An Equation of Language and Spirit: Comparative Philology and the Study of American Indian Religions

In: Method & Theory in the Study of Religion
Author: Sarah Dees 1
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  • 1 The University of Tennessee, 501 McClung Tower, 1115 Volunteer Blvd., Knoxville, TN 37996-0450

Scholars of religion frequently distinguish between the religions practiced by American Indians and non-Natives, raising a question about the role of religion in constructing and preserving notions of human difference. The present article locates key assumptions about the inherent distinction of Indigenous religions in early anthropological and linguistic research on American Indians. I demonstrate that as anthropologists studied Native cultures in the late nineteenth century, they drew on evolutionary theories of language in order to construct racialized cultural classifications. Analysis of language provided a framework and foundation for research on American Indian religions. I focus on the writings produced by the Bureau of American Ethnology (bae), led by the influential anthropologist John Wesley Powell, who directed the Bureau from 1879 to 1902. Drawing on philology, the science of language, bae researchers outlined a perceived essential difference between spiritual capacities of American Indians and non-Natives.

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