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

By Tisa Wenger | Go to book overview

FOUR
Dance Is (Not) Religion
The Struggle for Authority in Indian Affairs

Among the most outspoken critics of Indian dancing in the mid-1920s was William E. “Pussyfoot” Johnson, former chief special officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a close associate of the Indian Rights Association. In a widely circulated article published in September 1924, Johnson called for the BIA to enforce its own policies against what he called “hidious, obscene and revolting” Indian dances. Singling out the “secret” Pueblo ceremonies for condemnation, he claimed that “boys and girls are stripped naked and herded together entirely nude and encouraged to do the very worst that vileness can suggest,” and he quoted a claim by former missionary teacher Mary Dissette that at Zuni “little girls were debauched in these dances under the guise of ‘religious liberty.’” According to Johnson, the Pueblo dances amounted to nothing less than “the survival of an ancient Phallic worship, much more degrading than the Phallic worship of the Ancient Greeks and Hindus.” He argued that such ceremonies not only were morally degenerate but undermined educational and other “civilizing” programs that cost taxpayers “several millions of dollars annually,” making them an economic drain on all Americans. In his eyes, they merited prosecution, certainly not protection.1

Allegations like Johnson’s, which helped justify the BIA’S efforts to suppress Indian dancing in the 1920s, met with direct rebuttals from modernist reformers and Pueblo Indians alike. The All-Pueblo Council did not learn the details of what was being said about the Pueblo ceremonies until two years after the dance controversy began, a delay that reflects its lack of direct involvement in much of the debate. The council’s response was straightforward: “We solemnly state that [these statements] are false in every part

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