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

By Tisa Wenger | Go to book overview

FIVE
The Implications of Religious Freedom

“Resolved,” wrote the newly created Council of Progressive Pueblo Indians in May 1924, “That we love our homes, our towns and villages and our people, and our Christian God more, and we are sorry that some of the Pueblo officials are cruel toward many of us and try to make slaves of us under pretense of alleged ancient customs … [using] these means to punish and persecute us for secret reasons because of our refusal to take part in secret and unchristian dances…. That liberty to practice one’s religion should be equal and not limited alone to those whose beliefs and ceremonies may be ancient, but those who disagree with one group in religious matters should have the right to stand fast in that disagreement in favor of their own beliefs without being subjected to religious persecution,” and “That the Bureau of Indian Affairs should not encourage the tribal governments in tyranny and persecution, by holding up the hands of these tribal governments in matters which ordinary common sense shows are tyrannical and have religious persecution at bottom.”1

When Pueblo progressives appealed for religious liberty against what they called “persecution” from tribal leaders, they revealed one implication of identifying Indian ceremonies as “religion.” If these traditions were religion rather than “custom” or “community work,” then the tribe could not require participation from all its members without violating the constitutional principle of religious freedom. By encouraging and publicizing the progressives’ complaints, the Indian Rights Association was able to refocus the dance controversy away from its allegations of immorality in the ceremonies, and it worked to present itself once again as the champion of Indian rights and progressive values. Although the assimilationist opposition to “pagan”

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