Michigan State University
Michigan State University
Department of Religious Studies
Robert McKinley
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E-mail: mckinle5@msu.edu

Office: 732 Wells Hall


Ph.D., University of Michigan, 1975 (Anthropology)
M.A., Buffalo State University, 1967 (Linguistics & Anthropology)

B.A., Buffalo State University, 1963 (Linguistics & Anthropology)


Religion patterns in South East Asia, including indigenous anthropology and ritual; trends within Malaysian Islam; revival of Native American ritual.



These remarks about my recent interests are quite personal in that they reflect experiences that have moved me in special ways and that motivate my current and future writing.

Last year I went to a Cell Symposium conference in Sitges, Spain.  I gave a poster presentation on 'a new metric' to show the importance of intergroup relations among small scale societies in the human past.  This relates to a book project called 'Stone Age World System:  How Humans Were Global from Day One (When Ever That Was?!).'

I also went to the meetings of the American Society for Ethnohistory and gave a paper called 'Mantis and Monotheism (With apologies to Freud):  Colonial and Post Colonial Misunderstandings of a Major Religious Representation among /Xam Bushmen.'  This allowed me to unveil a key chapter from a book I am writing called 'The Holy Occupation Revisited:  Religious Diversity among the World's Hunter-Gatherers.'

In the coming year I will return to the Ethnohistroy meetings to give a paper on 'Frank Speck's Penetrating Ethnography of 'Burnt Bone Divination' among the Naskapi.'  Its title is "A Palpable Hierarchy of Unseen Power Called Mentu.'  It subtitle has already been given.

This will unveil yet another chapter from my 'The Holy Occupation (i.e. hunting) Revisited.'

This summer I made a nostalgic trip to Nothern Ontario to visit a region around Haliburton where I had done my first field work for my MA in the early 1960s.  It was in a small anglo town called Tory Hill.

I had not been back since the late seventies.  But Tory Hill and its people lived in my dreams for all these years. Much had changed. The water powered saw mills were all gone. there were  just a few remnants of their mill ponds. Many people had passed away.  One had died just the week before my visit.  When I last saw him he was only eighteen and bursting with pride that he had been the first one in this hinterland town to have heard of the Beatles.

But what moved me most was something more in line with my current interests in indigenous peoples and religions.  Near Peterborough there is a Provincial Park known as the Peterborough Peteroglyph Provincial Park.  There is a large boulder there where you can at times hear water running underneath it.  It is covered with engraved images of animals and mythic beings carrying the sun and moon over their heads in flying canoes.  These images are believed to be as old as from 600 CE.  That is they are from before European contact. The Curve Lake Ojibwa Band has official custody of this site. They call it the teaching rock. I have developed good relations with some of the people at Curve Lake and will return next summer.

Seeing the Petroglyphs was overpowering. There clear as day was a distinct but fairly rare image of Nanabush, or Hare, our divine nephew. I know him well from Ojibwa and Hochunk mythology. But I had never seen his image as pre-contact Ojibwa people conceived him. Here he was in all his their anthropic glory. A full bodied human standing with two large rabbit ears attached to his head. An unmistakable figure.  Right next to him was a female image representing his grandmother, Earth. To see these together was like reuniting with a long lost part of my own being. It was like finally meeting one of the few gods that I can say I almost believe in, or at least one of the very few that I can actually half want to believe in. Ojibwa say you must take your own lessons from the teaching rock.  I found it unexpectedly transforming. Imagine, Nanabush, and all his efforts to save humanity, we his aunts and uncles, NANABUSH LIVES!  That's how it made me feel.  The religious imaginations of those Ojibwa ancestors who so lovingly carved these images on a rock with a voice and that could teach included even me all these centuries later on!  It was a very humbling experience to say the least.

I should mention that there are just a few other deities that give me a similar warm feeling.

One is the Iban high god Singalang Burong, the brahminny kite, who instructed the ancestral Iban in much of their original culture and made a point that religion should always be about what is beautiful and can be shared.  Similarly the Navaho holy person. Changing Women blesses all with the commitment to 'walk in beauty.'  Navaho feel forever indebted to her.

Also on my list is Ganesha the popular elephant headed god of Hinduism, who helps protect my father-in-law's bones kept in a Buddhist (not Hindu) temple in Cambodia.  He is both tolerant and helpful.  Another of my favorites is the Mantis a trickster and high god among the /Xam Bushmen.  He is totally dedicated to seeing the /Xam can live with and through all of the real contradictions of life and death at every turn.

Last on my list are the many dema or totem bings of Australin religion. They once moved across the primordial landscape in the jukurba or dream time making all the earth's features and all the resources available to humans.  In ritual they call upon the living people to 'keep up the country' because their work is already done.  They obligated humans to become a 'giving humanity' taking care of all the sacred sites.

So I have learned about many spiritual beings that I would like to meet if that were possible. These and perhaps many other cherished beings are important.  The parts they play in peoples' lives is not trivial.  We are really fortunate to know about them and even feel that perhaps we could meet them.  In a way I feel I have partly met Nanabush and his Grandmother, Earth. I have met them in the same clear and unclouded way that I meet my parents and grandparents in memory and dreams. We almost reach out to each other. Those moments matter. 

Let me add that I seem to have the same warm feelings about the Buddha, Jesus (the man), and many other saintly examples, but other gods hold little interest for me whether they exist or not. 

As an anthropologist, I regard monotheism as a cultural idea originating in the middle east.  Because it has been so influential it can be considered as a cultural vector. It motivates people's actions. Although it has produced many things of great human worth, including even science, it also has a very dark side.  In some contexts it can rightly be called a very lethal cultural vector.  May be that's why I like Nanabush so much.