Native Americans and the Christian Right: The Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliances.
Native Americans and the Christian Right is a livery and ambitious book that is unapologetic about its progressive politics. For both theoretical and political purposes, Andrea Smith insists on the potential for "unlikely alliances between Native American activists and evangelical Christians-an argument inspired in part by her own identification with both groups. To the reader's almost inevitable skepticism, Smith responds that although she does profile many instances of such cooperation, this is largely a "prolineal genealogy that charts the possibilities for future alliances. She manages to be infectiously optimistic about that potential even as she deals out devastating critiques of the prison industrial complex, the pro-life and pro-choice movements, and racial politics as all of these impact Native American women.
On one level Smith frames the book as a contribution to social movement theory, arguing that social movements should not simply assume who their allies are but must find creative ways to build coalitions around specific shared interests. She presents indigenous women's organizing as a model for this theory because Native Americans are a relatively small interest group whose communities are typically located in otherwise conservative areas. For this reason they have had to build strategic partnerships with unexpected allies in order to accomplish their goals. This approach reveals another of Smith's larger aims, one shared by many scholars in Native American studies, to develop academic theory that is based in Native American experiences, traditions, and perspectives.
Forging such unlikely alliances requires understanding the contingencies, instabilities, and internal diversities of groups often assumed to be monolithic. Evangelical Christians along with scholars will appreciate Smith's appreciation for the complexity and breadth of that category. The use of "Christian Right" in the title is somewhat misleading, since Smith actually points out that evangelicals are not inevitably part of the political right, and indeed that the internal contradictions of evangelical theology can lead just as easily to "progressive" as to "conservative" politics. Perhaps her editors insisted on this title to dramatize the "unlikely" nature of the alliances she profiles, but the designation works against her own goal of convincing Native American activists that they can work productively wit evangelicals on specific issues.
Along the way, Smith attacks America's criminal justice system for perpetuating rather than solving social problems of violence, crime, and racism. While such perspectives are rightly associated with critics on the left, she points out that evangelical prison reformers such as Charles Colson have developed a strikingly similar critique, based in their case on biblical principles of justice. Even though she finds a pervasive racism among these reformers, Smith presents this movement as an important foundation for Native American activists seeking alliances within the evangelical world. Smith finds perils in such connections as well, and she is critical of so-called "restorative justice" programs which have been forced on some Native Americans as a traditional" solution even when their tribe may have no such tradition, and without the grounding in a strong community that would be necessary to make them successful. Based on her interviews with indigenous women activists, she warns that by failing to hold perpetrators fully accountable these programs may actually gloss over the very real problems of violence against women in many Native American communities. In the end she argues that meaningful sovereignty for indigenous nations is a necessary prerequisite for the successful implementation of restorative justice. But the systemic problems she identifies are so deep, and the barriers to sovereignty so massive, that-short of dismantling the nation-state along with the whole system of multinational capitalism-it is difficult to nail down in Smith's analysis any clear and concrete proposals to ameliorate these problems.
Those who do not believe that scholars should be so forthright about their politics, not to mention those who disapprove of Smith's particular brand of politics, will no doubt dislike this book. The most sympathetic reader will sometimes disagree with Smith's conclusions. Despite such inevitable criticisms, in my evaluation Smith has produced a brilliant, complex, and deeply original work that will stand as an important contribution to fields as wide-ranging as Native American studies, social movement theory, political science, religious studies, and gender theory.
ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY
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|Publication:||Journal of Church and State|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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