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American Indian Religions and Ecology (Grim)

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Course Title

American Indian Religions and Ecology


John Grim
Yale University


Religious Studies, Forestry and Environmental Studies, Environmental Studies

Subject(s) Religion and Ecology

This course approaches the histories, thought and religious traditions of American Indian peoples as providing significant insights into human-Earth relations. In that sense, these diverse and changing traditions raise interesting and challenging perspectives on environmental questions of the 21stcentury. For example, what is the role(s) of local environments in the formation of self and community? Does the relational character of traditional religion among American Indian communities have contemporary force? Religion is not a separate set of practices among Native American peoples; rather, religion is explored in this course as lifeway. That is, life lived in relation to local place in which languages, symbol systems, and rituals give expression to the intimacy and distance of communities with local ecology and biodiversity. We will primarily explore North American Indian religious life with some attention to indigenous Inuit peoples of the Artic.

Recent archaeological finds throughout the Americas, especially New England, Florida, and Peru, suggest that settlement of this hemisphere, or “Turtle Island” as many Native North Americans term the continents, may have been much more varied than previously thought. The long-accepted view of migrations of peoples exclusively across the Bering Strait and along an ice-free corridor opened in the last Ice Age (ca. 10,000 years ago) is now challenged. Migrations of First Peoples may have come across the North Atlantic Ocean, by canoes or ships along the Northwestern Pacific coast, as well as by transoceanic voyages of Polynesian peoples across the Pacific, and now island-hopping passages are conjectured in the northern Atlantic.

Indigenous peoples inhabited local regions of North America for thousands of years prior to the European migrations and invasions of this “New World.” These First Nations undoubtedly moved extensively over different bioregions of the continent, and interacted in many instances with local regions for millennia. Traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) can be understood as a significant factor in the emergence of the contemporary American landscape. Moreover, Native Peoples have been intimately involved in the political history of the Americas, even though contributions of the Indigenous peoples are often grudgingly acknowledged in local, state, and national histories. While not exclusively a course in the history of American Indian peoples, these events and insights frame many of the socio-religious and environmental questions for this course. Consider, for example, how little we learn of African and American Indian interactions let along the environmental implications of those exchanges.

Finally, reflexive questions frame some of our opening investigations. For example, what is it that we learn about ourselves when we study other religious traditions? Do we undertake this critical project to learn about alternative human-Earth relationships? Can we study the worldviews, rituals and ecological values of Native American peoples with respect if at the same time we as a country know little of the American Indian quest for “voice” in governing their own lives? What insights emerge in an critical examination of such terms as "American," "Indian," religions," and "ecology."


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