- We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom
The terms religion and sacred are key concepts for Indigenous People in our collective efforts to revitalize, maintain, and preserve the integrity of our cultures. For Pueblo People of New Mexico, these concepts are closely linked to the education of our youth as they learn and apply cultural knowledge and skills in the context of the ceremonial life of their specific cultures. As our youth are engaged in this unique way of learning, they are reminded that these traditions have a long history of resistance to colonial programs of religious persecution, from Spanish colonization to U.S. government policies of assimilation. While oral traditions are at the foundation of developing this historical consciousness among Indigenous People, the written word in the form of primary documents from the past has the potential to serve as an important supplement to this base of knowledge.
In her book Tisa Wenger shares her interpretation of a select set of primary [End Page 399] documents that examine the 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy. Wenger identifies two major purposes of the book. First, the book "takes a close look at the public controversy over the Pueblo Indian dances in order to illuminate a much larger story about the dilemmas Native Americans face in their quest for religious freedom" (4). Second, the book "examines the practical consequences within indigenous communities of adopting and adapting the concept of 'religion'" (5). Wenger examines the documents from a self-described perspective as a "non-Indian historian of American religions" (xiv). Initially, she set out to investigate "questions about the historical development and political consequences of 'religion' as a cultural category" (xiv) and at some point narrowed her research questions to focus on Pueblo Indian religious history. In acknowledgment of "maintaining traditional standards of secrecy in religious and ceremonial matters," Wenger "offers only minimal description of Pueblo ceremonies and religious traditions, topics that in any case are tangential to the primary concerns of the book" (xv). Drawing on data collected from archival sources, selected court cases, secondary sources, newspapers, and periodicals, Professor Wenger achieves both goals.
The first three chapters set the historical context of the controversy. She provides her readers with an overview of historic tensions between Catholics and Protestants in establishing programs of religious conversion in New Mexico. She points out the significance of discourse in the use of the terms customs and religion as they applied to the implementation of and reaction to various "reform" efforts by Catholics and Protestants. These terms are at the core of the question that Wenger raises at the beginning of the book: What counts as religion? From her discussion of the tensions between the two Christian entities, she introduces the reader to the cultural modernists and their roles in the controversy. Wenger analyzes the political and economic interests of employing the terms religion and primitivism by cultural modernists as they began to take an interest in the Pueblo People. In chapter 3 Wenger moves to a discussion of the Pueblo People's struggle to recover and retain land and sovereignty. Wenger describes the struggle as both internal and external. The internal struggles include tensions between "progressive" and "traditional" factions in specific Pueblos. The external struggle centers on federal policy of the early twentieth century. In the next two chapters Wenger addresses the Pueblo dance controversy over Charles Burke's "Circular No. 1665: Indian Dancing" and other government directives to limit or abolish specific ceremonies and other elements of Pueblo cultural life. Wenger presents an analysis of how hegemonic discourse determined the quality of life of Pueblo People during this period of history. The final chapter of the book focuses on present-day manifestations of these historic challenges to religious freedom for Indigenous People.
There are two major strengths of this book. First, the reader is provided with [End Page 400] an overview of various perspectives, ranging from individuals to organized Christian religious...