Indigenous religions were discussed on Wednesday night at the Oviatt Library’s presentation room as professors spoke about the importance of ancestral religions and traditions in modern society.
The panel included three Cal State professors who shared their research on the indigenous religions in different parts of the world. Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha, a professor of indigenous religion in the Department of Religious Studies at CSUN, hosted the panel. This presentation was an element of The Global Village Forum’s list of Spring 2007 events.
“Global Village Forum is a center of learning created to enhance global awareness,” Nkulu-N’Sengha said. “It looks at the global world from the perspectives of marginalized Africans, Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians. We look at the problems from all different angles – cultural, religious or gender issues.”
The panel also looked at African and Mexican ancestral traditions from a standpoint of gender and ethnicity.
Lara Medina, professor of Chicano/a Studies, initiated her presentation, “Chicana Nepantla Spirituality: Negotiating Multiple Religious Identities,” by explaining the concept of “nepantla spirituality” to the audience. Nepantla spirituality, she said, refers simply to being “in the middle.”
This spirituality reflects incorporating different worldviews and is accepted by much of Mexicano/Chicano religiosity. It also holds a strong connection to the nature and earth. Emphasizing how ancestors and the dead play an important role in an indigenous culture, Medina went on to elaborate on the rites and rituals performed by the believers of nepantla spirituality to honor the dead.
“The work I have done is to name and describe spirituality that is emerging among Chicano/as,” Medina said. “It is a new term, nepantla spirituality, that I put out there to describe what I see going on.”
“There is a critical need to recognize indigenous worldviews in Chicano/a life because indigenous world views for Chicanos are (the) deepest source of our values,” she said.
Medina’s published work focuses on Chicano/a spirituality and practices, U.S. Latino/a theology and Chicano/a religious history. In her presentation, she continued to explain the relation between Christianity and indigenous religions. She said reconciling can be a hard process for people who have been “colonized.” True reconciling between indigenous and Christians cannot happen until indigenous religions are no longer silent.
Medina also mentioned that her students have benefited from her knowledge of nepantla spirituality.
“In my teaching, I meet with a lot of students who are raised Catholic and aren’t satisfied with it,” she said. “They have a desire to learn about their indigenous heritage. Also, they are in their first year of college; parents are worried their children are going to leave their religion. They are really in the middle, in nepantla.”
After a 25-minute presentation by Medina, the podium was opened to Stephen David Siemens, a professor of anthropology at Northridge and Fullerton. The discussion moved to another continent, Africa, as Siemens talked about the Azande culture. Azande culture holds the belief that misfortune, death and complications of life are the result of witchcraft.
Siemens talked about the process of mourning among Azandes when they are bereaved.
“Azande are disempowered when they are bereaved,” he said. “When someone dies, you don’t have (the) same kind of relationship with other people, you don’t present yourself the same way. When you lose a relative, you loose ability, you loose powers. You are less of a person because of it.”
Using examples from personal experience during his field research in Southern Sudan, Siemens talked about how Azande people go through “rites of passage,” a series of rituals to be performed once someone dies.
Mourners lose abilities to greet, sit on a chair, sleep and eat, look attractive and more. Siemens said that such things happen due to powerlessness. However, after the rites, there is an “extreme makeover,” since the mourners come back to rejoicing again.
The final presentation was conducted by Nkulu-N’Sengha as he talked about Fetishism, Magic and Witchcraft in Indigenous Religions: The Politics of Meaning.
“It is about moving from fetishism to acknowledge religious values,” he said. “Modern scholars have distorted indigenous religions by labeling them as witchcraft, fetishism and magic, and then obscured and overwhelmed their moral values.”
Teaching some words of African language, Nkulu-N’Sengha talked about the ideals of an indigenous religion, which he said are often overlooked by many scholars. Moral character is one who has good thoughts (Mucima Muya), good speech (Ludimi Luya), good way of looking at people (Diso Diya) and good deed (Bilongwa Biya), he said.
He said such events are critical, primarily to create awareness about the importance of indigenous religions.