December 31, 2012

A Wolfish History of Religions in the West

by Thomas S. Bremer

Earlier this month the world received news that 832F had been killed.  As reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, a hunter brought down the most famous and widely recognizable of the Yellowstone wolves fifteen miles outside of the national park boundaries in Wyoming.

As someone prone to pondering the cultural significance of Yellowstone’s history, I found myself thinking about 832F, the alpha female of the Lamar Canyon pack, and was surprised by my ambivalence over her death.  Perhaps my mixed feelings reflect a broader cultural ambivalence modern westerners have held in their regard for not only wolves, but wildlife in general.

832F, as the Times reporter Nate Schweber points out in his article, had achieved the status of “rock star” among certain wildlife aficionados.  She was, by my reckoning, a fully aestheticized commodity in a tourist economy of wildlife, national parks, and outdoor adventure.  In eco-tourist discourses on Yellowstone, the image of the wolf has become an iconic figure representing the virtues of biodiversity, wildness, and a benevolent humanity that brings rational science to bear on a compassionate regard for animals. Moreover, the possibility of wolf sightings in the highly managed landscapes of Yellowstone National Park contributes to the authenticity of the park for tourist visitors; to see live wolves in the wild affirms in touristic discourses that Yellowstone is indeed an authentically wild place, and therefore a more appealing tourist destination, itself an ironic development that belies the claim of wildness.

On the other hand, the very wildness of wolves is what threatens another sort of economy and discourse, that of ranchers and wildlife managers in areas surrounding the park.  Particularly for agricultural interests, the wolf represents a dangerous predator whose attacks on livestock imperil the very foundations of western civilization, besides harming their own personal financial interests.  There are plenty of folks in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, as well as throughout the western United States, who are convinced that extermination of wolves is a good thing, in fact necessary for the profitable success of the livestock industries.

As a historian of American religions, I wonder what sort of critical perspective I might contribute to such debates.  I am not sure a good religious history of wolves has been written, although Barry Lopez’s impressive book Of Wolves and Men includes numerous references to cultural traditions and folkloric legends that rely on religious orientations.  Lopez contends, “The truth is we know little about the wolf.  What we know a good deal more about is what we imagine the wolf to be” (3).  As I reflect on the human imagination of the various subspecies of Canis lupus, it seems to me that the critical questions for scholars of religions have to do with how religious orientations, perspectives, assumptions, practices, and images have contributed to and informed various wolfian discourses. 

For those of us interested specifically in the western regions of North America, one discourse with urgent political ramifications has to do with the reintroduction of wolf populations in areas where wolves had been earlier exterminated.  Scholars of religions could help elucidate historical and anthropological perspectives on religious considerations underlying the cultural ambivalence toward wolves that informs both sides of the debate. Insight into the religious aspects of collective attitudes toward the Yellowstone wolves, I surmise, will take us beyond wolves and far outside the park boundaries of Yellowstone, for it ultimately concerns self-understandings of the human relationship to nature, animals, and the places we deem as wild.  Perhaps we might even come to terms with both the sadness and the necessity of losing 832F to the hunter’s skillfully placed shot.

December 29, 2012

Casual Friday

So, in case you didn't notice, December 21, 2012--apparently the last day on one of the Mayan calendars--has come and gone with no apocalypse. At least, not one that I (or anyone I know of) noticed. The world, it seems, has not yet come to an end. But when it does, I know one place where the people will be well prepared.

I stumbled onto Rockland Ranch several years ago when I was driving around the dirt roads near Canyonlands National Park in southern Utah. The first time I saw it I just snapped a few pictures and wondered what it was all about. The second time, about a year later, I decided to stop. The man who began the project--which has now become a small community--was away at the time, visiting Salt Lake City, but I talked to one of the people who lived there. He described himself as an Independent Mormon Fundamentalist. He had recently left another community was living there with his family.

The community consists of several rooms blasted into the side of this massive sandstone formation. There is an orchard, water tanks, solar paneling, power generators and fuel reserves. Everything you'd need to carry on in the desert for a good long while after civilization collapses when it eventually does, on some future doomsday.

posted by Stan Thayne

December 24, 2012

The National Christmas Tree: Secrecy, Religious Pluralism & National Unity

By Brandi Denison

This year, the Capitol Christmas Tree, or the People’s Tree, is a 73-foot Englemann Spruce Tree from the White River National Forest in western Colorado.

Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post
The tradition of the Capitol Christmas Tree began in 1964, when the House Speaker John W. McCormack located a live Christmas tree on the Capitol lawn. This tree remained for three seasons until it died. In 1970, the Capitol Architect requested another tree from the National Forest Service. Since then, the Forest Service has provided this tree annually. The trees have come from all over the nation, with two other trees from Colorado.

The cutting ceremony of this year’s massive tree was an entanglement of capitalism, Germanic winter celebrations, and Native American ceremonial traditions. Forest Service rangers, Ute elders from Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, Junior Miss Ute Mountain, Santa Claus, and several observers attended the cutting of the tree on November 2. 

In this private ceremony, Ute Elders blessed the tree in the "Sun Dance Way." Bradley W. Hight, who is the vice-chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council told Elizabeth Flock of the US News & World a little about this ceremony, indicating that trees are special to the tribe because they represent "strength, medicine, food, and shelter." However, on the specifics of the ceremony, he said: "I can't talk to you about that. It's kind of secret because it only belongs to us. The Ute Tribe are the only ones who know. . . not even the Secret Service knows."

Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post
After hearing about this secret ceremony, I initially thought that the intersections of capitalism (demonstrated by the presence of Santa Claus), the German tradition of bringing evergreens into the home on Winter’s Solstice, and the secret Ute ceremony create an uncontested display of religiosity, one that is thoroughly American and securely rooted in the pastiche of Western sensibilities. In other words, I figured that the merger of American Indian ceremonies with the traditional Christmas Tree cutting was a way for non-Indians to negotiate the ambiguity of being a society that values both the non-establishment clause and public displays of religion. This is another example, I thought, of what Philip Deloria has termed "Playing Indian."

Further reflection and reading, though, led me to think about the Ute Nation's agency in the ceremony. Rather then being an appropriation of Ute spirituality to negotiate the secular-religiosity of Christmas, the secret ceremony became an opportunity for the Utes to announce their continued presence in and relationship with Colorado's National Forests. From the US Department of Agriculture website, the Ute Tribes used this opportunity to let non-Indians know that:

  • The Tree is on Ute aboriginal lands shared by other migrating tribes who used the forest;
  • The Tree is a sentinel, a landmark in the forest;
  • The Tree is strength to the Ute people;
  • The Tree has provided medicine and food;
  • The Tree has given wood for fire and shelter from the night;
  • The Tree has stood proudly for the Ute people and their lifeway.

Additionally,Gary Hayes, Chairman of the Tribal Council, revealed that part of the purpose the secret ceremony was to bring unity to Washington. With the Christmas tree being lit by John Boehner at the beginning of the fiscal cliffs negotiations unity was (and perhaps continues to be) an elusive goal. Yet, even as the United States government and its citizens are grappling with two very serious and divisive issues (the national budget and gun control), the 73-foot Christmas tree presides over Washington through the Christmas season, having started it's 5,000 mile journey with a secret Ute ceremony. 

This might be an instance of "playing Indian," but it is also an example of an American Indian Nation participating in a national dialogue through the available channels. 

AP Photo, J. Scott Applewhite

December 21, 2012

Casual Friday

(from the Thomas Wolfe Society FB page:

"Wolfe and the West"
Boise, Idaho--MAY 24-25, 2013

On June 20, 1938, Thomas Wolfe embarked from Oregon on a two-week car trip that took him through eleven national parks and 4,500 miles of highway
. From this whirlwind tour of the western U.S., he would produce his last piece of writing, A Western Journal. For its 35th annual conference, in Boise, Idaho, the Thomas Wolfe Society invites papers that explore Wolfe’s connection to the West, although proposals are welcome on any theme related to Thomas Wolfe and his work. We are especially interested in ecocritical approaches to Wolfe, as well as considerations of his experience of nature tourism, auto tourism, and our national parks (now threatened by moneyed interests). Other topics might include treatments of Wolfe and Western writers or other writers who had ties to the American West, considerations of Wolfe and literary regionalism, and, more generally, how Wolfe’s experience of the West compares with his lives in the South and the Northeast. 

Please send 250-word paper proposals by January 10, 2013 to: (For email submissions, please include in the subject heading WOLFE PROPOSAL) or snail mail: Dr. George Hovis, Department of English, 322 Netzer Admin. Bldg., SUNY Oneonta, Oneonta, NY 13820

December 17, 2012

There’s No Place Like Home

by Cara Burnidge

In a few short days, I’ll begin the long drive home for the holidays. Fifteen hours and six states later, I’ll complete the trek from the Sunshine to the Sunflower State. Considering how many times I’ve driven from the Florida panhandle to southeast Kansas, you would think that I would have a better answer to the question: Where is home?

Without trying to give Rick Scott more reason to privilege STEM programs over the humanities, let me explain. It’s a more difficult question to answer than you might think because of the odd role Kansas plays in the historiography of the American West. Compasses are not all that helpful: Kansas does not belong to the regional histories of the North nor the South; the East nor the West (ignoring for a moment my own efforts to situate it there). Cultural geographers have changed their minds over time too. Kansas has a part of the West, Midwest, and Great Plains as its identity shifted from a territory on the frontier (even a part of a Gold Rush) to “fly over state.” Setting aside these questions of regionalism, sociologist Robert Wuthnow places Kansas on the nation’s cultural map according to one quality that seems to endure: Kansas is a solidly red state.

It is certainly hard to disagree. As Wuthnow points out in Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland, Kansas has voted Republican in every presidential election between 1968 and 2008 (2). And now we can also include the 2012 election in which Mitt Romney received 60% of the popular vote and only 2 of 105 counties went blue (Douglas and Wyandotte counties for those of you playing trivia at home).  While there certainly are other states that are red, Kansas appears to be quintessentially so. Wuthnow attempts to explain why by examining the religion and politics of the state. Instead of asking “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” and draw attention to the ways religion fuels an ideological conservatism, Wuthnow asserts a “red state religion” in Kansas that is more of a “practical” conservatism. He writes:

“red state religion and politics in Kansas had less to do with contentious moral activism than it did with local communities and relationships among neighbors, friends, and fellow churchgoers” (8).

It feels like Wuthnow’s assertion could be true. Growing up in rural Kansas, I know that the local community can be like an extended family. Next week, when neighbors see my car in the driveway they are likely to come over and catch up, asking about my semester and if I have finished my dissertation yet (so close, I promise!).  I understand Wuthnow’s attempt to draw attention away from a small number of (mostly male) ideological firebrands who catch headlines and toward the more private expressions of religion, especially women, in this red state. 

But the scholar in me thinks twice. For all the complexity that Wuthnow adds to the portrait of this red state, the picture is a little too neat. In particular, I wonder why the “practical” and “ideological” sides of conservatism are depicted as opposing forces at all. It seems possible to me that contentiousness can be the result of local relationships among neighbors, especially those who did not want their neighborhood to include certain neighbors. From battles with border ruffians during the Bleeding Kansas territorial period to Carrie A. Nation smashing saloons to battles over abortion clinics, pragmatic concerns about local neighborhoods are fully a part of the moral activism that has defined this red state. For instance, concern over who belongs to the neighborhood and, therefore, deserves the care and concern of others, caused Social Gospel minister, Charles Sheldon to push his congregants to cross the borders of their own neighborhood and serve the residents of Tennesseetown, the neighborhood that belonged to Exoduster migrants. In other words, is a “neighborly” and practical conservatism all that different from an ideological one?

Wuthnow leaves plenty of room for further scholarship on the complexities of Kansas and I certainly hope we see more examinations of religion in red (and blue) states on the horizon soon. It’s a good thing I have 15 hours ahead of me. 

December 14, 2012

Casual Friday

Call for Participants: Seminar on Religion and US Empire (2013-2015)

We invite applications to participate in a three-year series of research seminars on the history of religion and US empire from the formal inception of the US as a nation-state to the present.  The central aim of this project is to establish a major scholarly assessment of the linkage between religion and American empire.  We plan to address the relative inattention of scholars of religion to the powerful impact that the establishment of empire has made on religion in the US.  Conversely, we will emphasize the role of religion in shaping the history of the US as an imperial state, an area of inquiry that demands further attention.  This seminar series will also develop innovative theoretical approaches to interpreting the larger phenomenon of empire by considering the US state as a paradigm for modern empires.

To achieve this, we are organizing a series of meetings over a three-year period by an interdisciplinary team of twelve researchers to analyze historical data about religion and empire; exchange information, insights, and critiques; develop appropriate theoretical models; provide mutual feedback on resulting manuscripts; and contribute to a co-edited volume on religion and US empire.  We believe the seminar and its products will redirect several ongoing scholarly conversations, support teaching on the topic, and inspire further research on this pressing issue.

The first meeting will take place in fall 2013 (probably in October) at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, courtesy of a generous grant from Creighton's Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society.  We have also secured preliminary funding for the second meeting in fall 2014. We continue to seek funding for two additional meetings in 2015 to complete the series.

Participants will receive food and lodging for three nights and two days and a travel subsidy of up to $400.  In return, each member of the team will agree to participate in all of the meetings, produce an essay for the edited volume, and develop related teaching materials (e.g., a syllabus and bibliography).  We are seeking an interdisciplinary team of participants representing diverse methodological, chronological, and geographical interests related to the problem of religion and empire.  We also hope to identify promising early career scholars as well as established academics.

To apply, please submit the following material in electronic form to Dr. Tracy Leavelle at by 1 February 2013.

* 1-2 page cover letter explaining your interest in the seminar * 1-2 page description of the research and writing you propose to do as part of the seminar * Brief cv of no more than 5 pages * List of three references

We will notify applicants of their status in March 2013.

December 10, 2012

AAR Recap

by James Bennett

The fifth and final session of the Religion in the American West seminar of the American Academy of Religion met during the AAR annual meeting last month in Chicago. It was a fitting end in many ways. Meeting in Chicago provided a nice book end to the seminar, which first meet four years ago when the AAR was last in Chicago. That first meeting was in a cramped conference room without enough seats. This year we were in a large meeting room which, at first felt much to vast but, before long, every seat was filled. Nearly fifty people found their way to this year’s seminar meeting! It was great to see several members who have been with us since the start as well as to welcome so many new participants. The presence of both bodes well for the future.

The session featured four pre-circulated essays. One of the advantages of the seminar format, compared with other AAR sessions, is this pre-circulated format. It not only allows for longer papers since they are read in advance, but it also allows most of the seminar meeting to focus on discussion.

Tammy Heise wrote about religion in the Ghost Dance revival at Wounded Knee in 1973, arguing for the important but generally overlooked role of religion in the occupation and AIM, challenging the tendency to sever religion from a event whose interpretation has been interpreted primarily through the lens of the political. Tom Bremer wrote about the role of religion in the founding of Yellowstone National Park, specifically a millennialist evangelical ethic that resolves the seeming contradiction between the nearly simultaneous acts of Congress that established the National Park System and passed the Mining Act. Sarah Koenig focused on the Northwest with a study of trade and material “goods” and they ways that market exchanges among natives and missionaries were also religious exchanges, thereby offering a commercial history of religion in the American West. Finally, Shari Rabin looked at the experience of Judaism in the American West, exploring the differing ways that Jews experienced the West, from the sense of promise and possibility contained in the ease of mobility to a sense of threat or insecurity that resulted from dispersion. The papers provided rich and often innovative analyses that not only moved forward our particular understandings of religion in the American West, but also intersected each other in interesting ways and collectively advanced and opened new thematic and theoretical issues that helped measure the distance the seminar has traveled.

Quincy Newell, my co-chair in the seminar, and I offered some brief comments about the papers. One of the themes of the seminar has been the ways that we draw attention to the presence of religion in the American West. All of the papers advanced this project of uncovering hidden religion, especially as they challenged prevailing understandings of religion by highlighting mobility over stasis, moving beyond Protestantism, and looking beyond institutions to the everyday lives of people as they lived and moved in the West. In this way, the papers advanced the other major theme of the seminar, to consider how attention to the West deepens our understanding of American religion and religion more generally. We then wondered what might remain hidden that we might want to explore more deeply. The categories of gender and race came to mind as ideas that might further complicate our understanding of the West in these and other studies, and as ideas that might be complicated by our study of the West. Alongside the uncovering of hidden religion what most caught our attention was the power of mobility in these papers: of location and dislocation, of claiming and moving into space as a religious act—an act with political, racial and material implications along with religious ones.

What followed was a robust discussion among the nearly fifty attendees in the room, and the space that at first seemed to large impersonal gave way to a conversation and give and take that illumined and challenged all present. Rudy Busto, who had been present at the first session, pointed out the dramatic shift from those first conversations:  no longer were we expressing insecurity about our project  or justifying the need to undertake such discussion. Five years in, the necessity of the conversation was a given and we were starting to complicate our own analysis and categories in ways that spoke to the significance of studying Religion in the American West across a wide range of disciplines and perspectives.

The most encouraging testimony to the success of the seminar at its conclusion was a clear sense that it wasn’t ending, but only getting going. This took the pressure off of us to develop any sense of summing up or closure in our conversation and comments. But more importantly, enthusiasm for the concrete efforts to organize a permanent AAR program unit, as well of the success of this blog over the last year, confirm that these conversations will continue, and that is the best outcome we could have hoped for.

December 7, 2012

Casual Friday: Kansas or Bust

Over on the Historical Society blog, there was a nice piece by Dan Allosso on Kansas, that large, but often forgotten state. He reminds readers that in the 1850s, the Kansas Territory once encompassed parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Thus, folks were headed to Kansas for what is now called the Colorado Gold Rush.

He also directs readers to the Kansas Historical Society website, which has lots of great online research tools, including "cool things"(like an image of an exoduster flyer & and image of Carrie Nation's hammer) and a digitized Historical Newspaper database.

Thanks to Cara Burnidge for the link!

December 3, 2012

Book of the Month

Jennifer Nez Denetdale. Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita. Tucson: The University Press of Arizona,2007.

Review by Stan Thayne

Recognition of the value and place of oral traditions in understanding how Navajos perceive their past, how narratives are used to shape their perceptions of the past and their own experiences, and how they convey beliefs and values from ancestors enlarges the historical scope to include those people conventional western history has ignored and excluded. (9-10)

Jennifer Nez Denetdale's stated goal in this work is to counter the colonizing forces of past scholarship, historical and anthropological, done primarily by non-Navajo scholars, by providing a work based in Navajo ways of knowing the past. "Until fairly recently," Denetdale states, "the Navajo past has been largely studied, classified, and written by non-Navajos with reliance on Western categories of historical production for meaning. These renditions of the Diné past have not adequately represented our own perspectives of the past." As, apparently, "the first-ever Diné/Navajo to earn a Ph.D. in history," as her faculty page at the University of New Mexico states, Professor Denetdale sets out to do just this by placing Navajo oral narratives at the heart of her study. But she begins by dismantling some of the distorting tendencies of past scholarship to portray the Diné people as recent newcomers to the American West (as anthropologists have tended to emphasize) or as an aggressive nomadic people who needed subjugating in order to stabilize the region, as historians have often portrayed the Navajo. Both of these views, historical and anthropological, Denetdale explains, have served Euro-American interests by justifying federal displacements, policies, and treatment of Diné people, and by confirming Euro-American understandings of Navajos and Native American peoples. 

At the center of the story, and stories, Denetdale tells is the life of former Navajo chief Manuelito and his wife Juanita, Denetdale's great-great-great grandparents. Past written accounts of Chief Manuelito's life, based primarily on accounts recorded in Spanish, Mexican, and American sources, have tended to diminish any recognition of the role Juanita played in the past of the Diné people, rendering her, with all other Navajo women, virtually invisible (within this historiographical traditionin contrast to Navajo narratives, where they have remained central). Navajo women have remained visible in the Western archive, when they have, primarily through photographs, which is one of the sources Denetdale creatively utilizesfocusing particularly on the way returning these photographs to Diné communities has rejuvenated traditions of story-telling centered around matrilineal clan-based organization. One of the major goals of this work is to re-center Navajo women in representations of the Diné past and present. Clan-based oral traditions about Juanita's life, Denetdale states, "reveal the centrality of women’s roles in Navajo society and illustrate how oral tradition is used to organize social units, connect Navajos to the land, and interpret life experiences and the past" (16).

Navajo creation narratives figure prominently in this work. "Drawing upon a body of studies that interrogates the relationship between 'oral tradition' and 'history,'" Denetdale writes, "I propose that traditional Navajo perspectives on the past are grounded in the creation narratives that contain within them Diné beliefs and values" (7). One of the particularly interesting ways she does this is by demonstrating how narratives told by Diné elders about their grandparents, and in particular about Juanita, "mirror the creation stories in form and motifs" (139). In a particularly enlightening moment in the text she demonstrates how the elders' narratives about their ancestors' return to Navajo Land (Dinétah) from Fort Sumner, where they were held as prisoners from 1863-68, are told in ways that mirror the shape and form of traditional Diné creation stories, and these narratives, told again and again, renew and re-cement Navajo connections to, and claims on, the land of their ancestors (140, 144). "The fact that my grandparents' and my mother's generation retain connections to lands where their ancestors once lived, in spite of these dislocations," Denetdale concludes, "attests to the enduring relationships created and recreated through narratives, narratives that link us as Navajos to the land" (161). And from the fragments of her ancestors' lives, which she collected through her elders' stories, "new stories are woven," continuing the tradition (161).

Based on narratives Denetdale collected primarily from her own relatives, this is a very personal work, which is something Denetdale is very upfront about. "As a Diné scholar, I follow the paths of other Native scholars who have begun the process of remapping and reclaiming our territory, geographical and cultural" (10). Telling stories of her own people, from their perspective, Denetdale statesdrawing from critical studies by other Indigenous scholars such as Haunani-Kay Trask and Linda Tuhiwai Smith and scholars such as Edward Saidis one way that Indigenous and colonized peoples can resist and counter the forces of colonizing discourses by asserting their own traditions, their own ways of knowing, and their own claims to the land.