Thursday, May 28, 2009

Thursday Evening in Tempe: Tisa Wenger & "We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religion" at Changing Hands

General Motors may be on the brink of bankruptcy, but our 2000 Chevy Cavalier, which we bought six years ago at the CarMax on State Road 84 near our home in Davie, Florida, got us from Apache Junction to Tempe for the second night in a row for another terrific event at the best indie bookstore in the U.S., Changing Hands.

Tonight we were there to see Tisa Wenger, a religious studies professor at Arizona State University (we recently discovered that our old faculty/grad student photo ID still works!), there to read from and discuss her new book from the University of North Carolina Press, We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom.

We could tell from her talk that Tisa must be an excellent professor; she's leaving ASU for a position at Yale Divinity School in the fall. There was an attentive crowd of about 40 (like last night, women outnumbered men by at least 4:1) - though the professor's little son Dylan was squealing a bit and her 9yo son Jordan was reading Harry Potter; her daughter Sophie, husband Rod and parents were also in attendance, and she talked for a bit about being a missionary kid in Africa.

Her parents were very sensitive to the legacies of racism and colonialism in Africa in which Western religion was often entangled. That background, Tisa said, and her academic interest in the distinctions between religions and non-religions, "good" and "bad" religions, "true" and "false" religions - and her concerns with these different conceptions of religion - led her to investigate the 1920s New Mexico Pueblo dance controversy for her dissertation nine years ago.

Her research was historical, not ethnographic, as she's not a Native American scholar primarily, but her work in this area probably sheds a great deal of light on the difficulties of Native Americans to achieve religious freedom and the limitations of the First Amendment ideal captured in the free exercise clause.

She read from the beginning of her book first, and we were impressed with her clean style. Living our life on the fringes of academia in the humanities and law, we've been exposed to all-but-unreadable jargon-filled, seemingly deliberately impenetrable articles piled with as many abstract words as we've stuffed this sentence with. But Tisa's prose was clear and precise. You can get a feeling for what she's doing in this excerpt from an interview:
Rather than asking this question [about the developing conceptions of what is a "religion" in the context of race and colonialism] in general I wanted to ground it in a very specific historical case, and was looking at the American southwest as a region mostly neglected in U.S. religious history. I finally decided to focus on the Pueblo Indians because the amount of attention they had received over the years from both anthropologists and missionaries created a very interesting story and meant there was a rich set of sources.

Early in my research I ran across the Pueblo dance controversy of the 1920s and determined that this little-known yet historically important dispute would allow me to address all my theoretical concerns in a focused and compelling way. As I worked on the topic I became more and more interested in the perspectives of the Pueblo Indians themselves in these events, and was able to find Pueblo voices from that time in the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, the New Mexico state archives, various reform agencies, and the Doris Duke American Indian Oral History Project (completed in the 1970s). The Pueblos' resourcefulness in a very tough situation deserves recognition, and the implications of their appeal for religious freedom became one of the most interesting aspects of the story. More and more the book became about the difficulties for Native Americans of gaining religious freedom, and about the cultural bias of the religious freedom ideal. Religious freedom is based on conceptions of religion-- as a matter of individual conscience, and as something separable from other spheres of life-- that really do not make sense for Native American traditions. WE HAVE A RELIGION shows the impact of these notions of religion on the Pueblo Indians at a time when, in order to protect their ceremonial traditions from government suppression by appealing to religious freedom guarantees, they increasingly spoke of these traditions as a religion (for various reasons they had not done so previously, as my first chapter explains).

Secularism and secularization are themes that emerged rather unexpectedly in my writing. The anthropologists and artists who romanticized Pueblo religion and fought for Indian religious freedom in the 1920s were also fighting against a virtual Protestant establishment that had long dominated Indian affairs, and they sought to replace Christianity with secular/scientific sources of authority. They were eventually successful in that effort, though it was a very gradual process, and an important step was their valorization of Indian traditions as religions just as legitimate as Christianity. But I also came to see that the new more "secular" regime maintained many of the same cultural biases regarding religion as an individual and non-political sphere of life. By the 1930s the government formally recognized Indian ceremonies as religion with the right to constitutional protection, but in many ways this recognition only strengthened the pressures to "modernize" other aspects of Indian life by clearly separating this newly identified religion (now the designated repository of tradition) from tribal governance and other aspects of tribal life.

After reading from the beginning of the book, Tisa then delved into excerpts from the fifth chapter, dealing with a controversy at Taos Pueblo that began in May 1924, when the governor asked the BIA commissioner to release a number of boys ages 7 to 10 from the government-mandated compulsory schooling for extended periods ranging from six to eighteen months so that these boys, selected by the tribe, would spend the time learning traditional Pueblo culture (religion?) so that they could serve as the depository of Pueblo knowledge.

This was a long-standing practice, and at first BIA officials thought they could get the Pueblo leaders to agree to a compromise of two weeks off from school, filling in the remainder of the time after school and in the summer. When this was refused as unworkable, the BIA commissioner visited Taos to discover that the boys were indeed taken out of school, a challenge to his authority and colonial control that he found intolerable. He would not, he said, "submit to pagan demands."

Now the Pueblos had accepted Christianity long before then and didn't call their traditional cultural beliefs and rituals a "religion" in either Spanish or English, but in this case, as in the larger dance controversy, they began to assert their rights to free exercise of religion under the Constitution. Citing religious persecution, the tribal council called on other Native American tribes and supportive whites to back them up. Taos, of course, had a large community of artists, including such influential people as Mabel Dodge Luhan, who took the Indians' side, viewing it as part of an indigenous people's struggle to be recognized as fully human.

In her reading, Tisa also highlighted the split between the self-styled "progressive" Pueblos who were largely assimilationist reformers and the
traditionalists who had made the conflict over the boys' forced attendance at school a cause celebre. By August 1924, the BIA agreed that two boys could stay out of school for a year, provided that they made this time up by coming back for an extra year at the end of the mandatory period of education.

In relating this, we're missing much of the nuance of Tisa's narrative and analysis, but clearly, the outcome proved complex. By allowing at least some boys to opt out of compulsory schooling, the U.S. government gave credence to honoring individual conscience and implicitly furthered the necessity to recognize the "progressive" Pueblos' individual right not to participate in otherwise mandatory tribal rituals.

This controversy made us remember Yoder v. Wisconsin, the 1972 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that Amish children could not be placed under compulsory education past 8th grade, as it violated their parents' fundamental right to freedom of religion. So we started off the Q&A period by asking if any litigation was filed in this or the larger Pueblo dance controversy.

Tish said no, that eventually the government backed down in the face of negative publicity over its efforts to trump up Pueblo rituals like the various dances as sexually immoral and "deviant"; the Pueblos had influential support from not only the arts community but of the anthropologists who had studied the tribe's culture and others. Neither side wanted these cases to go to court because, in some respect, they were afraid they would lose and set a damaging precedent.

The other questions were much more interesting and covered both Tisa's own intellectual and academic experiences and putting the subject of her book in larger contexts: the struggle for land rights, the more supportive BIA administration after 1933 (the new commissioner, John Collier, on the side of the Pueblos, rescinded the by-then-notorious "dance circular" propagated by the Bureau in the '20s), and
the changing concept of religious liberty at different points in American history.

Many members of the audience were far more knowledgeable than us, and some of the Native Americans related family experiences that put a human face on the subject of Tisa's scholarly work.

We're again grateful to Changing Hands Bookstore for being such a great community resource and to Tisa Wenger for sharing her knowledge, expertise and insights in We Have a Religion. Hold on to what is good, even if it's a handful of books.

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