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

By Tisa Wenger | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

“When the slanting rays of the sun play their last game of light and shade over the irregular pile of adobe rooms of the pueblo, Indian men, one hundred or more, come in long lines from their estufas. One group crosses the old bridge of squared logs down near the high yellow cottonwoods, hinting at the Midas wealth of Glorieta cañon just beyond. On they come to the beat of the drum and form in double lines in front of the church door. In their hands the dancers hold branches of green and yellow signifying the full season of growth as well as their thanks to the deity who made possible the harvest—the Sun, their visible God.” Taos Pueblo, the northernmost of nineteen Pueblo Indian communities in New Mexico, celebrates its annual feast day every September in honor of patron San Geronimo. Artist and writer Blanche Grant, who wrote this admiring description of San Geronimo’s Day in her 1925 book Taos Today, offered little hint of the intense controversy that had recently surrounded the Pueblo Indian dances. Instead she celebrated the ceremony as a powerful demonstration of human unity in religion. “The stranger who watches this age-old prayer without words,” she wrote, “must be callous indeed if he does not join in thanksgiving, no matter what his conception of God may be. Hard lines of belief are swept away in a consciousness of a great unity, after all, in what one terms—religion.” For Grant, Pueblo ceremonialism was not only legitimately religious but epitomized the “primitive” essence of religion.1

Like many of the artists and writers who had settled in Santa Fe and Taos after the turn of the century, Grant considered the Pueblo dances a picturesque blend of “primitive” religion and Catholic ritualism. This combination was evident in her description of the Catholic mass and procession held in celebration of San Geronimo’s Day. “To the tolling of a bell a procession moves from the church to a high leafy outdoor shrine,” she wrote, “where is placed an image of San Geronimo, the patron saint of the day with its white canopy folded near…. In a flash, one is back in the days of the Spaniard with his sword and the friar with his beads.” Next came the annual relay race pitting the fastest runners from Taos’s north and south sides—a ceremonial

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