Native American Religions

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Jul. 30, 2013

Native American Religions

Trinity University professor looks at how casinos can finance cultural preservation

Angela Tarango

By Susie P. Gonzalez

SAN ANTONIO - Angela Tarango, assistant professor of religion at Trinity University, finds it ironic that Native Americans have gambled on the possibility that people from all walks of life would spend money at their casinos, giving them resources to preserve their tribal culture. More than a paradox, however, it is a rich area for academic study.

"The money has given native people the ability to engage and lobby," Tarango said. "There is some sense that they are 'playing Indian' to get ahead to preserve their own culture. I am looking at how it informs philanthropy, especially religious philanthropy."

Many native cultural practices—such as the wearing of headdresses, performing certain dances, and conducting pow-wows—are spiritual in nature and provide clues for how their history can inform their future identity, Tarango said. She cited as an example the Sun Dance, a religious ceremony practiced by Plains tribes that was banned until the 1950s.

The primary and most threatened aspect of Native culture are tribal land rights, she said. For tribes whose land has been taken by the government, casino revenue can help buy it back. But there are situations in which the land is not available. Case in point is the Lakota Sioux, whose reservation in the Black Hills of South Dakota was snatched by gold miners and the government. The Sioux sued the U.S. government to reclaim their land, and the case went to the Supreme Court, which agreed the land had been taken illegally and assessed compensation to cover the lost land. "The Sioux believe they were literally borne of the earth; they emerged from it. It is a sacred site and is believed to be holy and have power," Tarango said. "But the Sioux refuse the money. They want the land. That tells you how important the land is."

Trained as a historian of American religion, Tarango said her methodology is one of ethno-history, a "mash up" of historical inquiry, sociology, and anthropology. She will draw from all these disciplines as she explores the religious and cultural views of Native Americans toward casinos and what they can and can't empower. While her research will require combing through archives, much of her field work will involve oral histories. "I foresee this taking a while," Tarango said.

This interest grew out of her earlier work studying Pentecostalism and a subset of beliefs held by Native Americans, many of whom were evangelized by the Assemblies of God. She has completed a book about this topic that will be published in the spring of 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press.

In the short term, she is guiding a Trinity junior, Isaiah Ellis, a religion major from Waco, Texas, in research about the mid-twentieth-century Navajo tribal chairman Jacob C. Morgan. Tarango characterized Morgan as another study in contrasts because, while he wanted to protect traditions of the Navajo and endorsed good schools and health care, he converted to Christianity and advocated for some reforms not historically supported by Native Americans. Thanks to a Mellon Foundation grant for arts and humanities, Tarango and Ellis will travel to the University of New Mexico in July to comb through archives and read microfilm stories and editorials in Albuquerque newspapers to paint a picture of Morgan.

"It's good to take a deep breath during the summer and dive into one thing and really get to know it," Ellis said. "I came to Trinity for the personalized contact that wouldn't be present if I'd gone to a bigger school, but I never dreamed I would assist anybody in research."

Courses Taught

  • Religion in the United States

  • Native American Religions

  • The Christian Tradition

  • U.S. Latino Religions and Traditions

  • Religion in the Civil Rights Movement

  • First-Year Seminar (Native Americans in the American Imagination)

Selected publications


Indigenizing the "Indigenous Principle:" Pentecostal American Indians, Religious Practice and the Assemblies of God. Under contract with University of North Carolina Press. (Forthcoming)

Collected Volumes (Peer-reviewed)

"Reclaiming the 'Great Physician': Native Americans and New Understandings of Pentecostal Healing." in Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing, ed. Candy Gunther Brown. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)

"Native American Pentecostalism" in Fifty Essential Terms for Understanding Pentecostalism, ed. Adam Stewart. (Chicago: Northern Illinois Press, 2012)

Magazine Articles

"Assemblies of God Missions to American Indians: A Historical Overview."

Assemblies of God Heritage Magazine, 2009, 45-51.

"From Pueblos to Pentecostals: America Has Always Had a Diverse Religious Landscape," in Christian History, Issue 102, (The Christian History Institute: Worcester, PA, 2012). 4-11.

Susie P. Gonzalez is director of public and media relations in Trinity's Office of University Communications. She can be reached at