“I tell the stories of lots of different groups of people… to show that what I call religious freedom “talk”, more often than not, worked to privilege the dominant white Christian population,” opened Dr. Tisa Wenger of Yale Divinity School at Kalamazoo College’s annual Armstrong Lecture last Thursday. The Associate Professor of American Religious History discussed her most recent area of focus: Christian influence on Native American populations in the nineteenth and twentieth century.
“Many Native people… converted to Christianity even before the American Revolution and began to invoke freedom of conscience to support the autonomy of Indian-led churches in ways that helped them preserve tribal lands and identities,” explained Wenger. “When Native Americans asserted the right to religious freedom on behalf of their indigenous practices and traditions, they pushed back against white American assumptions about what counted or did not count as religion.”
“Popular narratives of the Western frontier had defined indigenous practices not as religion, but as cruel and violent forms of “savagery” or “heathenism” that impeded any real progress in so-called “civilization.’” In order to continue the exploitation of indigenous practices, Wenger continued, “The Federal government classified Native American traditions not as religions that must be granted first amendment rights, but instead as impediments to the Indians’ “proper exercise of freedom” and to their “overall progress in civilization.’”
“Faced with this overwhelming set of ideological and institutional barriers, Native American leaders had very little reason to expect that the principle of religious freedom would provide them of any effective means of defense,” commented Wenger. “Nevertheless, they used it.”
Turning to the case of the Lakota people, Wenger explained that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) made it clear that the Lakota would “no longer be tolerated”, thereby forcing them to move their practices underground in order to protect their safety. But, Wenger emphasized, “If they were to have any hope of maintaining these practices, they would need to ensure that their ceremonies took a more or less Christian shape.”
“It’s crucial for the Religion Department to bring speakers to campus, especially speakers to campus, especially speakers like Dr. Tisa Wenger,” comment K student Claudia Greening ‘17, “It allows students to see potential work they could be doing, but also because we are such a small campus you can also usually talk directly to the scholar! Dr. Wenger’s work is innovative and can serve to inspire students no matter the discipline they work in.”
Wenger’s newest book, Race, Empire, and American Religious Freedom, is scheduled for publication this coming Fall.