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University of Missouri

Ancestral Ways, Modern Selves

Religious studies professor’s new book examines urban American Indians.

Dennis Kelley portrait

Religious studies Professor Dennis Kelley’s new book examines urban American Indians. Photo by Nicholas Benner.

Every Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dennis Kelley holds office hours in the Bookmark Café at Ellis Library. Students from his Major World Religions course and his Native American Religions course mingle and discuss everything from Seinfeld to powwows to Hinduism.

My students have experiences that I don’t have and that their peers haven’t had that are just as valuable as anything I have to say,” says Kelley, an assistant professor of religious studies who received a 2014 Provost’s Outstanding Junior Faculty Teaching Award. “It’s really about creating a community.”

Community is important to Kelley, who grew up in a family that was partly American Indian. Although he wasn’t as connected to tribal traditions as his grandmothers were, Kelley’s interest in religious identity, including his own, has grown as he has gotten older.

To research his book Tradition, Performance and Religion in Native America: Ancestral Ways, Modern Selves (Routledge, 2014), Kelley spent time among urban American Indian communities investigating what it means to be an indigenous American in the 21st century.

One of the most interesting things was to see a powwow in a junior high gym in Los Angeles,” Kelley says. “In urban environments, people practice religion by being members of a church, but they also involve themselves in spiritual traditions as a way to stay Indian in the city.”

Kelley wasn’t surprised to see that, for most American Indians, religion and spirituality aren’t mutually exclusive but, rather, work together to construct identities and communities.

The crossover is something he sees in some MU freshmen, too. “Some come here having been brought up in a church, and then they have the opportunity to see other kinds of religious traditions. It reinforces their tradition yet expands their sense of what it means to be spiritual,” he says.