Interview with Brandi Denison, author of Ute Land Religion in the American West

In 1881 the Ute Nation was removed from its lands in the new state of Colorado, following violent clashes with white settlers who flooded these lands due to a silver boom in the late 1870s. Despite this physical removal, Ute spirituality continued to figure centrally in the regional identity of Coloradans from the late nineteenth century all the way up to the present. It is this cultural history—as well as its gendered, raced, and religious articulations—that Brandi Denison attends to in her book Ute Land Religion in the American West, 1879-2009On November 19th, 2017, at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Boston, I had the pleasure to meet with Dr. Denison to discuss her recent book.  –Kirsten Boles, Assistant Editor

KB: What is Ute Land religion, and how did it develop?

BD: Ute Land religion is a collaborative space that was primarily built up by the settler colonialists while they were trying to wrestle with what is means to be “religious.” It was pulling on some of the 1920s modernist impulses in American religious history to determine what is or is not an authentic religion, and who has it and who doesn’t. In this case, I look at a particular tribe, the Ute. Around the 1920s, there were artists, anthropologists, professors, and white allies that were looking to the Ute for an idea of authentic religious practice. Meanwhile, Ute activists were seeing this as a possibility for gaining access into public spaces that they had been previously been shut out of as a result of persecution against Native Americans. These activists were actively contributing by performing dances for and working with these white allies in order to create a place for themselves within this public space. But ultimately, that inclusion was premised upon an idea of religion that excluded things like hunting and ownership of land, two things for which the Ute were wanting to advocate.

KB: How does cultural memory figure into the history you explore in your book, and what does your work reveal about the relationship between cultural memory and religion?

BD: Initially I thought it would just be about the story of removal, but as I was working on this book, I kept finding all of these instances where at different points in time white Coloradans were thinking about their Ute ancestry and creating a false lineage with the Ute who had been dispossessed. For instance, one of the most interesting things I found was a pow wow that was organized by the National Forest Service in 2008 and 2009. The organizers wanted to reconnect with the people who had lived on the land, the public land that they now managed. The removal of the Ute figured strongly in that pow wow, which they were thinking of as a kind of reconciliation pow wow. It turns out that there were a lot of other instances throughout the twentieth century where, for various reasons—mainly for tourist reasons—primarily white boosters were pulling on Ute heritage in order to craft this memory of what it means to be a Coloradan.

The way this figures into religion is that it is very much about identity. For me, religion is very much about constructing identity, but also about allocating power. The people who have religion, and get to define what religion is, are often the people who are in power and are trying to maintain that place of being in power. So those two things are very much intertwined in religion.

KB: How does gender play a role in the history that you explore in your book?

BD: That was the most interesting part for me. The events leading up to removal included the captivity of three white women and their children. After they were released, they kept repeating in the media that they had not suffered any of the “indignities” which the Indians had offered and that they had not suffered a fate “worse than death.” But it slowly unfolded that they had in fact been raped, and that played a very large role in the Congressional hearings determining what actions the United States government should take. These events sort of set the stage for removal because of this fear that Indian men were a danger to white women.

But through this, there also emerged two heroines that were Ute: Susan and Chipeta. Susan was identified as being a protector of white women because of her “Christian disposition,” which I found fascinating because there’s nothing in the record that suggests she actually was Christian—but it seems that her virtue could only be understood through the lens of Christianity. The same was true of Chipita: she was very much portrayed as a domesticated Victorian woman who had a house that had a tea set, and she wore shawls, and she had all of these consumer goods that were the markers of a “good woman.” These became rallying points for a cultural memory of the “good Indian” that were then appropriated by whites as a means to bridge the difference between Indian and white.

KB: How do you see your book contributing to how American religions are studied?

BD: I would like to see Native American religions incorporated more fully into how American religion is conceptualized. Oftentimes there is a silo between Native American religions and “American” religions, and my book shows that the category of “American religion” very much rests on representations of Indian religion. It shows that we can’t look at these two categories as set apart from each other. And oftentimes, I think, American religion scholars are overwhelmed by the task of studying indigenous religions because there were over five hundred different groups at the time of contact, and there’s some identity politics beholden to it. But it’s important work to do, and it’s important to think about how those silos of categories of Native American religions and American religions actually does a disservice to both. By looking at the West and thinking about different voices, we can actually get a richer and fuller understanding of what American religious history is about.