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

By Tisa Wenger | Go to book overview

THREE
Land, Sovereignty, and the
Modernist Deployment of “Religion”

In the early decades of the twentieth century, while modernists celebrated Indian religion, the Pueblos themselves were facing unprecedented threats to their land, sovereignty, and cultural traditions. As the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) worked to educate and “civilize” Indians around the country, its officials asserted more and more control over Pueblo life. At boarding schools or at the local day schools that most Pueblo children now attended, missionary or government teachers tried to instill a “civilized” disdain for indigenous tradition. Government agents and state authorities assumed the right to overrule tribal governors on both criminal and civil disputes within the pueblos and did everything they could to discourage tribal ceremonial life. Perhaps most serious of all, New Mexico’s growing population brought increased competition for the precious resources of land and water. These conflicts came to a head in the fall of 1922, when draft legislation known as the Bursum Bill would have legitimated the theft of Pueblo land and water rights and further restricted the Indians’ tribal sovereignty. As they had done in past crises, the Council of All the New Mexico Pueblos met that November to forge a common protest: “We, the Pueblo Indians, have always been self-supporting and have not been a burden on the Government. We have lived at peace with our fellow-Americans even while we have watched the gradual taking away of our lands and waters…. We have kept our old customs and lived in harmony with ourselves and with our fellow-Americans. This bill will destroy our common life and will rob us of everything which we hold dear—our lands, our customs, our traditions. Are the American people willing to see this happen?” Like other Native Americans, the Pueblo Indians found their struggles for “lands, customs, and traditions” to be

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