Michelene E. Pesantubbee

Professor Michelene E. Pesantubbee
Professor Emeritus
PhD, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara, 1994

Dr. Pesantubbee joined the University of Iowa faculty in 2003 and retired in 2018.

Michelene sadly passed in 2021, and the following is the article that appeared in the department's newsletter:

The Department of Religious Studies Mourns the Loss of Dr. Michelene Pesantubbee
Michelene Pesantubbee was our beloved colleague, mentor, and friend. The entire faculty and staff are deeply saddened by her passing. The department will be establishing a new student award in her name to honor her memory and the issues Michelene was so passionate about.

Below is an article written by her former colleague and friend,  Dr. Mary Churchill in memory of Michelene:  

Michelene Pesantubbee—scholar, educator, and leader in the study of American Indian religious traditions—joined the ancestors on July 13, 2021.  Colleagues and friends are remembering her dedication, originality, and sense of humor.

Pesantubbee began her postsecondary education at the University of Oklahoma with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business education (1975, 1978).  She went on to study American Indian religious traditions at the University of California, Santa Barbara with Mescalero Apache scholar Inés Talamantez.  Earning her master’s degree in 1991, Pesantubbee progressed to the doctoral program, eventually receiving a coveted University of California President’s Dissertation Year Fellowship in 1993-94.  She graduated with her Ph.D. in religious studies from UCSB in 1994.

Pesantubbee began her career at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  In 2001-02, she was awarded a prestigious Research Fellowship from Harvard University in the Divinity School’s Women’s Studies in Religion Program.  The following year she joined the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Iowa, earning tenure and becoming an associate professor in 2006.  After a distinguished career, she retired in 2018. 

Pesantubbee’s scholarship focused on American Indian cultural resistance and resilience, particularly through the leadership of Native American women.  Her ethnohistorical book Choctaw Women in a Chaotic World:  The Clash of Cultures in the Colonial Southeast (New Mexico Press, 2005) makes a significant contribution to the fields of American Indian, gender, and religious studies.  Drawing on documentary research and her own cultural background as a contemporary Choctaw woman and member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Pesantubbee offers an insightful analysis of Choctaw women’s key roles in negotiating change in the French colonial period.  Pesantubbee’s work has also appeared in numerous books and journals including the American Indian Quarterly, the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, and the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 

Her dedication to students was evident in the several faculty awards Pesantubbee received at the University of Colorado and the University of Iowa.  Pesantubbee’s teaching focused on American Indian religious traditions, Indigenous environmentalism, Native American women, violence and religion, and religious movements. She taught at the undergraduate and graduate levels, supervising several master’s and doctoral students, and she served as a faculty advisor to the University of Iowa American Indian Student Association for seven years.  Beloved by her students, Pesantubbee is remembered as an amazing teacher and wise mentor.  One of her former students writes, “She helped to guide me when I was starting off as a graduate student and helped me with so much learning and unlearning, as she did for all of her students. And more than that, she was integral to supporting Native American and Indigenous Studies students and efforts on campus.”

Pesantubbee served her profession in a number of capacities.  Most notably, she was the Executive Secretary of the American Academy of Religion (2004-07) and a member of the AAR Program Committee (2008-10).  She also served as the co-chair of the Native Traditions in the Americas program unit (1998-2004) and co-chair of the Women and Religion Section (2008-10).  She was an AAR member for over 30 years, giving numerous papers during that time.  She joined the editorial boards of the Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Religion and the Encyclopedia of American Indian Religious Traditions.  At the University of Iowa, she was the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Religious Studies and Coordinator of the American Indian and Native Studies Program.  She advanced the careers of many others by serving on master’s and doctoral committees, participating in mentorship programs, assessing Ford Foundation fellowship applications, and reviewing manuscripts and tenure/promotion cases.  

Many of her colleagues are sharing their sadness at this heartbreaking loss.  One colleague writes, “For many years, Michelene led the AAR Native Traditions Unit with confidence and clarity. Her book Choctaw Women in a Chaotic World: The Clash of Cultures in the Colonial Southeast and her article ‘Religious Studies in the Margins: Decolonizing Our Minds’ in Native Voices: American Indian Identity and Resistance remain important works in the field that I reference and teach.”  Another shares, “She was a brilliant and original thinker, a dedicated educator, and a wonderful human being.”

Pesantubbee returned to her hometown, Muskogee, Oklahoma, upon her retirement.  She was not far from her tribal homeland of the Choctaw Nation, where she had spent many years researching and celebrating Choctaw cultural traditions. Her family, especially her sisters, comforted her in her fight against cancer.  She was a true warrior woman, having survived cancer more than once and earning honor as a scholar, educator, and leader.  She lived a life befitting her ancestral warrior name, Pesantubbee.  May her memory be a source of joy and inspiration for us all.  

Written by Dr. Mary Churchill,
Sonoma State University

Research Interests: 
Native American Religious Practice, Religion and Gender, Religion and Violence
Selected Publications: 

(For complete list, please view Dr. Pesantubbee's CV):

  • Choctaw Women in a Chaotic World. Albuquerque:University of New Mexico Press, 2005.
  • “Beyond Domesticity: Choctaw WomenNegotiating the Tension Between Choctaw Culture and Protestantism with new Introduction” in Native Women’s History in Eastern North America before 1900, eds. Rebecca Kugel and Lucy Elerveld Murphy, University of Nebraska, 2007.
  • “Wounded Knee:  Symbol of Resistance and Recovery,” in Recovering Memory: Exposing Religion, Violence, and the Remembrance of Place, eds. Oren Baruch Stier and J. Shawn Landres, University of Indiana Press, 2006.
  • “Religious Studies on the Margins: Decolonizing Our Minds,” in Native Voices: American Indian Identity and Resistance, eds. Richard A. Grounds, George E. Tinker, and David E. Wilkins, University of Kansas Press, 2003.
  • “From Vision to Violence: The Wounded Knee Massacre.”  In Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence, Syracuse University Press, 2000.
  • "When the Earth Shakes:  The Cherokee Prophecies of 1811-12," American Indian Quarterly 17, 3 (Summer 1993):  301-17.
Courses Taught: 

Dr. Pesantubbee regularly taught courses on Native American religious history and religious freedom issues as well as courses on religion and violence in America. 

  • 032:060 (149:060) Intro to Native American Religious Traditions
  • RELS:3976 (149:076) American Indian Environmentalism
  • 032:139 Religion and Violence in America
  • 032:158 (149:158; 131:159) Native American Women and Religious Change
  • RELS:2064 Tricksters, Fools, and Creators
Awards, Honors and Grants: 
  • Program Coordinator, American Indian and Native Studies Program, August 2009 to Present; July 2006 to August 2008.
  • Research Fellowship, Women’s Studies in Religion Program, Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University, 2001-02.
  • Member, Program Committee, American Academy of Religion, January 2008 to Present.
  • Executive Secretary, American Academy of Religion, December 2004 to December 2007.
  • Board Member, Women’s Resource and Action Center, January 2007 to Present.