Handbook of Indigenous Religions

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Greg Johnson, Siv Ellen Kraft
Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religions
  • Boston, MA: 
    , June
     408 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Handbook of Indigenous Religions is a comprehensive volume containing twenty-one chapters (not including the introduction and afterword) that cover indigenous religious practices across five continents. Despite the volume’s impressive scope, editors Greg Johnson and Siv Kraft insist that the Handbook of Indigenous Religions is “not a typical handbook in the sense of being a reference work” because “scholars are working at the intersection of indigenous studies and religious studies” (1). The first part of this interdisciplinary handbook is therefore dedicated to essays that outline theoretical approaches to indigenous religion and that contemplate the broader implications of the phrase “indigenous religion.” The second part of the handbook consists of case studies covering a diverse array of indigenous experiences, while also continuing to critically consider concepts of indigeneity, religion, and spirituality.

In the introduction to this volume, the editors offer a working definition of indigenous religion as “a globalizing discourse, consisting of notions of an indigenous we and a flexible, but fairly standardized vocabulary of assumed similarities: harmony with and care for nature; healing and holism; antiquity and spirituality; shamanism and animism; and autochthonous claims to place announced in the idiom of genealogical connections between the living, ancestors, and the cosmos itself” (4). However, the editors also emphasize that the term “indigenous religion” is much contested and must be continually reexamined and renegotiated within varying rhetorical situations.

The first few chapters of the Handbook of Indigenous Religions focus on how religious discourses and discourses of indigeneity are deployed persuasively. In chapter 1, Bjorn Ola Tafjord offers “a typology of academic uses of the term ‘indigenous religion’ in ways that help clarify this highly diverse field” (14). As such, Tajford examines how the term is used in multiple academic contexts, considering methodological implications for its use. Chapter 2 looks at the language of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), while chapter 3 examines a 2009 document entitled “State of the World’s Indigenous People” published by the Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues. Michael McNally and Siv Kraft, the respective authors of these chapters, examine the rhetorical uses of terms like “indigenous,” “religion,” and “spirituality”  and discuss how such language is used in transnational and international forums to argue for the political, environmental, and legal rights of otherwise marginalized peoples. Next, chapters 4 and 5 examine film and sound with respect to indigeneity and how these modalities can be used to make compelling cases for indigenous sovereignty.

The second part of the Handbook of Indigenous Religions is focused primarily on geographic case studies examining the tension between Christianity and indigenous religions in Amazonia, Arizona, and the Northwest Territories. Also included are case studies analyzing discourses of reclamation, such as environmental issues in Hawaii, and the process of “decolonization and regeneration” within a diverse community in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Chapter 13 marks a turn away from indigeneity in the Americas by discussing the Sami people of Norway. Chapters 14 through 16 cover indigenous religions in India, and chapter 17 considers the complications of ethnographic research among self-aware subjects in Ifugao, Philippines. The book’s remaining chapters discuss the Ainu of Japan, various Aboriginal cultures in Australia, Khoisan religious identity in South Africa, and the Ambuya Juliana movement in Zimbabwe. Chapters 20 and 21—the chapters on African indigenous movements—are of particular interest in terms of their examination of how religious discourse can be used as a site of rhetorical invention for resistance against colonial powers. Finally, Thomas Tweed’s “Afterword” further highlights ways in which these case studies relate to one another, linking the handbook’s central themes “to current scholarship in the study of religion, history, and related disciplines concerning globalization and the significance of theorizing religion in the political present” (18). With respect to “theorizing religion” Tweed provides further suggestions for twenty-first century scholars with respect to cultivating an appropriate vocabulary with which to discuss indigenous religions and practices, one that recognizes the vexed cultural biases to which such practices have been subjected.

Of special interest are the many perspectives this book offers on the relationship between religions that have been coded “global” and/or “local.” The editors describe “religion” as being “that distinct sphere of human expression that simultaneously stipulates and depends upon hyperspecificity…while insisting upon universal or at least otherworldly authority and relevance” (2). The tension between the “hyperspecific” and “universal” is explored to great effect in this volume, particularly with respect to the ways in which Christianity is discussed in relation to indigenous religions. For instance, in her chapter on Christianity in Amazonia, Minna Opas asserts that discourse on the relationship between Christianity and indigenous religions has too often presented Christianity as being “fixed,” whereas indigenous religion has been seen as less ideologically robust and therefore more adaptable—if not erasable (121). Christianity, long framed as being universal, transcendent, and monolithic, is now recast as being “local” and infinitely more malleable than we may have anticipated. As James L. Cox points out, various localized forms of Christianity are often shaped by indigenous religions rather than the other way around (376). Hence, widespread commonplaces about indigenous religions are overturned as scholars discover ways in which indigenous religions develop from community to community, how they transform Christianity, and how they are shaped by it.

Because of its interdisciplinary relevance and extraordinary geographic and theoretical scope, this book is indispensable to scholars of religious studies and indigenous studies. It clearly maps out key conversations and debates across multiple fields of inquiry, highlighting areas that could benefit from further attention. Finally, the Handbook of Indigenous Religions would likely be of special value to scholars interested in cultural reclamation, as much work in this volume addresses twenty-first century religious practices through the lens of decolonization and reappropriation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elizabeth Lowry is Lecturer in Writing, Rhetoric and Language at Arizona State University.

Date of Review: 
December 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Greg Johnson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado. Johnson studies indigenous traditions and law, with a focus on burial protection, repatriation, and sacred land disputes in Native American and Hawaiian contexts. 

Siv Ellen Kraft is Professor of Religious Studies at UiT – the Arctic University of Norway. Kraft studies contemporary indigenous religion(s), with a particular focus on the Sami.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.