In honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day…

Or Columbus Day, depending on where you live in the United States and what your political leanings are, one more post about my Indigenous Religions unit. Have you ever used this article about the Nacirema?

Written by Horace Miner in 1956 and published in the American Anthropologist, it’s an academic look at an unusual and oddball culture–our own. I give a shortened version of it to my students as we start the unit on Indigenous Religions, as if its a group we’re about to study. This year I asked kids to reflect on the group and whether or not they could relate to the Nacirema.

A direct student quote: “The Nacirema were so weird. It surprised me just how weird they were. I could not relate at all.”

And then the big reveal! This article about the super-strange Nacirema? It’s about US! The group name is actually a play on words, and the rituals that Miner describes (bathing, brushing teeth, etc…) are in fact practiced by everyone of my students (well, most days).

It’s a good reminder that when encountering new cultures, their practices can seem quite different and even bizarre. But we should approach things with an open mind. We all have rituals, practices, and strange beliefs. Once students realize that the article is about them, they laugh and try to “decode” it. It’s a nice exercise in close reading, and starts a good conversation about anthropology and the study of other cultures.

Interfaith Voices Podcast

I’ve been a whirlwind of activity this week and have not had much time to post. One super-nerdy thing I like to do when I am busy is look up podcasts related to what I’m teaching in class. That way I can walk the dog and learn a little more about my subject material. A podcast that I am fond of these days is Interfaith Radio, particularly their World Religions 101 series. The interview with Stephen Prothero about Yoruba really helped my ability to explain the key concepts of religion to my class. The series is based on his book, God Is Not One, which I’ve also checked out from the library, but have yet to work my way all the way through. If you are a podcast fan, I encourage you to check this series out.


Ted-Ed and Origins of Religion

Have you used Ted-Ed yet? It’s a site that takes awesome Tedtalk videos, or just other wonderful Youtube videos, and allows you to build lessons around them. You can search other educator’s lessons as well, share them with your students online, and encourage them to post in discussion boards. For me, it’s a step towards occasional “flipping” of the classroom, but without the hassle of recording my own lectures and sometimes you can get lucky with what other teachers post.

I have some issues with the “flipping the classroom” model, enough that the topic probably deserves its own post. For the uninitiated, (and those unencumbered by edu-jargon) flipping the classroom is a movement to deliver lectures and content outside of classtime (for homework) and then use class time with the teacher as facilitator for project-based learning, skill development, and research. Part of my concern is that I think history teachers do much of this already–we assign reading that reviews the content, and then aim to work with the material in class. Most “flippers” rely heavily on video lectures as a way to relay content, however, which I question. It limits reading and I think can be just as challenging to focus on (how many times have you had several tabs open on your browser? You probably do right now!).  I also worry that not all of my students have reliable and frequent access to the internet. All that being said, I realize the value of novelty (students get excited by sometimes watching a video) and the help that video can provide when clarifying a challenging topic.

Origins of Religion lesson by Kate Harris

The question of why human societies developed religion is one such difficult topic. Every year, I debate how much I want to teach about this. It’s interesting stuff–why do we see religious beliefs developing in every society, across time and space? What need does it fill? But the answers can be heavily philosophical and often critical. This video does a nice job of outlining what life was like for early humans, and how they perceived the world. It gives the students some content to work with about reasons why religion might develop, and then in class I have the opportunity to guide them through some critiques.

Ted-Ed isn’t perfect–it’s heavily weighted towards science, but there is some social studies and language arts sprinkled through. But it’s quick and easy from a teacher’s perspective and engaging for the students. I will keep posting other useful videos that I find on there–let me know what you find as well!

Syncretism in San Juan Chamula

Talking about the Mayan religion today forces a conversation about syncretism. After the Spanish conquistadores arrived in Latin America, the Mayans were quite forcefully exposed to Catholicism. While some converted, others maintained their traditional religious beliefs, and others still managed to build an understanding of Mayan and Catholic beliefs that accomodated both. Exaclty how this works is up for debate–some scholars believe that the Mayans simply took on Catholic names and rituals, cloaking their own beliefs in Spanish terms that would protect them from danger. Others think that Mayan beliefs truly shifted over time with exposure to the monotheism of the Spanish Catholics. It’s extremely difficult to determine which way is which (This paper, by a college student whom I don’t know, does a very nice job of explaining some of the debate, if you’d like further information).

On my travels to Mexico in 2011, I visited a town called San Juan Chamula de Chiapas. This town is a prime example of the facade of Catholicism being maintained simply as a cover for preserving Mayan tradition. In the church, San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist), a Catholic priest comes once a year for baptisms. We were told that while he presides over the sacrament of baptism in Spanish, many Mayans continue with their own practices in their local language. It’s easy to imagine this when you are there; the interior of the church looks unlike any other Christian church I have seen. There are no pews, and the floor is covered with long pine needles, the melted wax of colored candles, empty bottles of Pepsi-Cola, and, depending on the day, there may be chickens squawking. Those chickens still squawking are the lucky ones.

Iglesia San Juan Bautista in San Juan Chamula de Chiapas

Iglesia San Juan Bautista in San Juan Chamula de Chiapas

While images of Catholic saints line the walls and the air is thick with incense like some cathedrals, the primary ceremonies going on are led not by priests, but by Mayan curanderos, or healers. They commit sacrifices (including the chickens mentioned before) and cure illnesses of the soul. Pox, a type of liquor was traditionally drunk, but now sodas are commonly used in its place. Pictures are strictly forbidden inside the church, and discouraged in Chamula in general. I share a few images from my travels with my students, but mostly talk about my experience. I have them read this article for more details about the town and its inhabitants’ beliefs.

Continue reading