The Author’s Corner with Angela Tarango

Dr. Angela Tarango is Professor of Religion at Trinity University. This interview is based on her new book, Choosing the Jesus Way (University of North Carolina Press, April 2014).

JF: What led you to write Choosing the Jesus Way?

AT: When I was a graduate student at Duke University, my interest swung towards Pentecostalism. My advisor, Grant Wacker, who knew I was also interested in Native American history, told me that the Assemblies of God had a history of missionary work among Native Americans. I wrote my very first paper on this topic for Grant’s missionary history class, and it morphed into my dissertation. Then I transformed the dissertation into this book. Really, I wrote this book to try to fill in a gap in American religious history—books have been written about African-American, Latino, and White Pentecostals, but few realized that a fairly robust population of Native American Pentecostals existed, and that they are not a new phenomena. Most scholars think Native Pentecostalism is a new trend but really, converts start popping up in the historical record not very long after the Azusa street revival.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Choosing the Jesus Way?

AT: That Native American Pentecostals took the classic evangelical/Pentecostal theology of missions, the indigenous principle, and transformed it into a tool to argue for more tangible power and authority to run their own missions. This allowed them to criticize and stand up to the ethnocentric and at times racist ways that the white leaders of the Assemblies of God treated them from within a Pentecostal framework.

JF: Why do we need to read Choosing the Jesus Way?

AT: It is the first book to give an in-depth look at the history of Pentecostal Native Americans in the twentieth century. It also challenges the idea that Native people never engaged traditionally white denominations in substantial and meaningful ways. It is important because it addresses their religious lives of modern Native American Christians, and all too often American historians tend to relegate Native peoples to a 19th century past—they are perceived as having disappeared, or that Christianity is an entirely colonialist endeavor. That is not to say that it hasn’t been, but my book shows how some Native people chose to belong to a Christian denomination and that their actions actually changed the course of that denomination. Finally, I think people will find it compelling because it tells a history that so few people are even aware exists.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

AT: Officially, in college (Wellesley College) when I fell in love with the study of American religious history while under the tutelage of Steve Marini. But probably unofficially when I was about 9 years old and my parents took me to Canyon de Chelly in Arizona and our Navajo guide told us his peoples’ story of the Long Walk. I remember being really angry I wasn’t taught this in school, and I was really angry that such a horrible thing had happened to the Navajo people. That same year I refused to build a mission (growing up in California all fourth graders have to do these projects where they build replicas of the missions) because my parents taught me that they were a colonialist construct. I do believe that is what I said to my fourth grade teacher—the poor woman was baffled. So I got the alternative assignment of building a Native village instead, which I did. So I guess I was a little rebel from the get-go.

JF: What is your next project?

AT: I am working on two big projects. The first is to look at how, in some modern tribes, casino revenues are used to preserve culture; whether it be in the form of the arts, language, traditional music and religion, certain tribes have made the active decisions that casino money will be used to revitalize traditional aspects of the tribe. This raises really interesting questions of tribal identity and how a tribe defines their culture. My other project is a biography of Jacob C. Morgan, who was a mid-twentieth century leader of the Navajo people, a tribal chairman, a boarding school survivor, Calvinist Christian (He was a missionary to his people for the Reformed Church), Navajo nationalist, and foe of the BIA commissioner John Collier. Morgan is quite a character and in many ways he embodies the complexity of mid-twentieth century Navajo life.

JF:  Thanks, Angela!

Thanks to Megan Piette for organizing and facilitating The Author’s Corner