One book at a time, Professor Ron Grimes clears the shelves of his small office at the University of Colorado. There are several hundred. Black Elk Speaks. The Book of the Hopi. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

Grimes, who looks the part of a religious-studies scholar--which he is--with his mane of bushy gray hair and nearly white beard, carefully places the books into boxes. He is leaving Boulder, where he has spent the past two years writing and teaching, to return to his own university in Canada.

In a few days he will head north with his wife, his children, his books and mixed feelings. A native of New Mexico, he will miss Colorado's mountains. But academically, the emotions cut both ways.

As an expert on ritual studies, particularly those of American Indians, he will not miss the politics that define the current debate over how--and by whom--Native American studies should be taught. On the CU campus, it is a debate that Grimes describes as often "nasty and mean" and outside the normal boundaries of academic discussion. On the other hand, since it involves nationally known authorities on indigenous cultures, politics, law and religion, the controversy has also been exciting and stimulating.

Grimes even joined the fray, motivated by concerns over what he calls "cultural imperialism, especially its religious and academic forms." He formulated a question--"Should European-Americans teach courses on American Indian religions?"--and then rolled it down the information superhighway on Internet bulletin boards, where academics, lay scholars and the just plain interested lurk, waiting for a good fight.

It is a question that makes Grimes ponder his own contributions after two-plus decades of teaching. Already, some of his white colleagues have given up on the field--either out of frustration with the current climate or because of having reached an ethical impasse themselves.

Although Grimes is leaving for Ontario, he's not fleeing his chosen field. He understands the ethical dilemma; the question of who can teach what has been raised before. And not just regarding white males teaching American Indian studies, but also over white males teaching classes in black studies or women's studies. But Grimes feels the alternative--not teaching at all--is far worse.

"The notion of abandoning academic turf (as if it were bad land) and giving it back to `the natives' (as if it were a gift `we' previously owned) seems to me a piece of bad choreography to which we have danced several times before," Grimes writes in the preface to his soon-to-be published paper on the Internet debate. "So here I am blowing a whistle on this sort of back-room discussion."

Grimes grew up in New Mexico, playing cowboys and Indians like almost every other white boy in America in the Fifties. But his sensitivities to the treatment of American Indians had changed by the time he began his scholarly fieldwork, studying the Santa Fe Fiesta and the conflict there between whites, Hispanics and Indians.

In 1974 Grimes was hired as a professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada. Eighteen years later he arrived at the University of Colorado in Boulder and its Department of Religious Studies. He was on sabbatical and had come to write and to advise the department on how to create a doctoral program in ritual studies.

After the first year Grimes was asked to stay and teach "a very large, publicly visible introductory course on Native American religions." But he balked.

The Boulder campus is the stomping ground for several of the most vocal and controversial figures in the arena of American Indian studies. There's Vine Deloria Jr., a Lakota lawyer, philosopher and author--and one of the original young radicals of the Indian rights groups that sprang up in the Sixties. There's Ward Churchill, co-director of the Denver/Boulder chapter of the Colorado American Indian Movement, coordinator of American Indian studies at the university and a prolific writer known to his friends and enemies alike for his pit-bull style of confrontation. And there's Sam Gill, a white scholar whose quiet manner belied the storm that his book Mother Earth: An American Story stirred up. The collection of personalities is about as stable and comfortable to be near as a Ford Pinto full of nitroglycerin.

"Currently, this campus is the locus of a highly charged stand-off that no one talks much about in public," Grimes writes in his preface. "In part, the issue has to do with academic, religious, and cultural turf. Often it does not have to do with who is right or wrong on a given issue, but with who ought to be speaking about such things."

For proof, Grimes had only to look at what happened to Gill after he published Mother Earth in 1987 and was subsequently attacked by Churchill in his book Fantasies of the Master Race.

In essense, Mother Earth argues that what American Indians now consider to be wholly native spirituality was in part invented by white writers and scholars. The book was not intended as a slam against what Indians hold sacred, Gill says, but rather to show that Indians, like all people, will borrow ideas from other cultures.

"There was almost no broadly negative criticism of the book," Gill recalls. "Some of the academic reviewers would point out details that they took issue with. But you welcome that academic discussion...and hopefully learn from it."

He was unprepared for Churchill's virulent response in Fantasies of the Master Race. In that book, Churchill devoted most of a chapter to discrediting not just Mother Earth but also Gill. Churchill, whose own credentials as a scholar and claims to American Indian heritage have been the subject of a running debate in the academic and Indian communities ("Civil Wars," February 9), referred to Gill as an "alleged scholar." He linked the opinions in Mother Earth to the "neo-nazi sentiments" of fringe authors whose writings attempt to prove the Holocaust never happened.

Churchill concluded that Gill must be considered an adherent of the new-age movement that co-opts American Indian spirituality. "Hence the living fabric of Indian society is to be destroyed as its youth are `educated' to view their heritage in exactly the same way as those who seek to subsume it," Churchill wrote.

"This is no rupture with, but rather a continuation and perfection of, the twin systems of colonization and genocide which have afflicted Native America for the past 400 years. From this vantage point, false as it is from start to finish, the scholarly disgrace which constitutes Mother Earth really is an `American Story.'"

Gill characterizes Churchill's attack as political grandstanding rather than an academic critique. But nevertheless, it contributed to his disenchantment with the American Indian studies field, and on Columbus Day 1992--the same day Churchill's AIM chapter shut down Denver's Columbus Day parade--he announced "a rubric shift" in his academic pursuits.

Grimes discusses Gill's decision in his forthcoming paper. "After decades of thinking of himself as a student of Native American religions dedicated to dispelling `romantic images' and resisting `a discourse of domination' Gill decides `to shift from this area,' that is, to turn `a significant amount of (his) attention from the study of Native American religions,'" he writes.

"He describes his motives variously: He finds the area `too politicized,' and he feels that what he or any other white male might write or say is `regarded as irrelevant.' He writes, `So my decision to switch rubrics came when I found myself angered by some of my Native American colleagues, disappointed in some of my Native American students, dismayed by the flood of action motivated by superficial political correctness, and distracted from the study of Native American religions by the impossible attempt to justify what I was doing.'"

Gill is currently focusing his studies on the native culture of Australia.
And here the department was asking Grimes to take over the class that Gill had once taught before he switched specialties. So it was little wonder that he hesitated before accepting the job. At Laurier University, Grimes says, "it was basically one old white guy lecturing to a bunch of white students." At CU, he knew that not only would he be caught between his battling colleagues, but he would also face a more diverse student body that includes American Indian students.

"There was lots of potential for public disagreement, considering the personalities that were here," Grimes says.

He finally agreed to stay and teach the introductory course with the proviso that he be allowed to publicly address the controversial issue of whites teaching American Indian studies.

At the same time, Grimes came up with the Internet project, using new technology to settle an old debate. He posed three questions on three bulletin boards: "Should or should not European Americans be teaching courses on Native American religions? If we should not, why not, and what would be the results of our deferral? If we should, how best can we proceed?"

While he waited for the electronic responses, Grimes turned his attention to his class. He decided that rather than use the usual method of surveying various Indian religions--a little Navajo here, some Lakota there, a dash of Cherokee--he would bring the feud into the schoolroom. He chose the most controversial books he could find, including Gill's Mother Earth and Deloria's God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, which was referred to after its initial publication in 1972 as "the flagship book on Native American spirituality."

The books produced the reaction Grimes had expected. Classroom debate often grew heated and emotional. Whites wanted to know why they were being blamed for the sins of their forefathers. Indian students lashed out at the refusal of whites to acknowledge the continued effects of colonialism.

Some complained in tears to Grimes that the discussion was too emotionally disturbing. But it got students to think about the issues involved rather than simply absorb Grimes's lectures in order to pass the class.

In the meantime, the Internet responses began arriving. Grimes collected the comments from each bulletin board and posted them on the other two. By June he'd received over a hundred responses that would translate into about a hundred pages of typewritten material. Few of the responses were from American Indians or teachers of American Indian religions, Grimes says. Instead, most came from scholars interested in the subject or instructors concerned with the questions' implications for teaching in general.

Grimes had his own concerns about the effect of the project on himself and his colleagues: "Anyone who has read Churchill's critique (in Fantasies of the Master Race) of Gill's Mother Earth or heard Deloria's public but unpublished reflections on that book knows there are good reasons for Euro-American scholars not to rush in, fools, where angels fear to tread," he writes in his preface.

"In fact, some are rushing in the other direction: out. I know of several instances in which White male colleagues are giving up longstanding research and teaching commitments to Native American, Black, or feminist religion. For a few, their exiting is an ethical matter: make room for the oppressed, don't speak about what you are not, and so on. For most, it is a matter of feeling embattled or unappreciated. Exiting White guys feel they will never get respect or credit for attending to such matters. Some may find this minor exodus an occasion for joy. I do not."

Concerns about copyright laws kept Grimes from identifying most of the respondents in his paper. However, he attributes the comments made by Deloria and Gill, both of whom seemed to offer negative responses to his first question.

"I see nothing wrong" with European Americans teaching courses on Native American religions, Deloria wrote. "But I personally wish they would not do so."

The reason, he said, "is that unless and until religious studies, as well as every other social science, adopts new language and a new orientation--unless Euro-Americans grow up about what it is they think they know--they will simply continue to perpetuate misconceptions and misperceptions."

According to Grimes, those misconceptions include "the assumption that Native American teachers are political and that European American ones are not; the distortions that necessarily arise from studying and teaching religion with no personal interest in it; the application of non-Indian theories derived from Near Eastern, monotheistic religions; and the `incredible smugness' with which non-Native American scholars talk about `the little they do know' about things Native."

For all his misgivings, however, Deloria called for ongoing instruction: "It is essential that teaching Native religions in some form, and in spite of criticism, be continued...providing new ways of arranging and articulating the religion are found." To which Grimes adds, "The motive for this turn seems to be that of countering New Age appropriations of indigenous ways. A refusal to teach would risk making New Age appropriation easier."

Gill's response was in many ways the opposite of Deloria's, Grimes notes. "Deloria is an Indian unhappy with the way Whites teach indigenous traditions; Gill is a White male unhappy about critique that he regards as racist."

In the end, however, both called for the teaching to continue. "The political agenda and climate will change as time passes," Gill wrote.

Among the unattributed responses, Grimes found few negative observations. One Ph.D. student admitted she was paralyzed by self-consciousness "and wondered whether she would ever teach on such a troubled topic again." Another respondent argued that "there are topics which we should not write about and which our predecessors probably should have avoided (religious secrets, sacred ceremonies kept hidden from outsiders, myths owned by individual clans, etc.)."

And an Indian student asked: "How would you like it if Indians were the authorities teaching you about your own history?"

Positive responses, Grimes says, came in two varieties: the "yes, of course" and the "yes, but," with most falling into the latter category. These respondents opined that having Euro-Americans teach American Indian studies was permissible, even desirable, providing certain issues were resolved, Grimes says. Those included respecting sanctity and privacy, teaching the topic critically and contextually, making sure that native voices were heard in class, and even having teachers work outside of class to rectify imbalances, perhaps by lobbying to hire indigenous faculty. Even more important, the teacher shouldn't "try to be Indian."

Some respondents in the "yes, of course" group simply labeled any concerns over whites teaching such courses as racism, an abridgment of academic freedom, "white-academic bashing" or plain political correctness. "Indians don't understand their forebears any better than White people understand their seventeenth century ancestors, so they have no privileged point of view," is how Grimes summarized one sentiment.

Some people offered more substantive arguments for teaching. The premise of a common humanity implies that "Native American religions can be taught by non-Natives, just as Hinduism or ancient Egyptian religion can be taught by non-practitioners," one respondent wrote. "One would never dream of saying that physics should only be done by Englishmen," noted another.

Lest Grimes be accused of "trying to keep my hands clean by merely managing this discussion," he defined his own position.

"I continue to teach courses in Native American religions, because the alternatives seem to me worse," he writes. "Not to teach could easily be construed as, if not actually be the result of, regarding such religions as inferior. So for me the question remains how, when, why, and where to teach. In my view a primary qualification is attitude...The requisite attitude is a combination of humility, collegiality, and sensitivity."

Grimes says he resists the assumption that teaching about Native American religions is the same as teaching about Buddhism or Islamism. "Most of us who teach Native American religions are descendants of colonialists, and we continue to reap benefits from that colonialism. In my view, then, sustained self-criticism is a prerequisite for being able to speak on the topic with credibility."

Grimes's replacement at CU will be a Native American woman. Although he believes she was hired for her work as a scholar rather than for her race, he also advocates preferential hiring. "For Native American students to want to study with Native American scholars makes sense to me," he says. "In their position, I am sure I would argue as they do for role models and for teachers who share their traditions and values."

Even so, Grimes rejects the metaphor of an embattled academia. "We will begin to feel as if we were hiding, rifle in hand, under a Conestoga wagon, with Guess Who pointing arrows in our direction," he writes. "Does my position threaten the university and its humanistic goals? Some have said so...

"I am committed to humanistic scholarship, but I think its future depends on the capacity of intellectuals to listen. The listening is sometimes hard. There is shouting and anger, then sulking and backbiting.

"So if we are to suffer through all this, we need some other metaphor: human family, maybe. We shouldn't walk away from angry or critical Indians, whether colleagues or students; they are family and this may be a feud, but it is not a war."

With that, Grimes ends his tenure at the University of Colorado--packing his books, his family and his mixed feelings--and heads north...away from the combat zone.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >