In the prompt that we sent to the authors participating in this forum, Vincent Lloyd and I asked a series of questions about the relationship between indigeneity and secularity: “How is indigeneity articulated within the political and legal language of secularism? Does secularism make certain claims to indigeneity illegible? What might this illegibility suggest about the close linkages between secularism, settler colonialism, and Protestant Christianity? Does the assertion of indigenous identity, of whatever kind, necessarily push against secularism’s ‘immanent frame,’ or are there ways that indigenous identity—and perhaps even the category of indigeneity itself—is a product of secularity?”
The essays featured here both attend to and productively exceed these questions in multiple ways. Pamela Klassen writes of how North American colonial secularism built the nation form on a distinction between Christianity (the sphere of religion) and the state (the sphere of politics), yet staked its legal and territorial claims via Christian notions of sovereignty and ceremony. This had the effect of “push[ing] Indigenous spiritual jurisdiction into the realm of savagery and superstition,” rendering Indigenous people legally and politically unintelligible. J. Kehaulani Kauanui articulates the subsequent double bind for Indigenous people like Native Hawaiians, who are “tactically confined to work within state laws given the[ir] structural force,” even as those state laws necessarily render “certain claims to indigeneity illegible.” Michelle Molina likewise demonstrates how the figure of the Indian mediated the relationship between secularism and Catholicism in eighteenth-century Latin America, with Indian religiosity presented “as always off the mark” by secularizing modernist reformers. Catholic Indians represented both an outmoded form of Catholicism and were thought to have never been sufficiently evangelized, a dual depiction that “has contributed to the characterization of Latin America as both ‘backward’ as well as ‘authentically’ linked to a timeless past” via its Indigenous populations.
Moreover, given their genealogy, Molina also warns against contemporary readings of Indigeneity that elide the fact of conversion (and subsequent cultural and religious fluidity) and reproduce such notions of timeless authenticity, even as she recognizes their effectiveness in “enabl[ing] disenfranchised communities to claim political and territorial recognition.” Miranda Johnson similarly cautions against uncritical readings of “postcolonial incorporation[s] of Indigenous concepts of ecological spirituality and interdependency with nature,” like the granting of legal personhood to the Whanganui River by the New Zealand Parliament. She argues, first, that the “fiction of legal personality singularizes diverse and heterogeneous understandings of the river” and second, that this ostensible recognition of Indigenous claims “serves a wider politics of national identity in which New Zealand becomes postcolonial by incorporating, through a process of translation, key elements of Indigeneity.”
In the same vein, Tracy Fessenden shows how claims by the United States Congress that jazz is “an indigenous American music and art form” both draw on and mask an earlier model of Indigeneity—an evolutionist paradigm that linked black musicality to religious (and racial) primitivism—while simultaneously using the contemporary language of Indigeneity to present the United States as a progressive polity that has transcended race. And Greg Johnson and Siv Ellen Kraft demonstrate the emergence of Indigeneity as a new global paradigm, with different local struggles drawing on and coalescing into “shared discourses of ‘indigeneity,’” what they call “becoming indigeneous in a global manner”—a significant element of which entails “expressive cultural action in a marked religious key.”
A number of these essays implicitly engage Elizabeth Povinelli’s recent work on the figure of the Animist (at the heart of which “lies the imaginary of the Indigene”), who, she argues, functions as a “spigot in the larger pipeline of late liberal approaches” to governance. Povinelli writes,
Are we witnessing, and contributing to, a repetition of the cunning of late liberal recognition in which the modes, qualities, forms, and relations that already exist are merely, or primarily, extended to others? Is the call to recognize the liveliness of the (in)animate other another version of the call in late liberal recognition to recognize the essential humanity of the other, as long as the other can express this otherness in a language that does not shatter the framework of the liberal common?
Given the cunning of these various modes of recognizing Indigeneity, might it behoove us, as Johnson puts it, to hold “open a space for telling other stories, ones that do not necessarily accord with the expectations of postcolonial [and decolonial] politics, or reveal the moral progress of the law, or even necessarily equate Indigeneity with a spiritual attachment to nature”?
Menachem Lorberbaum, too, pushes us to critically interrogate what we might mean by the term “sacred,” which floats across discussions of Indigeneity alongside its twin “spiritual,” both seemingly unanchored by any historical sense or genealogical lineage. In the Rabbinical Hebrew tradition, Lorberbaum writes, sacrality precludes human sovereignty, and human presence on holy land is always contingent, thus “the land cannot be both sacred and territory at one and the same time.” If we take seriously the complex entanglements between that tradition and the Christian one, and between Christianity and secularism, and if we take equally seriously the way that those latter entanglements have both produced the figure of the Indian and made certain claims to Indigeneity illegible, then what might it mean to use notions of “sacred” land and “spiritual” or “religious” attachments to nature to make sense of Indigeneous life-worlds and relationships? Might the circulation of these terms reproduce the epistemic violence of translation and the elision of Christian/secular entanglements about which many of the scholars in this forum have written? How might we short-circuit that reproduction and tell the “other” kind of stories Johnson calls for, stories that would, as Povinelli puts it, “shatter the framework of the liberal common” rather than reinscribe it? Given the hegemonies of law and language, would that be politically effective? Or even epistemologically possible?
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These questions, and the seven essays that generated them, lead me back to a perceptive question that Vincent Lloyd asks in the introductory essay to this forum: “Might it be the case that indigeneity is a product of secularity?” I want to engage that question by returning to the figure of the Animist or Indigene (heir, I think, to the “figure of the Indian” tracked by Molina).
Indeed, alongside sacrality and spirituality, animism (or “the new animism”) has come to form part of the conceptual nexus around Indigeneity for a number of scholars. And Indigenous ontologies of entanglements between human and more-than-human worlds are increasingly held out as our best hope for living in the ruins of capitalism, climate change, and environmental crisis. In an essay in the recent and comprehensive Handbook of Contemporary Animism, Graham Harvey puts the growing affective, intellectual, and political investment in Indigenous knowledge most clearly: “Researchers who learn among Amazonian indigenous people are, like [Philippe] Descola and [Eduardo] Viveiros de Castro, at the forefront of multi- and interdisplinary debates. The nature of the world, of humans and all life is at stake” (my emphasis). I am interested in this utopian, almost salvific hope for the future of humankind— indeed, the world—that the figure of the Indigenous Animist offers, and what this narrative of redemption might have to do with secularism.
To get there, I want to trace a partial genealogy of animism, one linked to the emergence of the concept of religion that many scholars argue constitutes the secular age. As religion was increasingly defined as a discrete sphere and a distinct experience, a parallel category of not-quite- or not-yet-religion ran alongside it, practices that in the nineteenth-century “world religions” paradigm came to be called animism, fetishism, shamanism, totemism, etc. Tomoko Masuzawa describes how that paradigm divided religions of the world between a progressive West that made history (Christianity) and a venerable East that preserved it (Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Confucianism—really, everything else but Christianity). But within this configuration, she writes, was a “tertiary group of minor religions . . . considered lacking in history” altogether. The peoples of these small-scale tribal societies were thought to possess “an unusually tenacious historical memory, but not historical consciousness. On the strength of this assumption, these societies [were] relegated to a position in some sense before history or at the very beginning of history, hence, primal.” Mapped as primitive forms of religion, these “minor religions” were religion’s other side, certainly not secular, but not quite religion either. This mapping continues in many contemporary religion departments, which have courses on Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, even Shintoism and Confucianism, but the remainder, so to speak, are often grouped as “indigenous religions” or “religions of native North America.”
Interestingly, for nineteenth-century philosophers, philologists, and Orientalists, even though this tertiary category of not-quite-religion was pre-historical and therefore “minor,” the very primal-ness of these minor religions made them valuable to think with about a series of universal truths. As Masuzawa notes, in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century theories of man and the social, “primitive tribal religions [were] . . . expressions of some basic and natural human propensities and behaviors in the face of the mysterious and the superhuman.” Unlike these generic minor religions, the “great religions” were thought to be culturally and historically particular, as they were predicated on specific defining events and associated with specific historical personages (Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed). Primitive religions gestured to the human universal, albeit in primordial form, in a way that “world religions” could not.
There are two threads to pull at here. The first concerns the logic of universal versus particular that structures the distinction between animism (and other minor religions) and “great” non-Christian religions like Islam or Hinduism. While the new animism has cast aside an earlier explicitly evolutionary frame (though as Molina reminds us, the timeless Indian lives on in other ways), it nonetheless seems to have brought with it the old ascription of (primal) universality to the Animist Indigene. For many scholars, Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous ontologies of relationality are not simply one way to be; they are, simultaneously, the best way we could live and the real way we do live (even though we moderns may not recognize it). As Deborah Bird Rose puts it in the Handbook of Contemporary Animism, the way out of the “amplifications of death” that define the contemporary world is to walk “toward creature communities founded in kinship and proximity . . . [K]inship is the way of life on earth.” It is difficult to imagine secular-modern scholarship making such universalist claims on the basis of the major “world religions,” besides Christianity, that is—but that’s another story.
The second thread is related to the first. In a world in which the secular continues to define itself against religion proper (the “world religions” of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, etc.,), not-quite-religions like animism can become an easier site of recuperation and even redemption for secular moderns trying to think and live beyond the stale confines of the conventionally secular. Lloyd is right to ask whether claims to indigeneity from the left are an attempt to “push against the imperative to exclude or manage religion, and particularly the normativity of religion, in a spiritual-but-not-religious era”. In a secular age where “individuals are atoms,” he continues, “indigeneity embraces the pull of local community and tradition.”
And here’s where things get rather weird—and interesting. This search for redemption and meaning amidst the alienation of the secular and in the catastrophic wake of the Anthropocene, and the way in which Indigenous animism has become a descriptive and prescriptive model for living in the world with others, in many ways mirrors the dominant understanding of what religion has been in the secular imagination. It is commonplace for secular moderns to see religious revivalism as the search for existential comfort in times of uncertainty and alienation, just as it is common for them to understand religion as both an explanation of the world and an ethic for living in it. At the end of the world as they know it, then, some secular moderns seem to have found in Indigenous animism religion as they themselves have defined it.