Indigenous Religion and
“One is not born traditional; one chooses to become traditional by
——BRUNO LATOUR, We Have Never Been Modern.1
The concept of “indigenous religion” refers to a global form of religiosity or (as some of its adepts prefer) spirituality associated with those defined in international law as “indigenous peoples.” During the last several decades this term has been so thoroughly conventionalized that most Euro-American lay people presented with it would likely have some notion of what is meant by it, probably by drawing upon related ideas associated with such things as shamanism and forest spirituality. But given some thoughtful attention, indigenous religion as a reference point for human rights protections becomes fraught with ambiguity and paradox — so much so that the concept can be used not merely as a reference point for understanding some of the distinct human rights protections of indigenous peoples, but beyond this, as a starting point for considering a number of qualities and consequences of the human rights movement as a whole.
The first of these qualities I intend to discuss has to do with changes in the law itself: the emergence of human rights directed toward the rights of peoples, particularly the rights of religious freedom of indigenous peoples. The establishment of the legal foundations of the international movement of indigenous peoples is, in historical terms, a recent occurrence, only a few decades old. This includes the institutional space given to expressions of indigenous religion, which is even more recent and can be considered an emerging phenomenon, arising out of collaborative consolidations of indigenous identity.
From the point at which the legal space for expressions and protections of the religion of indigenous people has been secured in international law, it then becomes possible to consider the processes by which indigenous religion becomes formalized as a source of identity and of rights. I intend to show that these processes can result in disjuncture between conceptual ideals of indigenous spirituality and the consequences of law. For one thing, the very term “indigenous” is historically recent, but it has paradoxically become a starting point for claims of distinct identity and rights based upon the principles of original occupation of