The problem of "other" and "difference" in the study of Native American religion

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




David Miller


other@, difference@

Subject Categories

History of Religion | Religion


This dissertation argues for a re-examination of the category "otherness" after some have argued for "difference" as the best way of addressing the problem of cultural diversity. Through an historical examination of European representations of alterity during the early modern era I argue that the term "difference" is problematic because it suggests an implicit hierarchy and situates a particular western epistemology as universal whereas the term "other" reflects the incongruity between different cultures.

After reviewing and critiquing Jonathan Z. Smith's influential and representative typology of "other" and "difference" I take up Page duBois' analysis of alterity in the Hellenistic era to demonstrate that the logical justification of a hierarchical scale of human difference creates conceptual instability by associating "otherness" with irrationality.

The second chapter examines Roger Bartra's argument that European wild man mythology provided one of the principal frames for depicting Natives Americans as "natural" and "wild" thus lacking the rational control that characterized European ideals.

In the third chapter Captain John Gregory Bourke's account of a Zuni Clown performance provides an example of the conflation of native socio-religious practice with pre-existing European concerns about the conflict between bodily existence and spiritual life. A survey of the Pueblo Clown tradition demonstrates its important moral and religious function as the underlying principle of Pueblo worldview. Bakhtin's analysis of the European carnival tradition demonstrates the conceptual connection between that tradition and the condemnation of the Zuni.

The fourth chapter employs Julia Kristeva's theory of "abjection" to understand the way in which "otherness" is inherently linked to self-identity. The abject, like the "other," represents the ambiguous boundary between "me" and "not-me." The "other" appears as a means of differentiating between the familiar and the strange, however, the strange is always conceived through the familiar. The category of "otherness" helps to remind us that our perception of "others" is always based on pre-existing categories. By realizing that the categories through which we perceive "other" people are not universal but culturally specific we can begin to appreciate the uniqueness of "other" worldviews.


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