Natalie Avalos: Indigenous Religious Traditions Deserve to be Known and Valued

Author: Rebekah Go

Natalie Avalos

Natalie Avalos is an assistant professor of Native American and Indigenous Studies in the Ethnic Studies department at University of Colorado Boulder. She was also a contributor to Faith in the Story: Trialogues for Enhancing Religious Literacy, a multi-year series of workshops at the Ansari Institute that brought together media professionals, faith leaders, and scholars of religion to work together and identify solutions for enhancing diversity and improve the conversation about religion in the public sphere.

Professor Avalos is an ethnographer of religion whose teaching and research examines Indigenous religious life, land-based ethics, healing, and decolonization. She received her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of California at Santa Barbara with a special focus on Native American and Indigenous Religious Traditions and Tibetan Buddhism. She is a Chicana of Mexican Indigenous descent, born and raised in the Bay Area.

Professor Avalos sat down over zoom with Rebekah Go, the Ansari Institute’s Program and Communication Manager, to talk about her research and scholarship. The following has been edited and abridged for clarity.


Natalie Avalos at the Faith in the Story conference in fall 2024
Natalie Avalos at the Faith in the Story conference in fall 2023

Given your PhD in religious studies, your role as a professor in the department of ethnic studies with a focus on Indigenous studies seems intriguing. Could you elaborate on how your academic journey led you to this interdisciplinary position? Is the emergence of Indigenous studies as a field a factor in your career trajectory?

That's a good question. As an undergrad, I was exposed to Native studies through a Native American Philosophy class, which was held in an ethnic studies department at UC Berkeley. The Professor recommended I go on to work with my advisor, Talamantez, who was in religious studies at UC Santa Barbara. I was really interested in studying religious revitalization among Native peoples, and also really interested in healing, and how people were reconnecting with their traditions and healing through them. And at that time I was also really interested in decolonization work, the work that people were doing - formerly colonized people and still colonized people - to help themselves become more self-determining and to free themselves from a colonial mentality, psychology, ethics, worldview, etc. I deepend that question while I was a student in religious studies.

Questions around legacies of colonialism and decolonization were not as present in my religious studies program. So I took courses outside of my program that were considered more, you know, “ethnic studies” type courses in order to engage that conversation. That really became part of my training as well. And when I was on the job market I was looking primarily at religious studies. But then I also eventually realized that I could apply for Native and Indigenous studies type jobs because of my area of research. My area of training was Indigenous religious traditions. And so I was already engaging in the intersection of Native studies, Indigenous studies, and religious studies. When I came to UC Boulder I had an opportunity to apply for a position in their ethnic studies department, and it was a really good fit. So that's how I ended up here.

That makes a lot of sense. And actually, it leads really well into my next question which is going to come as no surprise to you. In our previous discussions, we've touched upon how the term 'religion' doesn't neatly encompass many Indigenous spiritualities or “life ways.” Can you delve deeper into this concept and how this impacts the study and understanding of Indigenous spirituality in academic contexts?

Yes. Even though I was studying Indigenous religious traditions in a religious studies program, one of the first things that I learned was that the category of religion was an imperfect category, in the sense that we often think of religion as attached to Western institutionalized religions. Native and Indigenous peoples don't have a word that's like religion in their own languages. That concept doesn't translate or correlate very easily. Instead, what they would say is, well, we have a life way or we have a worldview. And we have relationships with spiritual power and [we have] other than human persons that exist and are immanent in the world, and this correlates to what Westerners would call religion. And they, of course, would also say, it's “a way of life.” It's a way of ethical engagement with a greater world, with other people in your community. And so the category often has to be troubled a little bit, you know.

I think the category of religion has enough plasticity where we can connect it to Indigenous religious life. But as scholars, I think we really try and reiterate that this is not necessarily a natural category. And so we're thinking more about things like philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, things like this.

Cover of the book Indigenous Religious Traditions in 5 Minutes, which Natalie Avalos co-edited.

Within the realm of religious studies and theology departments, there's often a tendency to prioritize faith traditions with extensive written records, which may exclude or marginalize Indigenous belief systems. How do you navigate this challenge, which may rely more heavily on oral traditions and experiential knowledge rather than written texts?

Yeah, that's a great question. I think with this issue we see how Native traditions will sometimes be considered less civilized. Actually, some of the earlier expressions of religious studies began to categorize religious traditions based on, you know, their different qualities - like did they have a text? This was just an idea that came out of the pre-modern period - that text and that literacy in a written language were indicators of the most civilized people, and those that had oral traditions, did not have written texts in the same way that Europeans did, were viewed as more primitive, less sophisticated, etc.

So this stigma, even though it's hundreds of years old - and I'd say we have moved away from many more racist ideas and thinking of Native people as primitive - but I think this idea, unfortunately, still persists in religious studies. This sense that somehow traditions that are oral are just less sophisticated. I think one of the misunderstandings is that oral traditions may be somehow more scattered or confused or less coherent, when the reality is that oral traditions actually can persist for thousands of years to a very high degree of consistency and accuracy.

You can appreciate Native peoples’ ability to share a tradition orally partly if you can see language as sacred. And so you can distinguish connotations of words, whether recited or sung. Religious leaders are often considered singers, so they may be singing these words. They're understood to have spiritual power. So that's one of the reasons why they're shared orally, because they're meant to be experienced through a sensory level. This is the experiential part. You are not necessarily relying on a text that could be misinterpreted over the years or become a potential site for dogma. Instead it's really something like a myth or a story that has a living component. It's understood to be alive in a sense, and so impacting you, shaping you, and informing you in that particular moment, whether it's one-on-one or collective. So that's why I think these traditions still persist.

How might the academic community reassess its methodologies and criteria to ensure inclusivity of Indigenous practices so that they might better recognize and incorporate the unique characteristics and significance of Indigenous spiritualities?

This question is exactly why we put together - me and my co-editor, Molly Bassett - the volume, Indigenous Religious Traditions in Five Minutes. Because this has been an issue. In religious studies, there's a tendency to know a little bit about most religious traditions, but the one that people are probably least informed about is Indigenous religious traditions. So we wanted to provide a tool, basically like a guidebook or a source book for those teaching about it in the classroom. It’s for people who maybe didn't have a lot of context, or maybe that had some context, but wanted more - especially about some of the questions that you raised: How do we understand the category religion to fit? How do we understand these traditions to be meaningful? And why? Why do native people talk about their religious life as primarily experiential and interacting with spiritual beings and power? There are 81 essays in the book, which includes perspectives from Native or non-native scholars within the subfield.

Natalie Avalos at the Faith in the Story conference in fall 2024
Natalie Avalos speaks to fellow attendee Shannon Rivers at the Faith in the Story conference in fall 2024

Religious studies often employs complex and dense language, yet there's a pressing issue of religious illiteracy in society. Could you explore the tension between the scholarly discourse within academia and the imperative to communicate religious concepts effectively to a broader audience? How can academics bridge this gap and facilitate better understanding of religious diversity outside of academic circles?

That's a good question, because that came up for me in grad school, too. I think especially the way that religious studies intersects with philosophy there can be really dense language, and I found that it could be alienating at times. But then I also understood that some of this very specialized language was trying to communicate very specific dimensions of our religious experience and ideas. And so I can see why we need the specialized language. But I also feel like, in the classroom, it's important to really break it down and make it accessible. So, we can do both.

In my own writing sometimes, I do lean into more specialized language and think about, say, metaphysics and ontology; I think about ways of being and realities. But I [also] think when we're talking with students, it's really important to make it more plain to them and help them see that these religious traditions are complex yet based on real life, because [students] intuitively know this. They [understand that religions are] really answering very basic questions about human life and human experience like: Why am I here? What is my purpose? What does it mean to be human? What are appropriate ethics to be used in the world? And so I think it is important for us to do the work of both, engaging the specialized language when necessary but also breaking it down when necessary.

As a Chicana of Mexican Indigenous descent working within the US academic context, what frustrations and opportunities have you encountered? What do you wish that 15-year old Natalie knew that might have better prepared her for today?

Oh. Yeah, wow! That's a good question. I was exposed to kind third wave feminism, like women of color feminist scholarship, from the time I was a teenager. I think that really helped me understand that my own narrative and my own experience was something that I could draw on as a scholar, and that I could engage and put forth in theoretical work. It took me a little while to really connect the dots. But, I would say that it really became an opportunity for me.

Chicano people that have Indigenous ancestry are often disconnected from that Indigenous ancestry, and so it's present in very different ways. It may be present still in your worldview and some of the family practices that you have, maybe around medicine, maybe that are kind of more hybridized forms of religion with Catholicism or Christianity. But for me, I think that experience of disconnection motivated me to try and understand. What are these traditions about? What is it that my Indigenous ancestors thought and believed, and what were their viewpoints? You know I wanted to know, and I was really curious to understand well, how is it that some of these ideas are still present with communities? And so that's why I did ethnographic work.

In terms of frustrations, that comes with being in the Academy, when you're in grad school or on the job market, or working in institutions. I've had the experience where people may perceive you as potentially less intelligent or potentially less sophisticated. I think this really comes down to the racialization - not just of Indigenous religious traditions - but of native peoples themselves. That perception of primitivism, unfortunately, still does persist subconsciously for a lot of people. That has been frustrating. But I don't think it has overshadowed my work in the sense that it's present; it doesn't derail me or or faze me, I would say.

What do I wish 15-year old Natalie knew? To better prepare her, I would say, because I was starting to read some philosophy work, I wish that I had just taken that more seriously earlier on, because I was already starting as a 15-year old to read about Native traditions and to read some philosophy work, and about spirituality. And it was just play, and it was fun, which was great. But I wish I would have been a little more focused and serious about it in my teens. [Then] things may have come together a little bit more quickly for me in my twenties in terms of this study, because I was a returning student, so it took me a little while to come back to these ideas, but I'm glad that I did.

Since we actually didn’t need all 7 questions - because you answered one of them in an earlier question, was there anything you wished that I asked? Or anything else that you would like to say?

I'd say, we could ask the question, why is it that Native American, and Indigenous religious traditions are important for us to think about? Because I try to emphasize in my work that they're often providing us with an ethical framework that is somewhat new, that challenges a Western more colonial order, that challenges this idea that maybe land is a resource only versus the idea that land is full of [our] relatives. Right? So I think that it can be really helpful for us to rethink our assumptions, because sometimes we believe that the Western reality that we live in is the only reality. And so it helps us trouble it and see that other realities exist, and that in these other realities we can be inspired and maybe draw on their ethics and engage them seriously.


Dr. Avalos is currently working on her manuscript titled Decolonizing Metaphysics: Transnational Indigeneities and Religious Refusal, which explores urban Indian and Tibetan refugee religious life as decolonial praxis. Be on the look out for this book in the future.