Uncivil Religion: January 6, 2021

QAnon Shaman and Native American Religious Freedom

“What I do is that I practice something known as shamanism. And in shamanism, they sing, they dance, they drum, and they inform the community. They dress up in a way that chases off evil spirits, the singing and the dancing is about chasing off evil spirits, because sound actually precedes electromagnetic activity, so when you sing and you drum, especially when you do so really loudly, you end up affecting the quantum realm, and this has been done for thousands of years to ward off evil spirits, ward off negative timeline and to basically bring positive energy. So part of the reason why I dress this way is because if we were gonna have like a infiltrator or something like that they’d be a witch, they’d be a sorcerer or something like that, on the dark side. So I practice life magic, I practice the light side or the positive side of shamanism, and when they see me they go ‘oh, we got a big fish out here, we better not stir things up’.”

These are the words of Jake Angeli, born Jacob Anthony Chansley, of Arizona, who has come to be known as the QAnon Shaman of the January 6 events at the US Capitol, “a symbol of the insurrection,” in the interview that is in this video. Angeli says all this in response to a question about his spirituality. The question itself seems to provide Angeli’s actions an air of legitimacy: asking about his spirituality already invites him into the realm of religious freedom. Does Angeli have the right to freely practice what he calls “shamanism” at the Capitol? Is what he is doing at the Capitol “really” practicing shamanism? Angeli may believe that what he is doing is exercising his religion, but would such an argument hold in court?

Angeli has been sentenced to 41 months in prison, after he pleaded guilty to a single count of obstructing a proceeding of Congress (a plea he is now seeking to void after replacing his lawyer with Kyle Rittenhouse’s attorney). But when he argued beforehand that as a shaman, he would only eat organic food in jail, his case was successful. Does Angeli have the right, as a shaman, to be given organic food in jail? Angeli’s legal strategy seems to cynically use freedom of religious exercise claims racial and religious minorities have used in the past in order to support his cause, which has been often described as white supremacist. After a nine-day hunger strike (explaining that “he was a shaman who was willing to suffer rather than modify his beliefs”), a federal judge ordered the DC jail in which Angeli was held to feed Angeli an all-organic diet. While the court did not require a prison to provide incarcerated MOVE leader Frank Africa with a diet of raw food, or incarcerated Church of the New Song leader Harry W. Theriault with a diet of steak and wine, Angeli’s right to free exercise included a diet of organic food. While incarcerated people have won cases about their religious freedom to specific diets (John Watkin, for example, was granted the right to a kosher diet in 2016), what I am interested in is the court’s implied recognition of Angeli as a shaman (and of QAnon as religion), where it did not recognize MOVE and CONS as religions or Africa and Theriault as religious leaders. 

Back to January 6, 2021. Angeli was clearly “playing Indian,” in a headdress made of buffalo horns, coyote fur, face paint, feathers, beads, a bare chest, and a spear, beating a fake drum. As Cherokee scholar Joseph Pierce writes: “It is an image of violent appropriation – a warning and a reminder. White supremacists like Angeli pose as Indians in order to create an image of themselves as inseparable from the land itself.” Angeli is not alone. Alongside him we can find Italian fashion brand Valentino engaging in cultural appropriation in their designs, and lots of white women learning how to build a sweat lodge. “Appropriation is the unauthorized taking of somebody else’s cultural stuff,” says Jessica Metcalfe (Turtle Mountain Chippewa). And this cultural appropriation is closely tied to land theft and genocide. All of these practices treat Native peoples as disposable and replaceable; as Patrick Wolfe has taught us, settler colonialism follows a “logic of elimination.”
To me, the most disturbing part of Angeli’s response to the question about his spirituality is his assertion that “this has been done for thousands of years.” I do not know what Angeli knows about Native history, but his statement dismisses a long period in which real Indigenous ceremonies were outlawed and severely punished, taking apart Indigenous communities and forcing them to go underground, mask their ceremony as Christianity, or otherwise adapt. Mohawk Religious studies scholar Chris Jocks writes that “It is not until 1882 that Indigenous ways of living were recognized as religion by the U.S. federal government—recognized, that is, in order to outlaw them. The Code of Indian Offenses, announced in Interior Secretary Henry M. Teller’s Annual Report of 1883, focused on traditional ceremonial dances as degrading relics of barbarism that promote idleness, sexual license, and—horror of horrors—the giving away of property.”     

It is essential to keep in mind, when talking about Indigenous religions, the criminalization of Indigenous ceremony that has lasted for several decades, from 1883 until 1934, the year the Indian Reorganization Act passed. As part of its assimilation policy, the federal government outlawed tribal religions, with a particularly brutal focus on what it perceived to be “heathenish” ceremonial dances. In a letter to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price, Secretary of the Interior H. M. Teller expressed a concern that among many tribes there persisted “certain of the old heathenish dances” and other ceremonial and traditional practices that he felt were both “intended . . . to stimulate the warlike passions” and contribute to the general “demoralization of the young.” In 1883, Price issued “Rules for Indian Courts” (known as the Civilization Regulations) that defined a number of “Indian Offenses,” including participation in the sun dance. The “usual practices of so-called ‘medicine men’” were also prohibited, as were ritual acts of property destruction carried out in accordance with tribal mourning customs. To enforce this Code of Indian Offenses, the 1883 Rules directed the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to establish Courts of Indian Offenses at each federal Indian agency, staffed with judges appointed by the local federal agents.

While the Courts of Indian Offenses were not entirely successful at their tasks, Indian agents did suppress religious ceremonies through various means, including the destruction of dance houses, denial of food rations, imprisonment, and the threat of military intervention. According to tribal elders, Indian agents rigorously enforced the prohibitions on religion. While many Indigenous dances continued, practitioners were forced to go underground. For the first time in tribal memory, certain ceremonies were not performed on an annual basis. While medicine people were harassed and ridiculed by Indian agents, Christian missionaries preached that tribal religion was the “devil’s religion.” As religious studies scholar Susan Stager Gooding writes, “The list of Native American practices prohibited by these federal regulations suggests this policy was aimed not at the beliefs of Indian peoples but at the networks of social and political relations produced in the context of indigenous ceremonial practices.” Legal anthropologist Justin B. Richland adds that the list of “offenses” demonstrates the extent to which these courts “were explicitly designed to promote the assimilation goals of the federal government”      .

Without knowing this history, it is difficult to understand what is so wrong with allowing Angeli to lead the Christian prayer in the Senate chamber, or to talk about his spirituality as a shaman, in the media or in court. Even the Washington football team was convinced to change its racist name; we should not allow, indeed, encourage, white supremacists like Angeli to keep playing Indian.

Dana Lloyd is Assistant Professor of Global Interdisciplinary Studies at Villanova University. She holds a Ph.D. in religion from Syracuse University and a law degree from Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law. Her first book, Arguing for this Land: Rethinking Indigenous Sacred Sites, is under contract with University Press of Kansas.

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