At first glance, “indigenous religious traditions” do not appear to be large policy concerns of the United States or Canada. The American military campaign to wipe out the Ghost Dance in the late nineteenth century, as well as twentieth-century bureaucratic programs in both the United States and Canada to outlaw traditional ceremonial works such as the Lakota Sun Dance or the North-west Coast Potlatch, seem to belong to bygone days; today, in many places traditional ceremonies have become tourist attractions. Yet a closer look reveals a different story. Legislative and judicial conflicts involving freedom of religion, particularly protection of and access to sacred sites, are only one indication that these traditions will continue to be a thorn in the side of the modern technocratic state. Even police and military conflicts such as the one at Oka in 1990 have strong roots in traditional attitudes, attitudes in which religious thought plays a key role.
But “indigenous religious traditions” should also be a thorn in the side of the academic study of religion - academics, after all, cannot completely disavow their relationship with the modern technocratic state. I am deeply suspicious of the academic study of indigenous traditions - yes, the very field in which I work. I am deeply suspicious lest we merely make the conquest of native peoples nicer by collecting and enshrining “nice things” about the indigenous ways of life that we are in fact endangering. We must search out the deepest levels of critique, lest all of our work, even our most sincere efforts to “understand the other, ” in the end go into the maw of consumerism gone mad and come out unrecognizable.
We live and work on ground poisoned by our toxic histories, but there is life beneath and above that ground. My contribution here is one attempt to critique - to clean up - a small piece of this ground. My first step is to relinquish where possible the role of the expert whose insights are always superior to those of her or his “subjects. ” I am a Mohawk man, but the real authorities in the Longhouse world are the folks who are there, on the territories and in the longhouses, in fair weather and foul, showing up for ceremonial times but also showing up the day before and the day after to clean up and get things ready - the ones practicing the songs and helping their children learn the language and asking each other the important questions. The observations and thoughts I am about to relate may be useful or they may not, but read them as a report of my conversations with the tradition, not as the analysis of a superior authority.
In the backyard of Charlie Patton, a fire was kept burning for two months in the summer of 1990. Oien’kwa’ón:we, native tobacco, was offered daily in the fire, in prayer. The fire