Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name



Religious and Theological Studies

First Advisor

Tink Tinker, Ph.D.


American exceptionalism, Christianity, Colonialism, Deep culture, Land, Spatial disorientation


Although typically characterized in politico-economic, social, and environmental terms, land struggles involving American Indian communities can be more accurately and valuably characterized as deep culture conflicts over the problem of space. As scholars like Vine Deloria Jr. and Tink Tinker contend, a significant distinction can be noted between the traditional American Indian and White Western approaches to this problem regarding how human communities should relate to particular spatial locations. In short, while Indian peoples tend to situate their identities relative to clearly defined places or lands, individuals of European descent are inclined to subordinate spatial relations to temporal concerns. Considering this distinction in light of the United States’ particular context of power, this dissertation explores the connection between spatiality and faith in American Exceptionalism.

I argue that the widespread Exceptionalist faith depends profoundly upon the perpetuation of a fundamental disorientation to space deep within the dominant culture. American Exceptionalism, as a particular discursive formation within the master narrative about America, functions to prevent local communities from meaningfully and relationally engaging the spaces in which they exist. It does so in part by shaping thought about American identity and history through a deceptive set of images of the land. Conversely, the cultural influence of a deeply embedded disorientation to space ensures that only those types of behavior which support Exceptionalism can be deemed logically acceptable and ethically proper. This largely unconscious cognitive-behavioral approach legitimizes and extends politico-economic hegemony, creating an oppressive feedback loop of privilege into which only those individuals deemed “American-enough” are enabled to enter. The feedback loop is sustained both deliberately and implicitly, as the privileged seek to protect their advantage and the marginalized are socialized not to question the claims of the master narrative.

The illicit bond between spatial disorientation and Exceptionalist faith touches nearly every corner of American life. However, its complex nature is exposed perhaps most explicitly and thoroughly through struggles over American Indian lands, which demonstrate the intimate interconnection between environmental exploitation and the exploitation of those types of beings (both human and non-human) habitually classified as “Other.”

Based firmly in the disciplinary realm of cultural studies and utilizing discursivesemiotic analysis as a primary methodological tool, the dissertation is advanced through a theoretical synthesis which illustrates the enduring influence of Western cultural mores and Christian theological values. The synthesis is built upon a two-level deconstruction of deep cultural symbols related to space. First, spatial cognition is considered in light of four well-known yet deceptive images which index how the land should be conceptualized. These four images include promised land, terra nullius (“uninhabited land”), frontier wilderness, and city upon a hill. Next, spatial behavior is investigated in relation to four broadly accepted themes which signify how the land should be treated. These themes are categorized as privilege, property, positivism, and progress. Finally, the theoretical synthesis is evaluated in light of three distinctive responses to the natural world present and active within the dominant culture–dominion, stewardship, and deep ecology–and three case studies involving historical struggles over Indian lands: Newe Sogobia (“Land of the People”) and the Western Shoshone of the Nevada region, Crandon Mine and the Sokaogon Ojibwe of northern Wisconsin, and the “Save San Onofre” campaign and the Acjachemen of southern California.


Received from ProQuest

Rights holder

Bradley J. Klein

File size

539 p.

File format





Environmental justice, American studies, Cultural anthropology