Interview with Kimberly Jenkins Marshall

In Upward, Not Sunwise: Resonant Rupture in Navajo Neo-Pentecostalism (University of Nebraska Press 2016), Kimberly J. Marshall presents the first book-length study of growing neo-Pentecostalism among Diné (Navajo) people.

Participants: Kimberly J. Marshall (University of Oklahoma) and Hillary Kaell (Concordia University)

HK: Upward, Not Sunwise traces Pentecostalism among the Navajo, who call themselves Oodlání (believers). Can you tell us about your field site and your main interlocutors?

KM: The fieldwork for this book was conducted on the Navajo Nation in the high desert of the U.S. Southwest.  Navajos (who call themselves Diné) are one of the largest Native American nations in North America – both in terms of population and in terms of land-base. So the dramatic increase in neo-Pentecostalism there over the past few decades is really apparent, and also has significant broader implications for our understanding of Native American religious change. I studied the breadth of this movement through participation in Navajo-led tent-revivals across the Navajo Nation. But the bulk of my ethnographic work was accomplished through getting to know one particular independent, Navajo-led congregation in northwest New Mexico. In addition to attending church services, revivals, music rehearsals and small-group meetings, I spent a lot of time helping out the maternal relatives of the Navajo pastor (Pastor Wallace Begay) in the church kitchen. In this small dirt-floor room with no running water, I spent dozens of hours chopping vegetables, washing dishes, and becoming a slow but competent maker of fry-bread. I also did a lot of listening and learning about what it meant, for these Navajo women, to be Oodlání. One of the main things they taught me early on was how deeply-felt was both their Christian religious faith and their sense of themselves as Navajos—subjective stances that much of the literature really holds to be basically incommensurate at any meaningful level. This seemed especially paradoxical to me since their version of Pentecostalism was so strategically focused on conducting spiritual warfare against key Navajo traditions, philosophies and beliefs.

HK: Right, and the book focuses on a major question in anthropologies of Christianity, namely whether conversion is primarily a rupture or a continuation with the past. But you tackle it through a new lens: “feelingful” aesthetic forms and “resonant rupture.” What do you mean by those terms?

KM: These are concepts really arose from my training in expressive culture (ethnomusicology and folklore), and draw from the work of linguistic anthropologists who share the same background: scholars like David Samuels, Richard Bauman, and Thomas Turino. The key contribution here is the way that old debates about continuity and rupture open up when we attend to the expressive/aesthetic forms that religious practices take – singing, dancing, poetic language, etc. Of course Birgit Meyer and others have demonstrated the power of aesthetic mediation in understanding religious community formation. But my work is really more grounded in semiotics and the ethnography of speaking literatures. As these works point out, aesthetic forms are the type of signs (in the Peircean/semiotic sense) that are inherently ambiguous. They can point in multiple directions at once and pack in many (and sometimes contradictory) meanings.  They can “mean” things at many levels: some at a rational level, some at the affective (feelingful) level. This inherent ambiguity makes them perfect for mediating the kind of balance between similarity and difference necessary for religious shift. That is, new religious movements like Navajo Neo-Pentecostalism can amplify their impact by “resonating” with past practices, even when this resonance is promoting dramatic rupture, such as spiritual warfare.

HK: The book tracks these kinds of connections in a few different contexts that are associated with tent revivals. In fact, a key point is how tent revivals themselves have certain structural similarities to traditional Navajo rituals, yet are also discontinuous. You make a similar point about spirit-filled dancing later in the book. Can you explain further?

KM: Sure, and thanks for bringing that up. One of the goals of the book is to demonstrate the utility of aesthetic resonance in explaining the spread of neo-Pentecostalism among Navajos. So throughout the book I demonstrate the different types of resonances that exist in the expressive forms found at revivals. Some of these “points of resonance” are structural, such as the evening ritual gatherings you mention that are at once sacred, secular, and social. Some points of resonance are performative, such as the use of material substances to aid in healing. Some points of resonance are language ideologies. And some points of resonance are ontological – such as the assumption of actively involved non-human actors that undergird spirit-filled dancing, or assumptions that medicine bundles are inherently full of power.

The broader point of all of this, however, is that even though the aesthetic forms resonate, Navajo Oodlání are still fundamentally engaged in projects of rupture. That they can smuggle these projects of rupture in through resonant aesthetic forms, and thereby amplify their appeal, really attests to the “portable ambiguity” of expressive culture. I feel we’re remiss if we stop at the resonances we see and don’t attend to the way in which these resonances are often doing the work of rupture.

HK: You focus two chapters on music: Navajo language hymnody on the one hand and country western music on the other. How do Oodlání view these two types of music?

KM: I think the Oodlání musical landscape is a great way to understand what I see as resonant rupture in action. Music-making is a huge part of Oodlání ritual life. But right off I noticed a disjuncture in language use. The Navajo language is used throughout Oodlání gatherings: preaching, praying, testifying—all are conducted in Navajo or mixed Navajo/English. Singing is too, but only in derivative ways. So they’ll improvise a prayer in Navajo, but songs will be Navajo translations of English praise & worship songs, with of course western tonal harmony.  In many places across the globe (especially in places with local control) there has been a lot of effort expended in creating a kind of “indigenous” hymnody- music that at some level reflects local musical traditions, instruments, or performance contexts. (Take, for example, the recent collection by Ingalls, Reigersberg, and Sherinian). Virtually nothing like that existed at the tent revivals I was attending, and I wanted to find out why.  It turns out that the performative language ideologies of Navajo – the idea that words do things in the world – were relatively intact, especially in regard to sung words. That’s the resonance part. But instead of forging continuity along this resonance, Oodlání were putting extra care into avoiding anything that could be perceived as “medicine man chant”—that is, performatively effective language in song. This discourse of rupture was hampering their ability to compose new music in the Navajo language.

The case of country music is somewhat similar. Country music is incredibly popular on the Navajo Nation and most of what I thought I was hearing at revivals and in services I would have generally classified as country gospel. So I was quite surprised when I heard pastors engage in diatribes against country music and claim that country music will “lead you straight to the Devil.” I began to understand it as another example of resonant rupture. People liked listening to the familiar timbres and tones of country music (it was feelingfully amplifying), but understood the music they were singing along to at revivals as decidedly not country music.  And there are specific implications of this ambiguity for musicians, who have to police this boundary in their own bodily dispositions, behaviors, and social lives—which I talk about in the book as well.

HK: The final chapter discusses the hallmark of Pentecostalism: healing rituals. Most of our readers will be familiar with Pentecostal healing, but less so with Navajo traditional healing. Please tell us a bit about it and clarify the interaction between these two performative forms.

KM: So this is a really interesting point of resonance. Healing is a key part of the Navajo cultural complex. Scholar Maureen Schwarz has characterized it as an “underlying cultural archetype” for Navajos. Health (as broadly construed) is the fundamental lens through which bodies, social life, and the surrounding environment are explained. And ceremonies to restore health (broadly construed) form the crux of the Navajo ceremonial complex – identified by outsiders as the Navajo traditional “religion.” So any new religious movement with any kind of traction among Navajos would necessarily have to rely heavily on its ability to heal. There was actually an important special issue of Medical Anthropology Quarterly with a group of scholars (edited by Thomas Csordas) making this exact point.

But as I got to know healing as it was practiced by Oodlání, I became increasingly uneasy with these equivalences, especially among charismatic/Pentecostals. Again, expressive forms allow us a window into the rupture, so in my last chapter I focus on several expressive dimensions of Pentecostal healing: soundscapes, bodily motion, material objects, and poetic language.  In each of these instances I show how the ambiguity of the expressive form has allowed feelingful continuity to produce meaningful rupture.

For example, I look at the poetic language of Oodlání testimonies (particularly the stock phrases mixed and matched in improvisational technique—called by folklorists oral formulaic composition) to show how the fundamental healing etiology underlying their poetics is “Western.” Whereas Navajo etiologies connect the cure of an illness didactically with its cause, Oodlání testimonies communicate an etiology more connected to Gospel of Prosperity logic, even while appearing to have the same explanatory power.

As for the material culture of healing—Navajo corn pollen (tádídíín) has been replaced in substance by anointing oil, but is understood by Oodlání as deriving from a fundamentally different (and superior) source of power. There are, of course, direct connections here to the Friday Masowe’s use of healing substances like honey and pebbles, as described by Matthew Engelke, and part of the object of this chapter is to explain the semiotic ideologies (following Keane) that govern the use of things like corn pollen. Because of the ambiguity of expressive forms, I think we might find the concept of resonant rupture broadly helpful in understanding the appeal of charismatic healing in global contexts.

HK: I found your concluding discussion about global connections and tribal sovereignty especially fascinating. It’s capped by Pastor Wallace’s own trip to West Africa.

KM: This is just one of those unexpected things that happen during fieldwork that end up being so illuminating. About halfway through my fieldwork, the main pastor I was working with asked me to help him to prepare for a trip to Africa. He really wasn’t a particularly cosmopolitan man. Up to that point the furthest he had ever traveled from home was to Arkansas and Montana for revivals. But talking with him through the process of leaving and returning, as well as hearing his reflections during the trip in a journal he agreed to keep for me, really highlighted so many of the ways in which the movement I was studying is globally connected through personal networks. Both his invitation to travel to Africa and the funding for it were facilitated by social networks built through cross-visiting at revivals. Evangelists from throughout Indian Country would visit his revivals, and he would go and visit theirs in return. And this cross-visiting network is global as well, as evidenced by Pastor Wallace’s trip to Benin as well as by the visits of evangelists from Jamaica and Uganda and Mexico to the revivals I was attending in the remote desert Southwest.

And the role of networks in this movement really made me reconsider one of the difficult questions my book raises, which is… why? If resonant forms can be so easily mistaken for continuity and if Oodlání are so invested in rupturing with past practice, then why not abandon resonant forms entirely? Why not sing in English and drop the country twang? Why not focus on church services and forget about tent revivals? Why not give away medicine bundles instead of destroying them? This is an especially relevant point since before my book, the only major explanation for the rise of Pentecostalism among Native Americans is that it allows converts to reject “Culture” as a relevant definitional category (see Kirk Dombrowski Against Culture: Development, Politics, and Religion in Indian Alaska).  But I kept thinking about the picture Pastor Wallace brought back from Africa- shaking hands with an African king and wearing the most traditionally Navajo outfit I ever saw him wear- suggesting to me that something more complex is happening. In the conclusion, I argue that one of the answers to this puzzle of “Why resonant rupture?” is that retaining the resonances allows Navajos to practice a markedly Navajo form of Pentecostalism, one that is unique within global Pentecostalism and celebrated for its distinctiveness.  And as such, we might understand this as a kind of assertion of Navajo sovereignty by Oodání pastors: their prerogative to define themselves on their own terms.

HK: What is a key ‘take home’ point you hope readers glean from the book?

KM: I hope this book generates more attention to expressive forms and their role in religious shift. I think that the concept of resonant rupture has the possibility of adding needed nuance to the continuity/rupture debate by reminding us that expressive forms are ambiguous and we need to be careful in making assumptions of continuity without interrogating the ways that people might be using these forms at cross purposes. It basically gives us linguistically- and aesthetically-grounded tools to accomplish Joel Robbins’ foundational caution against “continuity thinking.” And, of course, I hope it gives scholars of global Pentecostalism a window into the interesting iterations of this movement in Native North America.

HK: And now that you’ve told us all about Upward, Not Sunwise, tell us a bit about what you’re planning next. Are you still engaged with projects in the Navajo nation?

KM: One of the major gaps my work highlighted was the need for a more comprehensive view of global Pentecostalism as it has been developing in Indian Country. Navajo is not the only place this movement has experienced exponential growth, and (as mentioned above) networks that have developed between Native American evangelists have been hugely impactful in the growth of this movement. I think there are important ways in which a closer relationship between the literature on religious change in Native North America and the literature on the Anthropology of Christianity in Oceania, Africa, and Latin America could be mutually beneficial. So I have been working on a collaborative collection with colleagues working in Christian communities throughout Native North America that would help draw out some of these connections.

I have also continued to develop my work on expressive culture in a new study on the collaborations between the city of Boise, Idaho and the tribes which were removed from there, such as the Shoshone-Bannock tribe. This collaboration aims to address over a century of representational erasure in the Boise valley – an artistic reality with real political and economic consequences. This work continues to build on my thinking about the connections between Native American sovereignty and expressive culture, and it’s exciting to see how this is being negotiated on the ground through the building of interdependent networks. For example, over the past 7 years the tribes removed from Boise have gathered annually for the “Return of the Boise Valley People Gathering.”  This year the City of Boise hosted a welcoming ceremony for the gathering on the steps of city hall, hosted by the Mayor of Boise – marking the first formal government-to-government action since the tribes’ removal in 1868. So I’m excited to see the ways in which this relationship grows over the next few years, and very privileged to get to document it.

And before we go, I just wanted to take the opportunity to thank you for the excellent questions. I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to talk about my work, and appreciate the work of AnthroCyBib in keeping us all in conversation.