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"No Lock on the Tipi Door:" Extending Religion in the American Indian Urban Diaspora: Healing, Renewal and Decolonizing Spaces


In 2014, more than 70% of American Indians live in urban areas away from reservations. This dissertation employs theoretical work on diaspora religion to interpret the effects on spiritual practices of the displacement of Native Americans to cities since the mid-20th century. Using the framework of an urban diaspora, I argue that the split geographical situation results in a center-satellite formation of pan-Indian religion in which Lakota practices are dominant. Employing ethnographic fieldwork among a diverse group practicing Native American spirituality in Ventura County, California, I argue that such urban spiritual networks balance competing forces of indigenizing versus extending within the larger pan-Indian religious community. That is, as Lakota spiritual practices were gradually opened to non-Lakota, and even non-Indian, outsiders, the traditional protocols that govern the ceremonial structure have become more important in ensuring the continuance of an authorized, traditional religion.

I trace the logic of assimilation through the relevant history of Native American forced dislocations and urbanization--from 19th century removal policies, prisoner-of- war camps, to compulsory boarding schools for Indian youth, to the Termination and


Relocation policies of the United States government in the decades after World War II. These migrations and policies of de-culturization contribute to the historical context for a study of mixed-blood natives and non-natives practicing intertribal, Lakota-based spirituality in coastal California from the 1970's to the present.

In addition, I interrogate categories of analysis in popular use, such as "Indian" and "Indigenous Religion," in order to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the competing claims of biological race, cultural hybridity, and a history of forced assimilation upon native identifications. In order to more fully explore the meanings of pan-Indian and trans-Indigenous exchange, I turn to the field of Religion and Healing in Native America. The openness and welcoming of non-natives into native-controlled ceremonial spaces can be explained through an analytic of healing. Accordingly, I argue that native people have identified colonization as a pathology, both mentally and socially, from which both colonizing and colonized populations must recover. The sacred space invoked by Native American spirituality creates decolonizing spaces for the diverse multi-racial participants in that they seek to reinforce an indigenous model of knowledge and practice that resists assimilation. Community ceremonies, such as sweat lodges, function as a hub for the exchange of knowledge and for the healing of individuals and for the group as a whole.

Finally, I explore the logics of contestation to change and adaptation within the ceremonies themselves. Tension inevitably arises between fidelity to a sacred tradition and adaptations deemed necessary by the change in context from reservation to diverse city. In these cases, racial identity determines religious authority, where those with a greater degree of perceived "Indianness" express more freedom to improvise and adapt in challenging conditions. Whereas among those without biological claim to an indigenous identity, emphasis is centered around performing and interpreting the traditional protocol in a strict manner. This case study in an American Indian urban diaspora community proposes a new model of indigeneity incorporating outsiders, extending the religious boundary, and circulating knowledge without losing an authentic connection to tradition and homeland.

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