Ute Land Religion in the American West, 1879-2009

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Brandi Denison
New Visions in Native American and Indigenous Studies Series
  • Lincoln, NE: 
    University of Nebraska Press
    , July
     330 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.



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."

About the Reviewer(s): 

Emily Suzanne Clark is assistant professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University.

Date of Review: 
October 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brandi Denison is assistant professor of religious studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of North Florida. 



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