Faculty Q&A: On Native American Religions with Dr. Timothy A. Brown

News Story categories: Religious Studies
The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC

As the Randolph-Macon community celebrates National Indigenous Peoples’ Heritage Month, we sat down with Dr. Timothy A. Brown, Religious Studies Department Chair, to discuss his Native American Religions course and how students learn about native cultures at RMC.

The course introduces students to the diverse religious traditions of Native Americans, exploring a variety of tribal traditions, including religious ties to the landscape.

“There’s been a growing awareness that Native Americans had methods and strategies for interacting amongst themselves as collectives, but also with the natural world that were incredibly effective,” Brown said. “There’s a lot that non-natives can learn from native people.”

Read on to learn how, through the lens of religion, students explore not only how native peoples interacted with the world around them, but also their history and evolution.

Why is it important, in your opinion, to celebrate and honor National Indigenous Peoples’ Heritage Month?

In terms of the language that native people often use to describe themselves, they often identify as First Peoples. It’s important to recognize that before the whole European enterprise on this continent, there was this very rich and very vibrant set of cultures with complex traditions. I am not Native American, but I am a scholar of religions, and I felt compelled to create a class to critically engage with, listen to, and learn from the indigenous religions of North America.

How are native traditions passed down through generations?

Historically, native traditions are hard to track because they are almost entirely oral and performative traditions, including in the present. They are not typically text-based traditions, and native people have done that out of choice. In theory, you could create written forms of native languages and put all your stories down into some written form, but generally, most nations have decided that’s not the way they want to operate. This is why preservation of native languages is so important. We do a whole section on orality in my course, talking about how powerful that might be. If speaking with each other is the primary way knowledge is passed, that means you’re ensuring people are interacting face-to-face in your community.

How are the voices of native people used in your class?

Including native voices is key in the class, and students love it. I use a lot of different material, including documentaries and videos that are produced and made by Native American people. I would say I have an equal representation of non-native scholars talking about Native American religion and native scholars, faith-keepers, and everyday people talking about their religion from a first-person perspective. Offering that diversity of perspective to students allows them, when they go out into the world, to ask who is this person I’m reading? Where are they coming from? What is their training? Are they native? The point is for students to learn to weigh and bring some perspective to the sources they are reading and watching.

Indigenous people aren’t one homogenous group; how do you explore the diversity within native peoples?

Although there are similarities, there are also significant differences between the different nations and their religious and spiritual traditions. We get to explore that, and it’s one of those myths we can dispel fairly early in the course. We can explain the differences by their traditional means of subsistence­­—were they hunters and gatherers or were they agricultural? Did they have small societies, or did they create larger social structures? We can start to see how religion might change based on those kinds of factors, so that’s a big lesson. It has occurred to me that religious diversity in North America might have been at its apex before colonization. I think we often talk about the United States as a religiously diverse nation, but if you take the idea seriously that each nation had its own religious stories and rituals, its own religion, with 500-plus native nations recognized by the federal government today, and many more prior to colonization but lost to disease and violence, I think you’d have to admit that religious diversity peaked in North America prior to Europeans coming here.

How does the course address modern trends in religion of native people?

Traditionally, when people have taught Native American religion, they focus exclusively on the traditional forms of native religion. And that’s hugely important, obviously, and it forms probably two thirds of my course, but the reality is that if you did demographic studies of Native American people across the country today, you’d find that huge numbers are Christians.

I’ve always been intrigued by how native people inhabit this Christian identity that was the religion of the colonizer. There’s a lot of literature by native Christians about being a native Christian and what that might mean. They have come up with some really interesting theologies that often synthesize both Native and Christian ideas, so you have this whole native Christian identity that is sometimes very different from European Christianity. They interpret the New Testament very differently, but it’s ingenious and biblically founded.

How does learning about Native American religions fit into the broader curriculum for Randolph-Macon students?

As a liberal arts college, the desire is to introduce students to a lot of different ways of perceiving the world. It’s an opportunity for students to encounter religiousness that is very different than perhaps what they grew up with. As a scholar of religion, not only do I want to accurately portray the religious traditions that I’m teaching, from the perspective of the insiders in particular, but I also want to help students recognize that the category of religion itself is such an interesting thing to think about, that we often have these preconceived notions of what religion is.

In this day and age, a really important thing for people to understand is that there are different ways of being religious and that religion can include things that we might not necessarily associate with it. It’s one of those categories that’s really dynamic, really flexible. And so native traditions, in particular, give us examples of religion that’s very different from the kind of religion that we might have grown up with.