Primal Religion? Indigenous? Traditional? What?

Primal Religion? Indigenous? Traditional? What? January 3, 2022

Across much of Africa, we encounter the familiar figure of the Nganga, a word that appears in many slightly differing guises. The Nganga is a spiritual healer, who draws on supernatural powers. No reasonable person would today apply the ugly term that Western colonialists used for such people, which was “witch-doctors.” But what exactly do we call the spiritual system that they represent? Going far beyond the specific instance of the nganga, this is actually a very difficult question, with major implications for North America, and even for global politics.

A reviewer recently criticized me for speaking of African primal religion, on the grounds that this made that system sound primitive, even infantile, and backward in evolutionary terms. Needless to say, I never intended any such thing, nor do the many other people who use or who have used that same “primal” terminology. But the criticism concerns me. I spend much of my professional life dealing with Africa and Africans, and specifically in challenging claims that “African religions” (especially Christianity) are in any sense a manifestation of backwardness. I desperately do not want to perpetrate any such stereotypes myself.

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So what are the alternatives? In the bad old colonial days, it was “paganism,” or worse, so we cried out for a non-judgmental alternative. How about Traditional African Religion(s), which is what Wikipedia favors? That sounds excellent, but the term is exclusionary. If those religions are traditional, then of necessity, other faiths are not. That includes Christianity, which has been on African soil for over 1,900 years, and Islam, with at least 1,300. That Muslim figure represents forty-plus generations! Just how long does it take to build up a tradition? Think of the great Christian and Muslim kingdoms that prevailed in sections of the continent, and imagine telling the residents of those areas that their religion is not traditional, or indeed, not authentically African. Tell that to Christian Ethiopians, or a Muslim resident of Timbuktu.

Similar issues arise with the equally well-intentioned “African Indigenous Religion.” If what an nganga does is “indigenous,” then by the same token, what Christians and Muslims do is not, and that idea is just as unacceptable. However tempting the abbreviated term might be, we should not speak simply of “African Religion,” as that again suggests that neither Islam nor Christianity has really made its home on African soil. Maybe it will in another millennium or two.

That word “indigenous” needs unpacking. I quote Merriam-Webster: “Indigenous derives from the Latin noun indigena (meaning “native”), which was formed by combining Old Latin indu (meaning “in” or “within”) with the verb gignere (meaning “to beget”).” Roughly, it means “born here.” The other well known word for the concept is “native,” which comes from the Latin verb nasci. That’s all straightforward, but here is the problem. Native means “born here.” It says nothing whatever about how long your ancestors, or your ethnic group, have resided on this soil. As an immigrant, I am not myself a native-born American, but my children are, so please don’t tell them to go back where they came from. That would be Pennsylvania.

When you write about American history in the nineteenth century, you can produce some odd situations by talking about “Native Americans,” in the sense of “Indians,” while at the same time referring to “Nativists,” those xenophobic Anglo-Saxon derived Protestants, who hated Catholics and immigrants from Continental Europe. Their creed might have been loathsome, but they were dead right about their name: they were indeed native-born. In modern times, the word Nativist has been generously extended to residents of Northern and Central European stock, who don’t want to see more people of Latin inheritance. A generation or two on American soil creates new generations of Natives, and of Nativists.

So what do we properly call Native Americans or Canadians? “Indigenous” is commonly used, but as I have suggested, it has problems. By the meaning of the word, if you were born in the United States, you are indeed indigenous, even if your parents had arrived only recently.

The word “primal” (or indigenous, or Native) is deeply suspect if it suggests immemorial antiquity in a given area, that “we/they have always been here.” People move over time, often quite considerable distances, leaving ancient homelands and discovering new ones. The more evidence we get from genetics, the more clearly we understand those movements in fairly recent times, the past few centuries or couple of millennia, and those movements were generally accompanied by shifts in language and economic life. We are living through what has been fairly termed a “genomic ancient DNA revolution.” As peoples moved – whether in Japan, or Central Africa, or South Asia, or North America – their religions and spiritual outlook moved with them. That is a major and even inevitable theme in human history. It has sizable implications for the concept of being born “here,” of exactly where we are a Native of. It must also affect our idea of indigenous or primal religion.

In a sense, “Native Americans” represent a distinctive group, at least when set aside later arrivals from Europe or Africa. More accurately, those Native peoples make up an extraordinarily large and diverse palette of peoples, cultures, and traditions. That does not mean that particular groups have always been in the regions or territories in which they appear in the historical record. In the American southwest, for instance, Navajo and Apache people undoubtedly belong to those New World groupings, but they only settled in those southwestern territories in the fifteenth century or so, round about the time of Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean. Those peoples, speaking Na-Dene or Athabascan languages, had over the previous centuries undertaken an epic and indeed heroic migration of at least 2,500 miles from the far north-west. (To put that in context, the distance from London to Moscow is around 1,800 miles). When those Na-Dene people arrived in Arizona and New Mexico, they rapidly formulated a spiritual geography based on special numinous places in the new sacred landscape they now encountered. The Navajo, famously, identified their four Sacred Mountains.

Around the world, “indigenous” peoples are very adept at reading such spiritual meanings into landscapes, and suggesting a vast antiquity for those traditions. Anyone interested in the history of the American West knows about the White settlers and miners pressing into the Black Hills which were sacred to the Lakota people, and the resulting conflict culminated in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The Lakota had first encountered those Hills just three generations earlier, around 1765, at which point they proclaimed the sanctity of that landscape. The fact that a given people believe that that mountain over there is the hub of the universe or the primeval home of their ancestors does not mean that their predecessors thought the same thing even two or three centuries previously. Sacred landscapes can and do shift over time. To make that statement does not for a second impugn the authenticity of the religious system based upon those beliefs. Rather, it inspires real respect for the creativity of the believers, their openness to inspiration, and their willingness to adapt and experiment to changing situations and environments.

It is not just in modern times that migration is a driving force in the making and transformation of religions worldwide.

We should never think of those primal (or traditional, or indigenous, or pagan) religions as eternal and unchanging, or somehow situated outside history. Just like the literate faiths about which we inevitably have more evidence, those “Native” religions are likewise subject to new movements and transformations, which might arise as the result of traumatic change, in consequence perhaps of calamity or climate shock. Also in the south west, we can trace the religious changes among the ancestral Pueblo people that gave rise to the Katsina cult during what Europeans call the Later Middle Ages. Central to Pueblo ritual and cultural life is the kiva, an institution that can be traced back to the eighth century AD, and which has passed through several very different stages in an evolution of some 1,200 years to date.

Indigenous faiths are dynamic: they have their prophets, messiahs, spiritual entrepreneurs, and religious revolutionaries, quite apart from any possible influences from Judeo-Christian traditions. Meanwhile, tribal and ethnic groups spawn new offshoots, which acquire a powerful identity in their own right, and evolve their own set of customs and beliefs. To say these (or any) religions are “primal” absolutely does not mean they have the exact form in which they emerged countless millennia ago. Primal does not imply Primeval, and such religions and cultures do not provide a window into the Dawn of Time.

I turn again to Africa’s situation, and the vocabulary we employ. As new Christian churches in distinctly African garb proliferated during the twentieth century, scholars spoke of “African Indigenous Churches,” AICs. That distinguished them from colonial-derived churches such as Anglicans or Methodists or Catholics. But as those churches themselves rapidly became wholly African in leadership, and in worship style, the indigenous label seemed inappropriate: who are you calling non-indigenous? Also swiftly obsolete was the substitute term “African Independent Churches,” which suggested that other “mainstream” churches, like the African Anglicans, were anything but stubbornly independent in their own right. Then we tried “African Initiated Churches.” Today, many scholars using the phrase “AIC” don’t even bother to expand the acronym, just assuming that “You know it when you see it.” Born in Africa, and to faithful Christian parents, Desmond Tutu was surely both African and Indigenous.

These questions of definition might all sound like nit-picking, but in various parts of the world, they can be quite deadly. If one religion is Native or Indigenous, then by definition, others are not. The assumption is that indigenous creeds have a special and unrivaled authenticity in their land. Depending on the political context, that can provide an excuse to attack and persecute those “foreign” faiths, those invasive species of belief.

Two examples of that pernicious approach come to mind. By any reasonable standard, Japanese Shinto is an ancient “indigenous” religion, present in the land since time immemorial. In the 1930s and 1940s, a deadly and intolerant form of State Shinto became the official creed and religious justification for Japanese militarism and racial aggression. Other faiths could exist, provided they absolutely acknowledged the supremacy of that state creed. (In saying that, I mean no criticism whatever of the utterly tolerant and attractive Shinto faith or practice of today).

The other deadly example comes from contemporary India. Oddly as this may sound to foreigners, a case can be made that Hinduism is not a global faith on the lines of Islam or Buddhism, but an indigenous system, and indeed, “the world’s largest indigenous religion.” In recent times, that belief justifies the extreme intolerance of far Right Indian governments and their ultra-nationalist Hindutva creed. True Indians, in this view, are three H’s: they are Hindu, they speak Hindi, and they are Hindustani. The language requirement is bad news for the very large populations of the country’s prosperous southern regions, who speak neither Hindi nor any Indo-European language, but let that pass for now.

In this intolerant model, all true Indians are (or should be) Hindu, and any Indians who follow other faiths, such as Islam or Christianity, are the descendants of people who were seduced or forced into following those alien systems. By whatever means, those deviants must be persuaded or coerced to return to the true, native, indigenous, religion, which is Hinduism. The non-indigenous “deviants” affected might number as high as 250 million. The New York Times just did an outstanding piece on the persecution of India’s Christians, much of which occurs with the support or sympathy of members of the ruling BJP party, and government authorities. Muslims likewise suffer dreadfully.

Just a query: by many definitions, to speak of an indigenous or primal religion implies that it is pre-literate or oral. Did Hinduism lose that indigenous quality when it became so lavishly literate, and scholarly, so many centuries ago?

Definitions of religion, and of indigeneity, can offend and annoy, but they can also kill. Can I propose a rule that once a religion has been established in a particular country or territory for a generation or so, and people have been born into it, it is at once Native and traditional and indigenous to that land? To return to my African problem, I am going to continue using “primal” religion, but I think I will use quotes every time I do. With quotes, I might even use “traditional.”


There is a valuable book edited by Greg Johnson and Siv Ellen Kraft, Handbook of Indigenous Religion(s) (Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion, 2017). Every chapter is worth reading, but I especially point to the contribution by Bjørn Ola Tafjord, “Towards a Typology of Academic Uses of ‘Indigenous Religion(s)’, or Eight (or Nine) Language Games That Scholars Play with This Phrase.” See also Siv Ellen Kraft, Bjørn Ola Tafjord, Arkotong Longkumer, Gregory D. Alles, and Greg Johnson  Indigenous Religion(s): Local Grounds, Global Networks (Routledge, 2020)


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