap with the greater field of Native American and Indigenous Studies, and so the subfield has some work that represents what it means to decolonize. But it’s not understood so explicitly by the mainstream of religious studies, partly because the mainstream of religious studies has not really kept up with some of the changes happening in the social sciences or the humanities, even when it came to the reflexive and post structuralist turns. Now in anthropology and in other fields, we have the ontological term which is really understanding the ways in which multiple ontologies coexists. And that literature and scholarship can be done in different ways. They don’t have to be centered through Western logics and epistemologies. So the work of decolonization has essentially led us to this place if it weren’t for literature that started to come out 20 years ago on decolonization in an ethnic studies and Indigenous Studies context. We went have the ontological term, but unfortunately, religious studies just hasn’t engaged some of these new movements forward in scholarship.
I’m so pleased to hear the decentering that you’re suggesting that our field needs. One of the elements of Chris Cotter’s interview with Malory Nye about decolonization that really struck me is how many of us in religious studies are so comfortable with deconstructing “religion,” but we’re far less comfortable deconstructing the idea that the whole enterprise of religious studies, as it has been given to us from the academy and the way that it operates in the academy, is also a colonial structure. I think Nye does a really good job tracing the European racist and colonial legacy of that. One of the places where I’m so pleased that you pick back up is for those who have experienced the personal trauma of colonization and continue to live in colonial structures that are actively oppressing them and asking them to think and behave and live and work and live in colonialist structures that that it gives us a new way to really grasp on to the vitality of the field that has been there for a long time.
If you had to identify the location of Indigenous Studies in relation to religious studies as a field and where do you think that effort of decolonization would locate them? Does it stand together with it? Does it confront religious studies?
I was trained by Inés Talamantez, who was in some ways a major figure in Native American Indigenous religious traditions because part of what she was doing the decolonial practice of challenging the existing order of power within the academy that essentially had centered the work of white scholars on indigenous peoples. She was challenging the projections and mis-readings, and really misunderstandings that were present and continue to perpetuate. She started doing this in the 80s. I think that there’s been a conversation, even thinking about liberation theology, womanist theology, and black theology. We can see those as proto expressions of decolonial work. That part of the larger process, even if it hasn’t been explicitly framed as decolonial work, is just as you noted as decentering this kind of assumption of a white objective, neutral voice, scholarly voice that can do legitimate work.
In a lot of the critiques and one of the reasons why I think these fields that do decolonial work had been so marginalized is because they’re framed as being “interested voices.” So myself, I was trained in, like you, in religious studies. I wasn’t trained in theology in any way. But I’ve received a lot of critiques that my work is theological. Why? Because I must have a bias position as a Chicana of Apache descent that’s interested in trying to understand urban Indian religious life, “why I can’t possibly be neutral!” And if I claim that I’m using Indigenous theory, well that must mean that I am just taking the narratives and in the word of my interlocutors at face value, and not doing any real critical theoretical engagement.
Part of what’s missing there is that there is a complete misunderstanding or failure to understand that indigenous theorists and scholars actually do exist. And they can draw from their work and use their work in a religious studies context to understand Indigenous religious traditions and Indigenous religious life.
I wonder if I could… Do you think that this is comparable, and I know we don’t often think of it this way, but do you think that’s comparable to if you’re going to talk about European Christians and you know, Western Christians, then of course, you’re going to use [Max] Weber. Of course, you’re going to use [Emile] Durkheim. Of course, you’re going to use [Clifford] Geertz right? That is the culturally located expressions that that speak to those traditions and about those traditions. But if you’re going to speak about indigenous traditions, well, what is Weber to them, right? What is Durkheim to them? Is that what you’re getting at?
There’s a way in which these are understood to be really the only means from which you can cultivate and understand indigenous peoples. If that’s true, and if that’s right or even, you know, like, [E.B.] Tylor’s work or this kind of primitivist anthropological frameworks that you’re expected to apply. And you just can’t because you realize it’s violent to do.
Well. It just deeply disfigures. You don’t end up learning anything about the indigenous communities. You just end up learning about what you’re projecting onto them. You’re not really cultivating anything that’s helpful to the communities or to the larger world of scholarship. It becomes navel gazing. Again, part of the work that decolonization can do in the greater field is to interrogate that assumed to neutral position. That we — and this is why it’s important for us to understand the reflexive turn — that we are all interested. We are all speaking from an interested position, and that our positionalities frame what conversations we have and how we understand them and what we produce, what kind of knowledge we’re producing. But also, in Indigenous Studies contexts, the call has been, “Let’s no longer do violence to indigenous peoples and communities,” especially in scholarship because we understand that there’s a direct relationship between knowledge production…
If we think of anthropology, as really an extension of state policies that want to manage indigenous populations in order to continue to have political control over them and exploit their resources and bodies, then we really have to think about the ways in which we have to be careful to just think about how power is operating in knowledge production. And that’s what a decolonial approach asks us to do instead. To think deeply about that. How is it that knowledges are basically perceived to have a hierarchy? That there are some knowledges that are more important and legitimate and rational and valuable than others? All those deeply racialized because we think of racism…. Racism is just a means to an end. Racism just operates to pathologize and silence those that then become exploitable in the words of another decolonial scholar Nelson Maldonado Torres who would say, well, it enables, it compels slavability, right? Those that that can be ultimately exploited. It naturalizes their slavability and exploitability. Unfortunately, that’s where we’re at. We’re in a place, not only socially, but in academia, where those hierarchies are so naturalized, that what decolonial work does is ask us to interrogate and deconstruct and challenge these naturalized assumptions. So that we may do work that’s actually just
I think you’re offering a lot here to those that would want to pursue this work. You present it in structural terms and you present it in personal terms. But I’m hearing also that there’s a lot of psychological work that needs to happen for each person as they’re in involved in this. Can you speak a little bit more about that? I know this comes from Frantz Fanon and the kind of two ways of thinking about decolonization’s work. Can you make the distinction a little bit clear for listeners about the structural elements versus the psychological elements? Specifically, because if we change the structural elements, and we don’t change the psychological ones, we’re still not working towards justice, right? Because they’re being retained. If we’re engaged in both halves of that process, as you say that we should be, why do we want to do that work? And then if we don’t feel like we are positioned in a colonialist structure, why is that work still essential to us?
Yeah, yeah. Well, what I appreciate so much about Fanon’s work, and you know, just be clear, he was understood as an anti-colonial scholar, a kind of mid-20th century expression of scholarship that was really seeking to totally deconstruct…. Not that decolonization is not invested in the same aims. I think that there are shared aims. But decolonial scholarship, at least from the more Latin American strain of [Walter] Mignolo and [Aníbal] Quijano, they’re pulling from both Critical Theory, but also folks like Fanon, and some of those middle 20th century thinkers. What I really appreciate about his work is that, you know, he was a psychoanalyst. He was really trying to understand how is it that colonization pathologizes the colonized? How is it that the colonized internalize these ideas? We think in terms of [Michel] Foucault’s bio power, right? The ways in which we internalize the relations of power that essentially construct modernity. So Mignolo would say, well, “modernity is is coloniality.” That all these relations of power are based on colonial logics. And so for Fanon, it was really important for him. Because it’s one thing to say, “Okay, well, now we have autonomy. Structurally, we’re autonomous.” But are we still replicating the same systems of power? Are we still replicating the same hierarchies of power where we’ve so deeply internalized whiteness as the only option in how to function that we’re still operating in a way that’s aspirationally-white, aspirationally-European. As opposed to reevaluating what might it mean…. I think this is the major conversation that’s come out of Ethnic Studies and Native American and Indigenous Studies. What does it mean for us to re-envision our social world using our own logics, our own philosophical logics. Reclaiming them and also recognizing the ones that still exist that are still in operation. So that might mean looking at the ways in which we care for the land and don’t over harvest or don’t damage the land, and plant crops that are complementary to one another in a kind of very structural way. But also, what is your relationship to power? How is it that we’ve internalized an idea that top down power is the only possible way that a society can function?
And, you know, luckily we get critiques of this, you know, coming out of like Women and Gender Studies and feminist studies about what are some of the differences between hierarchical power and lateral power. But I think that that’s what Fanon is really helping us get to is the ways in which we have so deeply internalized these hierarchical, racist, white supremacist structures that we’re still often attenuated to them. In a religious studies context, that means whose work is going to be perceived as legitimate and relevant and important, and even viable? Then who is getting a job?
To me the real boon of folks like Malory Nye and others wanting to take up this mantle and do this critique, because he notes that there are people in religious studies that have done the proto version of this work. Like [Tomoko] Masuzawa helping us understand well, these categories that we live with that had become naturalized, they’re cultivated through these deeply colonialist motivations. So why don’t we deconstruct them and then reevaluate what position are we speaking from? What do we want to do? What kinds of hierarchies are we still implicated in and then how do we extricate ourselves? Because I think, part of the process and I know that sounds very lofty but part of the process and the end goal that I think even Fanon was leading us to is reinvent[ing], re-envisioning a world of lateral power and an interdependent power. Moving us away from a reality that has to be this zero-sum game.
So I think it really, in some ways is a deeply personal, psychological, emotional, one could say even spiritual project. This is really a project personal liberation. How do we get free of structures that are binding all of us in ways that we’re not really happy with? Because if we think that some of these hierarchical structures that currently benefit white male scholars, you know, that they’re perceived in this field as the most legitimate as having the most accurate voices, even being the most valuable voices. What a burden on them, right? It makes me think of the ways in which we the ways in which say patriarchy hurts men. We often think of the ways in which patriarchy just hurts the non-binary and women, but that’s not the case, right? We can think that coloniality actually hurts all of us, because it puts all of us…. It creates a framework where we’re all frozen in our racialized, gendered, sexed, classed positions. And it prevents us from being able to move around and redefine our relationships to one another or redefine what’s valuable in the field and what’s important. I think that there have been several scholars that have bemoaned the ways in which Religious Studies has become somewhat marginalized or less relevant, you know, that religious studies students have now migrated to maybe American studies or other places. Well, how do you rebrand yourself, I guess, or make yourself relevant again. Well. Talk about these things that matter. Talk about these power dynamics in ways that are legible and relevant. Because young people, you know, they’re smart. They know that these conversations can exist, but we’re just not having them.
Yeah, it’s such a frustrating moment where the promise of all of this seems so latent for us. But there are moments when we’re not actually using it to our greatest advantage. I’m looking at your teaching document in the background, because I love the way that you put some of the things that you were you were just mentioning, “We hear the word decolonization often in resistance circles, but what does it mean? Some of you may dismiss it as irrelevant by thinking, quote, I’m not a person of color. I haven’t been affected or constrained by colonialism. Bad news, buddy. We’re all effected and constrained by colonialism.” So I think you’re very eloquent on this point about not simply the people for whom the oppression is direct and immediate and visible, but that the structures affect us all, and that we should all want to not just recognize them, but to put to work to limit their effects.
When I was reading your work in preparing to speak, one of the things that really stood out for me about was La Plazita was the idea of regeneration. Do you think you could share a bit about regeneration as a theoretical concept that helps people experience the psychological benefits of decolonization?
The reason why I really liked this concept, I’m drawing from Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred, and he’s speaking in the context of different First Nations, communities that he’s worked with. What he was trying to understand, he’s a political scientist, and he’s really trying to understand well, how does Indigenous governance work? How can it actually be functional because Indigenous governance that has been modeled on a nation state hierarchical template was never really functional. And they were essentially put in place to carry out the wishes of settler colonial, you know, like resource extraction, things like that. So settler colonial goals. And so traditional models of governance had been shifted to the side and generally traditional models of governance were religious leaders. He was trying to understand how is it that we can have functional governance? And he was saying, “Well, really comes down to regeneration. It comes down to regenerating as peoples.” What he means by that is actually reclaiming languages, reclaiming your metaphysical world, reclaiming your sense of self as coextensive with others.
And what I liked about it in terms of La Plazita is I saw that that’s what was happening there. In my interest in just trying to understand urban Indian life in general is that we typically think…. I think we have these assumptions that, well, urban Indians are just quote unquote less authentic. They’re gonna have fractured religious lives. To some degree, their religious lives are fractured, but that’s assuming that there is some sort of coherent religious life pre-contact, and that’s not necessarily the case. Indigenous religious life is really complex. It doesn’t operate in the ways that we assume religious life should in this kind of orderly institutional way. Really no religious tradition does, right? I was really interested in how it how it was that people were healing, really healing from historical trauma. Because that’s such a deep trauma. Historical traumas is not just PTSD. It’s a whole obliteration at the level of being.
I was raised in a context where I saw so many people in my family especially my father’s side, he’s Chicano and Apache, and just seeing the ways in which what I now understand to be trauma was playing out. So with La Plazita, this is a community that’s led by a Chicano Apache man Albino Garcia and he was brought into the Sundance tradition essentially adopted into that tradition. He brought Sundance and sweat lodge ceremonies into this space. He was an ex con himself. He built up this community space to serve and support those that had been caught up in the criminal justice system, which, you know, whether it was youth, or adults, men, women, to former gang members, those that had been incarcerated for whatever reason. What happens is that you become decontextualized from life, and then you’re thrown back in. You come out of that space and you’re thrown back into the world. How do you reintegrate? What he found in the discussion there is that you’re not just disoriented by the criminal justice system. You’ve been disoriented by colonialism for centuries, as have your ancestors. So part of the goal is really reorienting yourself to an indigenous world, but also to indigenous community, literally. Just reconceptualizing yourself as a part of something larger.
And I think part of what had been so psychologically harmful to people living an urban Indian life, is it you really have no place. You’re living on your traditional lands, but you’re essentially a refugee in your own traditional lands. You have no power, and you are dispossessed at every opportunity. So how do you survive, right? How do you survive in a white supremacist environment? How do you survive mentally, emotionally, psychologically? Regeneration helps us understand, well, what does survival look like? Survival looks like this deep reconnection, regeneration of community, regeneration of language logics, ceremonial logics, kinship, the recreation of family, rekindling your sense of…. I talked to so many young men that were like, “My heart was just frozen, and I was in deep grief.” Reconnecting with your emotional life and just the layers of generational grief around dispossession, and hatred. Feeling as if you’re hated by the larger community, then redefining yourself as someone that is a steward of the community that wants to love and nurture the community. And that that’s actually your true identity, and maybe even your true purpose. So that is profoundly healing for people. And I think ultimately, a very good example of what decolonization does for people on the ground. What it really looks like is that very deep transformation.
What I love about your work is that it’s unequivocal that the work of decolonization is going to be different for each one of us: the individuals that you worked with, and that you saw working on the issues of decolonizing their community in Albuquerque, that for each one of us, Mallory Nye working in Europe, me working in Massachusetts, you in Colorado. In each of our circumstances that’s going to be a different kind of work. As a white person I receive privilege that I may not have earned. And the question is, what can I do with that privilege that I might not otherwise to advance these causes? If you and I are in the classroom and teaching on similar subjects about religious studies, what are the strategies? Do you and I get to use the same strategies? Do we have to use different strategies? If we turn here in the last few minutes of our time together, what can we recommend to those that are on board with the necessity in the long overdue-ness of decolonizing religious studies? What are the first steps that we might take that put us on the longer lifelong process of doing this work for our students and for our field?
This is a great question and I think this is one that people get stuck because it’s like, I understand this in theory, but then what does it look like?
And you know, I don’t think there is any one perfect way and what excites me so much about the fact that there are scholars, and particular white scholars, that want to talk about this. It puts it on the map as something relevant and important to do in the classroom but also outside. So as scholars, I think we’re, we’re trying to be neutral. And I think it is important to be somewhat neutral in the classroom, but we’re totally interpellated by power, right? We have to name and visibilize that power. So that’s what, in my mind, that’s what it means to decolonize a classroom, especially the religious studies classroom. Think about the canon, and not throw the canon away, but instead, how might I reframe the cannon so that I can understand thinkers like [James] Frazer, [E.B.] Tylor, [Emile] Durkheim as cultivating a deeply primitivist discourse and how that shapes our collective reality even now. So in some ways it’s like an inversion bringing in material like [Tomoko] Masuzawa’s work, Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s work on Decolonizing Methodologies really just helps you frame. So the conversation that you’re starting with is interrogating power and these hierarchies that are created by the canon, and then unpacking that throughout and then packing your own positionality. So how might my positionality and sense of legitimacy and power in the classroom differ from yours and be read differently?
Ultimately, I think it’s important for students to signal that for students. Just tell them outright. “I have this kind of privilege. You may perceive me as being more authoritative and more intelligent and more legitimate in my voice because of these structures embedded in the canon itself” and adding assignments that help deconstruct that. I have one called decolonial autobiography where I asked students to just think what are the layers? What are the colonial layers of the places that they grew up? Who were the first peoples there? When did the settlers first come? Are the first people still there? What happened to them? What kind of relationship is there in that place with those first peoples? What is your relationship to power there? What is your complicity there? And that really carries out well beyond the classroom you’re thinking about that. So here decolonization, to speak to my earlier definition is really also thinking about indigenous sovereignty when you’re in a place like the US. Where indigenous nations still exist. Yet they’re totally erased and marginalized and silenced, especially within the classroom. How might we re-center them so that you think about your relationship with them, but also think about what are the ways in which I can aid and support indigenous sovereignty? And be interested, be genuinely interested in indigenous sovereignty. That necessitates a deep interrogation around your own access to power. What it means to monopolize power in the US and in other settler colonial nations and what does it mean to share power. Just deeply reconceptualizing that and talk about that. Have a conversation with them.
That is the work. To me that is decolonial work. It is really visibilizing what has been naturalized. These relations of power that have been so naturalized that we take for granted, interrogating them, challenging them, deconstructing them reevaluating them, putting them up for discussion. That’s a major part of the work and helping students be reflexive about it. Integrating assignments…. I asked students to do a decolonial autobiography, sometimes an extra credit assignment, but asking them to think about their relationship to land and place. Because there’s always some sort of Indigenous Studies element in my class, even if it’s a course on “Religion and Healing” or “Lived Religions”. I think it should always be there because it really helps students understand and denaturalize their relationship. The assumption that the land, the lands that they are on, particularly in the West in the Americas, that these are indigenous lands and that those indigenous peoples are still there. They’re still fighting for sovereignty. The more that we continue to ignore them, it’s just making their fight more difficult. How might we rethink our relationship to lands and peoples and First Peoples and our layers of complicity in their dispossession?
Honestly, what I find with students, they’re pretty excited to do that, because they’re so deeply uncomfortable with the complicity, but even more uncomfortable and frustrated and angry by what feels like an inability to do anything to change structures. And I think part of the goal is helping students understand just how much power they have. They have an incredible amount of power and that we all do, and that this is a collective effort. If we’re all contributing to this collective effort, then we can have massive change. We’re seeing that now in these movements where all of a sudden, statues are coming down. Denver had statues of Columbus coming down. Denver was one of the places that the American Indian Movement had been working even with Italian American communities to change Columbus Day to indigenous people saved for decades. Religious studies scholar Tink Tinker, he’d been working on this. He’s an Osage scholar, a leader in the urban Indian community there. Decades of work is all of a sudden viable and possible in the blink of an eye. And I think that that’s what decolonization work can do in the classroom. It just makes it viable and possible.
So, in the classroom, let’s tear down all those monuments.
There you go. And that’s really what it is meant to do and can do. Yeah.
Well, I’m so thankful for your time today and for your expertise on this. We are delighted to be able to share some of these recommendations and your perspective on it. And we just want to thank you for your time today.
Thank you so much, David. I just appreciate that. The podcast wants to have this conversation. I hope that it continues to grow and build. So, thank you. I appreciate it.
Avalos, Natalie, and David McConeghy. 2020. “Decolonizing Religious Studies and Its Layers of Complicity”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 17 August 2020. Transcribed by David McConeghy. Version 1.1, 17 August 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/decolonizing-religious-studies-and-its-layers-of-complicity/.
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