Ute Land Religion in the American West, 1879-2009
- ISBN: 9780803276741
- Published By: University of Nebraska Press
- Published: July 2017
Brandi Denison's Ute Land Religion in the American West, 1879–2009 is an important, critical, and engaging text with a number of working parts. Bringing together a history of settler colonialism, discourses on religion, analyses on cultural memory, and processes of resistance, Denison tracks the development of what she calls "Ute Land Religion" in the long nineteenth century in Colorado. Denison begins with the pre-contact West and follows the shrinking Ute reservation through to the formal removal of the Ute nation from Colorado in 1881. The physical absence of the Utes allowed white Coloradoans to reimagine the history of their state and reaffirm the necessity of Indian removal while using Ute spirituality to provide regional identity.
At the center of this narrative is the construction of what Denison terms Ute Land Religion. Ute Land Religion, "the polished veneer of Indian spirituality," helped white Coloradoans emphasize the significance of individualism and the land to their regional identity, while simultaneously creating limited space for Utes to critique that process (222). Ute Land Religion, then, "is a religiously defined cultural space" in which "American Indian religious practices came to represent an enlightened, religiously tolerant practice within the same space where their ancestors' humanity was denied" (5). Ute Land Religion also allows for Ute critique, though often at a much quieter volume than that of white voices. Through ceremonies, conversations, and performances that remind whites of Utes' continued existence and claims to sovereignty, most notably in the recent attempts at intercultural dialogue occurring at the Smoking River Powwow in 2009, the Ute nation proves they still exist in spaces beyond white romanticized memories.
Ute Land Religion opens with early twenty-first-century Colorado, reflecting on pageants celebrating US Indian Agent Nathan Meeker, Ute removal, and the creation of Colorado as a state, along with an introduction to the book's argument and key terms. Subsequent chapters follow a historical trajectory moving from Nathan Meeker's 1870s role in Ute removal to the 2009 Smoking River Powwow and its attempts at reconciliation. The Ute nation was a horse culture that viewed those who tilled the land as lower than those who ruled it on horseback. This led to different ideas about land and conflicts between US governmental agents and Ute leaders.
Chapter 1 sets this stage and chapter 2 explores how white Americans utilized concerns about white women's bodies (namely the family members of Nathan Meeker, who were taken hostage by the Utes) to justify Ute removal to Utah reservation land. For Colorado to prosper, the "savages" would need to be expelled. The next two chapters narrate the development of regional cultural memories about removal and Ute spirituality. White settlers, authors, and poets memorialized two particular Ute women as ideals of proto-Christian virtues, while simultaneously silencing their voices. Whites recognized the women as symbols of the "Old West" rather than active diplomats and speakers. Academics—especially those working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs—and creative writers continued this process of romanticizing and constructing memory about removal by contrasting the "authentic" Ute spiritual practices of old (before white arrival and observation) with contemporary religious practices. Whites were the dictators of these conversations about Ute Land Religion and preferred to celebrate the Utes of the past as opposed to their contemporaries. The final two chapters explore later forms of memory and memorialization. Twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century memorial markers, pageants, and powwows constructed parallel and contradictory understandings of history, land, and "Ute Land Religion." This includes a superficial white acceptance of settler colonialism, incomplete attempts at reconciliation, and the sustained efforts of Utes to demonstrate their continued existence despite denied sovereignty of their ancestral lands.
Ute Land Religion in the American West is a complex story. In order to explore those complicated moments, there are a few jumps in the temporal narrative that can feel a bit abrupt and raise questions about processes of memorialization in those skipped decades. There are also a few times in the text where the reader may get a bit lost in the details of a particular example of memorialization. That being said, the complexity of those particular moments and cultural memories highlighted by Denison is important. Similar to Tisa Wenger's 2009 We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (University of North Carolina Press), Denison's work has significance beyond the fields of Native American religious history and American religion by elucidating how discourses of and about religion are constructed in cultural encounters and conflicts. In different moments in history, white Coloradoans concluded that the Utes lacked religion; possessed a primitive form of religion; or were unique purveyors of "authentic" religion. Those conclusions had real effects on Colorado and Ute history by justifying Ute removal and later romanticizations of Ute spirituality. This is an important book for those interested in the intersections of American religion and settler colonialism, the history of the American West, and discourses of and about "religion."
Emily Suzanne Clark is assistant professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University.Emily Suzanne ClarkDate Of Review:October 3, 2017
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, 1879-2009. On 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.