April 29, 2010

On Zion's Mount

by Tisa Wenger

One of the best books I read this year was Jared Farmer's On Zion's Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Harvard University Press, 2008), which turns the story of a Utah mountain into a profound meditation on the historical processes that create culturally significant places. Refusing to isolate Mormon and Great Basin history, Farmer places this story within broad currents of American history. In Farmer's hands the process of making Mt. Timpanogos into a Utah landmark illustrates, among other things, some of the ways in which Americans justified taking possession of Indian land-dispossessing living Indians-by weaving romantic legends of Indian pasts.

There's a new interview with Jared Farmer just posted at Religion Dispatches. It's well worth looking at whether you've read the book or not, and features some especially intriguing reflections on contemporary Mormon sacred spaces.

April 19, 2010

New Digital Archive for Native American History

The University of Wisconsin has digitized US/Native American treaties and the Annual Reports to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, setting Native American Historians free from hours in front of microfilm machines.

You can find these invaluable digital resources at: University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

April 13, 2010

Reflections on Multiplicity, Freedom, and Transnationalism

by Tisa Wenger

In teaching a course titled “Religion in the American West” this semester, I must confess to an occasional frustration with the limitations of this rubric. Some days I’m not even sure why I’ve chosen to configure a course in this way. The western half of the United States (if we can even agree that this is what we’re studying) is just too much, too big, to identify consistent themes that might distinguish its religious history from that of the rest of the country. Rather than constituting one region, it encompasses multiple regions, each with multiplicities of its own. And then it occurs to me that this is precisely the point. We are not engaged in a quest for some unique quality that would separate the West from the rest of the country, or from its multiple borderlands. Rather, as Brandi Denison’s inaugural blog entry also suggested, focusing on the multiplicity of Western narratives may bring new insights and new questions to national, hemispheric, and transnational histories.

For example, I’m thinking a lot these days about the topic of religious freedom in American history. My project is not limited to the West, but my concern with the West significantly transforms the shape of this work. As the United States expanded westward, how did concepts of liberty and the ideal of the free conscience shape Protestant visions of their own role in what seemed to them a divinely ordained drama? When and where did Anglo-Protestant conceptions of “freedom” tend to exclude and/or discipline other modes of religiosity? How did the peoples they encountered—Indians, Catholics, Mormons, Hispanos, Asian immigrants, and others—understand and make use of the religious freedom ideal, and how did it transform them? Were the dynamics of religious freedom different in the West, where in most areas the “mainline” Protestant denominations never established any controlling presence and competed with multiple forms of religious commitment?

Another question I’m pondering involves the relationship between religion in the American West and (buzzword alert!) more global or transnational approaches to religious history. Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s classic essay “Eastward Ho!” (in Thomas Tweed, ed., Retelling U.S. Religious History) reminded us well over a decade ago that a “Pacific Rim” perspective on U.S. religious history would require us to think multidirectionally and even globally about human migration into and across the Americas. This seminar and this blog, I hope, will help all of us to take up Laurie’s challenge and to expand our field of vision so that we’re not only orienting ourselves regionally within the U.S.—but that the American West might also open up new ways of seeing transnational religious networks and movements.

For anyone who happens to find this blog without already knowing about our seminar and/or website, please check out our home site: “Religion in the American West Seminar.” We welcome your comments and suggestions.

April 6, 2010


“But there is the rhizomatic West, with its Indians without ancestry, its ever-receding limit, its shifting and displaced frontiers. There is a whole American “map” in the West, where even the trees form rhizomes.” --A Thousand Plateaus

For a quarter of a century, I called it home. Now, a displaced westerner living in the south, I call it the subject of my graduate study and one of many homes. I was drawn to the history of religions in the American West in part because my experience of religion in the West was not reflected in the narrative of American religions. I became enamored with it because the multiplicity of encounters naturally challenges what Deleuze and Guattari would characterize as the “tree thinking” of old “master narratives.” Histories of the American West constantly resist categorization. For instance, we have difficulty locating the West. Is it geography? Political boundaries? Climate? An idea? Temporal questions also frame our work. When can we begin a narrative of the American West? Does it begin with the immigration of Native Americans from the south or with the Louisiana Purchase? Whose story do we tell and how do we tell it? The American West persistently confounds categories, not because we have not yet found the right ones, but because “master narratives” have never adequately represented the rich religious history of the Americas.

This group blog is a place to initiate a rhizomatic mapping of religions in the American West. With multiple contributors focusing on a variety of places, times, and points of reference, this blog will aim to capture the diversity of narratives and approaches. Contributors will review books and journal articles, reflect on the rewards and challenges of teaching religion in the American West, share syllabi, comment on current events, point out conference paper calls, share primary source documents, and provide informal reflections on the subfield.

In the coming month, look for posts from James Bennett, Roberto Lint-Sagarena, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Quincy Newell, Sara Patterson, and Tisa Wenger.