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

By Tisa Wenger | Go to book overview

SIX
Religious Freedom and the Category of Religion
into the Twenty-First Century

Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Native American efforts to achieve religious freedom have been essential to a broader fight for cultural survival. Their struggles have involved pivotal concerns such as the right to use peyote in religious ceremonies, the repatriation of human remains and sacred objects held in museums, the use and ownership of sacred lands, and the (mis)use of Indian religious practices by non-Native spiritual seekers. But these campaigns have borne only limited success, and religious freedom for Native Americans remains an elusive goal.

As in the dance controversy, dominant conceptions of religion are among the factors that impede its achievement. The category of religion, as it continues to be understood in mainstream American culture, is a product of Euro-American (and primarily Protestant) historical development and leaves little space for the integrated, communal, and land-based qualities of indigenous traditions. To make the case for religious freedom, Indians have had to represent their traditions according to prevailing concepts of what counts as religion. This appears to be a necessary and sometimes successful move within the American legal system, and it has often helped engender public sympathy for Indian claims. Yet it continues to have its drawbacks. State and federal courts and government agencies alike tend to uncritically deploy dominant concepts of religion that—despite Indian efforts to challenge and expand them—have led to judgments against Native Americans in many cases. Meanwhile, as in the dance controversy, reframing indigenous traditions as “religion” has added in subtle ways to the pressures that continue to transform indigenous cultures.

The point here is not that Indians should not use the term religion or that

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