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

By Tisa Wenger | Go to book overview

TWO
Cultural Modernists and Indian Religion

Mabel Dodge Luhan, arts patron and former member of Greenwich Village’s bohemian avant-garde, recounted in a four-volume autobiography her long quest for a place that would satisfy her inner hunger. “Only religion will fill me,” she remembered thinking. “Someday, I will find God.” Like a number of early twentieth-century artists and intellectuals, she eventually found this sense of fulfillment in New Mexico and especially in her encounters with the Pueblo Indians. She recalled that during her first excursion north from Santa Fe, one crisp winter day in December 1917, the earth itself had seemed to resonate with her inner sense of the divine. Watching “the hills, the canyons, the cottonwood trees,” she wrote, “I heard the world singing in the same key in which my own life inside me had sometimes lifted and poured itself out … ‘Holy! Holy! Holy!’” A few days later, at Santo Domingo Pueblo’s Christmas Eve ceremony, Luhan concluded that the Pueblo Indians possessed the most powerful religion she had ever observed. She reacted vehemently against a comment by the artist Paul Burlin that the Pueblo dances were an “art form which should be known to the world, so people could enjoy it.” Burlin was one of many in their circle who defined the Pueblo ceremonies primarily in terms of art or, more commonly, as a model of the “primitive” unity between art and religion. Although Luhan shared this general perspective, she disagreed with Burlin’s emphasis. “This isn’t an art form,” she remembered telling him. “It’s a living religion—it’s alive like the Greek religion was alive before it became an art form and died out…. As soon as religion is commercialized it has turned into an art form!” Here Luhan rejected the term “art” because it suggested a commodified cultural product, something separate from the vibrant heart of communal life that

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