An Equation of Language and Spirit: Comparative Philology and the Study of American Indian Religions

Sarah Elizabeth Dees*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Scholars of religion frequently distinguish between the religions practiced by American Indians and non-Natives, raising a question about the role of religion in constructing and preserving notions of human difference. The present article locates key assumptions about the inherent distinction of Indigenous religions in early anthropological and linguistic research on American Indians. I demonstrate that as anthropologists studied Native cultures in the late nineteenth century, they drew on evolutionary theories of language in order to construct racialized cultural classifications. Analysis of language provided a framework and foundation for research on American Indian religions. I focus on the writings produced by the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE), led by the influential anthropologist John Wesley Powell, who directed the Bureau from 1879 to 1902. Drawing on philology, the science of language, BAE researchers outlined a perceived essential difference between spiritual capacities of American Indians and non-Natives.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)195-219
Number of pages25
JournalMethod and Theory in the Study of Religion
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 25 2015


  • American Indian religions
  • Bureau of American Ethnology
  • anthropology
  • colonialism
  • indigenous religions
  • philology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Religious studies

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