Amerindian Religions & Ethnohistory

For those interested in traditional or historic Native American cosmologies, supernaturalism, rituals, and religions, the most prolific and authoritative researcher is Ake Hultkrantz, the Swedish cultural anthropologist and professor of comparative religions at the University of Stockholm who passed away in 2006.

It has always seemed a bit odd that the primary authority in this vast and understudied field should be from outside the Americas, but in some ways it makes sense — Europeans have always been fascinated by the First Americans.  It may have helped that Hultkrantz hailed from a non-colonial, non-imperial nation and thus was able to approach the ethnohistoric record on its own terms rather than ideological ones.

As noted in this biographical sketch that accompanied his delivery of the prestigious Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology, Hultkrantz lived a rich and productive life:

Already as a graduate student, Hultkrantz began making contacts with indigenous peoples: he carried out fieldwork among the Saami in 1944 and 1946. His great love proved to be Native Americans. From 1948 to 1990, he repeatedly lived and conducted research among the Shoshone of Wyoming and Idaho, the Arapaho of the Northern Plains and the Native American tribes of California. He was adopted by the Shoshone in 1948.

Hultkrantz’s corpus includes the publication of some four hundred papers and twenty-five books in ethnology, comparative religion and folklore. He was the editor of numerous works and co-editor of many Scandinavian and American journals. Along with his interest in the religions of Native Americans and circumpolar religions in general, Hultkrantz’s specialty was also his methodology.

Not all of this work is in English, though several of his major monographs and syntheses were either written in English or have been translated.  For those who want a general introduction and survey, I recommend The Religions of the American Indians.  In the preface, Hultkrantz makes this daunting observation regarding the ethnohistoric record: “The material accessible in print is already overwhelming enough, and could not be surveyed by any single scholar.”

Much of this material never made into print, and languishes in university archives and libraries around the country, thus offering prime research opportunities for those interested in reconstructing the record.

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