Making Space: Indigenous Voices in Interfaith Dialogue
by Catherine Haseman
September 15, 2020

Interfaith conversations in the United States have primarily focused on the relationship between “world religions” – Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism. Throughout history, this handful of religions have expanded their global reach through global missionary activity, often overtaking and replacing place-bound faiths and tribal religions. Over time, these traditions have come to dominate the landscape of interreligious dialogue in the United States. As a result, indigenous faith traditions have often been left out of activities and discussions around interfaith engagement. In pursuit of a more holistic and expansive interfaith environment, those with a seat at the table must make space for indigenous voices and embrace a wider and more inclusive vision of interreligious dialogue. 

One hopeful avenue for inclusive interfaith dialogue can be seen in the fight for climate justice. Take, for example, Standing Rock. The Dakota Access Pipeline presented irreversible environmental degradation to the Sioux Nation. Seeking to protect sacred tribal sites, Chief Arvol Looking Horse invited diverse religious leaders to join the resistance in prayerful protest and in physical solidarity. Faith communities from across the continent decried the injustice and guarded the First Nation’s holy ground. Chief Looking Horse’s invitation illustrates the enormous potential of interfaith action in addressing the global climate crisis. Around the world, leaders of major religions have humbly sought to learn from indigenous peoples’ immense knowledge of the natural-world and ecologically-relevant beliefs. 

In John A. Grim’s essay “Indigenous Lifeways and Ecology,” he describes indigenous religions as the ancestral beliefs and practices of people who are native to particular landscapes. Central to indigenous religions is an awareness of the integral and whole relationship of material, semiotic, and spiritual life. Each place-bound or tribal religion varies, holding spiritual insights unique to the places its practitioners inhabit.

To understand the unique beliefs and practices of these indigenous traditions, dominant religious leaders must engage indigenous people in dialogue. As theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak explains in her seminal essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, there are historical and ideological factors that prevent dominant groups from being able to truly hear the voices of those who inhabit the periphery of contemporary interfaith dialogue. Following Spivak, dominant voices can never speak for the periphery. Instead, leaders of the major religions must embrace the practice of speaking with and speaking to historically excluded groups. Moreover, faith leaders should approach the conversation through a lens that can accommodate the full weight of the history of settler colonialism, while embracing differences in the ways that indigenous faiths understand the Cosmos and nature.

When indigenous peoples have space to position themselves in the interfaith discourse, they can provide invaluable insight on the relationship between climate justice and spirituality. In Chief Looking Horse’s words, “We have come to a time and place of great urgency. The fate of future generations rests in our hands.” Inclusive interfaith dialogue just might be the tool we need to address climate change and repair our shared planet.

The views, thoughts, and opinions in this blog belong solely to the author and are not representative of an official position or endorsement by the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD).