Dr. Michael McNally is a professor of religion at Carleton College. He became involved with the Pluralism Project while doing his doctoral studies at Harvard University. He was instrumental in developing the Native Peoples’ Traditions section of the first edition of On Common Ground: World Religions in America CD-ROM in 1997 and served as a senior academic reviewer of that section in the 2013 updated and online version. He became an affiliate of the Pluralism Project in 2004 with a project on Native American religious and cultural freedom.
Native American Religious and Cultural Freedom
Dr. McNally’s project involved three aims 1) to enhance the Pluralism Project’s consideration and coverage of the religious and cultural freedom concerns facing Native American traditions—a booming area of concern, but often highly localized and in need of visibility; 2) to provide communities of scholars, lawyers, grassroots Native organizations, and their advocates with an accessible, visible, and reliable web-based source of information, case studies, and perhaps infrastructure for action alerts; and 3) to galvanize more focused, timely, and public scholarship on these matters by scholars of religion.
Native Americans have constituted a religious diversity—even pluralism—that predates European and African settlement of North America. But it is also true that Native American traditions have undergone significant reconfigurations since the late 1960s comparable to the reconfigurations of other world religions in the United States tracked elsewhere by the Pluralism Project.
Those reconfigurations include:
- a demographic movement that by the 1970s found 1 in 2 Native people living off reservations in urban areas, and often with Native peoples of other tribes;
- fuller incorporation into the economy and culture of wider American society;
- an increasing embrace of ethnic identity qua American Indian or Native American (in addition to tribal identities) and celebration of that identity in Powwow culture in national AIndian organizations like the American Indian Movement, and the National Congress of American Indians, and in religious practices;
- an impressive resurgence and revitalization of particular traditional Native practices and beliefs in the wake of A.I.M. and ARed Power efforts;
- and a consequent reconfiguration of Native traditions that accentuates distinctions between religion and culture in Native communities; perhaps even the further sacralization of practices (e.g. spearing fish, pilgrimages) that have become more concentrated emblems of identity, sovereignty/treaty rights, or that may be threatened.
Also, since the 1960s and 1970s, Native American communities have been equipped to pursue legal and legislative protections of the interests increasingly deemed religious, though of course with limited success, given the difficulties of appreciating the distinctive contours of Native American religious traditions, especially their broad regard for the sacredness of places. In this, Native American communities share the presenting problem that faces many other religious minorities: claiming protections to free exercise of religious traditions by making reference to analogies (often weak ones) to majority traditions. As the courts and the legal process has offered fewer protections in light of the Rehnquist Court’s narrowing of Free Exercise jurisprudence, the task of fostering interfaith understanding and goodwill is even more urgent today.
As with the concerns facing many other religious minorities from immigrant communities, nearly all pending issues of Native American religious and cultural freedom are intensely local matters with too little visibility. Native American newspapers like Indian Country Today cover a relatively small number of the high profile cases, like the Mount Graham observatory issue or climbing bans on Bear Butte/Devil’s Tower National Monument, but what about the proposed housing development atop a site of deep ceremonial and burial significance for the Mendota Dakota which is being adjudicated in the halls of a suburban St. Paul city council. What of the scores of local county jails in which Native spiritual leaders lacking formal credentials unsuccessfully seek access to Native inmates? What of the myriad land-use decisions made by directors of various National Parks and Monuments? Dr. McNally’s project aimed to bring representative research reports to bear that began to address such questions.
Selected Links and Publications
- Faculty Webpage: Dr. Michael McNally
- On Common Ground: World Religions in America – Native Traditions
- Syllabus: “Native American Religious Freedom” Syllabus – McNally
- Book: Honoring Elders: Aging, Authority, and Ojibwe Religion (New York: Columbia University Press), 2009.
- Book: Ojibwe Singers: Hymns, Grief, and a Native Culture in Motion (New York: Oxford University Press), 2000.
- Book: Art of Tradition: Sacred Story, Song, and Dance among Michigan’s Anishinaabe, editor (Michigan State University Press), 2009.
- Website (archived): Nativereligion.org
- Research Reports
- Mauna Kea, HI (Native Hawaiians)
- Etowah Mounds, GA (Muscogee et. al.)
- Cave Rock, NV (Washo) (2006)
- Pipestone National Monument, MN (Dakota et. al.)
- Eagle Feathers and U.S. Permit Process (Various Nations)
- Freedom Mine, ND (Lakota)
- Sweetgrass Hills, MT (Blackfeet, Ojibwe-Cree)
- Bear Butte, SD (Lakota et. al.)
- Cave Hills, SD (Lakota et. al.) (2006)
- Sweat Lodges in American Prisons (2005)
- Medicine Wheel, WY (Cheyenne, Crow, Dakota and Many Others) (2005)
- Makah Whaling, WA (Makah) (2006)
- Nine Mile Canyon, UT (Ute and Others) (2004)
- Valley of the Chiefs/Weatherman Draw, MT (Lakota/Crow and others) (2004)
- Indian Pass, CA (Quechan) (2004)
- Baboquivari Mountain Petroglyphs, AZ (Tohono O’odham) (2004)
- Bison in Yellowstone National Park, MT (2005)
- Kituwah Mound, NC (Eastern Cherokee) (2004)
- Pilot Knob, MN (Dakota) (2004)
- Native American Religious and Cultural Freedom: an Introductory Essay (2005)