We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom

By Tisa Wenger | Go to book overview

PREFACE

For Native Americans, religious freedom has been an elusive goal. From the federal government’s nineteenth-century bans on indigenous ceremonial practices to twenty-first century legal battles over Indian sacred lands, the United States has often acted as if the indigenous traditions of the continent were somehow not truly religious, not eligible for the constitutional protections of the First Amendment. Through the story of a public controversy over Pueblo Indian dances in the 1920s, this book shows how some Native Americans first began to make use of the legal argument for religious freedom and so to challenge dominant cultural conceptions about what counted as religion. For the first time, a critical mass of non-Indian reformers joined Native American leaders in their defense. Together they insisted that Indian dances were authentically religious and therefore could not legally be suppressed. By the end of the controversy, the virtual Christian establishment that had long dominated Indian affairs lost ground to these new reformers, who saw positive value in Indian traditions and worked to reorient federal Indian policy on more secular and scientific grounds. Although Native Americans continued to struggle for religious freedom in other respects, the federal government could never again take for granted its right to suppress ceremonies now seen by many Americans not as “savagery” but as a legitimate expression of Native religion.

The apparently secular foundations of the new Indian policy, however, continued to perpetuate Euro-American cultural forms and institutions. The very concept of “religion”—as something separable from other culturally designated spheres such as law, politics, art, and nature—grew out of particular European histories of internal conflict and colonial encounter and had no equivalent in Native American languages. As filtered through the Enlightenment and enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the dominant society understood religion as a matter of individual conscience and belief. These priorities were quite different from the indigenous focus on communal responsibility for maintaining the balance of the earth. Identifying Pueblo ceremonies as “religion” rather than as a matter of community obli-

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