Dartmouth Events

Severin Fowles Lecture

"Syncretism Revisited: Lessons from the Mountain Spirits of New Mexico" Sponsored by Society of Fellows and the Department of Religion

Thursday, April 4, 2024
4:30pm – 6:00pm
Room 002, Rockefeller Center
Intended Audience(s): Public
Categories: Arts and Sciences, Lectures & Seminars

Syncretism Revisited: Lessons from the Mountain Spirits of New Mexico

Severin Fowles, Professor of Anthropology and American Studies at Barnard College

Thursday, April 4, 4:30-6pm

Rockefeller Center 002

Abstract: “Syncretism” sounds outmoded. For many, it is a relic of mid-twentieth-century anthropology and of the discarded presumption that primitive states of cultural purity have become disrupted by the long history of imperialism, leaving subaltern groups on the edge of empire fragmented, mixed, and somehow illegitimate. Unlike other influential categories of early anthropology—notably animism and fetishism—there has been no critical reimagining of syncretism as an analytical concept, even as the quickening pace of globalization brings exchange and mixture into ever-greater focus. Rather, the trend has moved in the opposite direction: toward ontological inquiries in which essentializing claims are made not just about the cultures of non-Western and non-modern communities but about their natures as well. Assumptions of ontological coherency and orthodoxy, one might argue, have quietly resuscitated the unfortunate premises of older syncretic studies.

In this paper, I draw on archival, archaeological, and ethnographic evidence to explore the historical development of Gaan or Mountain Spirit ceremonialism among Athapaskan groups in the American Southwest during the Spanish colonial period. In many respects, the Mountain Spirit Dance might be viewed as a classic example of religious syncretism, a creative Athapaskan response to both European (Catholic) and Indigenous (Pueblo) influences. Here, I reimagine it as a form of ontological diplomacy, following Armin Geertz’s framing of syncretism as the process by which “worlds in collision” become “worlds in collusion.” In the process, I consider the potential of a reimagined syncretism to critically intervene in anthropology’s ontological turn.


Sponsored by Society of Fellows and the Department of Religion

For more information, contact:
Robert Weiner

Events are free and open to the public unless otherwise noted.