We Have a Religion

The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom

By Tisa Wenger

360 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 15 illus., 1 map, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5935-3
    Published: May 2009
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-9421-7
    Published: May 2009
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-8131-1
    Published: May 2009

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For Native Americans, religious freedom has been an elusive goal. From nineteenth-century bans on indigenous ceremonial practices to twenty-first-century legal battles over sacred lands, peyote use, and hunting practices, the U.S. government has often acted as if Indian traditions were somehow not truly religious and therefore not eligible for the constitutional protections of the First Amendment. In this book, Tisa Wenger shows that cultural notions about what constitutes "religion" are crucial to public debates over religious freedom.

In the 1920s, Pueblo Indian leaders in New Mexico and a sympathetic coalition of non-Indian reformers successfully challenged government and missionary attempts to suppress Indian dances by convincing a skeptical public that these ceremonies counted as religion. This struggle for religious freedom forced the Pueblos to employ Euro-American notions of religion, a conceptual shift with complex consequences within Pueblo life. Long after the dance controversy, Wenger demonstrates, dominant concepts of religion and religious freedom have continued to marginalize indigenous traditions within the United States.

Published in association with the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas

About the Author

Tisa Wenger is assistant professor of American religious history at Yale University.
For more information about Tisa Wenger, visit the Author Page.


"A stellar display of original archival research and conceptual nuance. . . . A masterpiece of exposition and interpretation. Very highly recommended."--Choice

"Groundbreaking and important. . . . A seminal study of American Indian affairs in the early twentieth century recommended for all libraries and academic programs in which modern Native American and indigenous religious issues are discussed."--American Historical Review

"The reader is provided with an overview of various perspectives . . . which Wenger shares from her extensive research in archives across the nation. . . . [Wenger's] analysis offers Indigenous scholars a vehicle for navigating the confluence between 'documented' history and narratives of oral tradition."--American Indian Quarterly

"Well-researched and eminently readable. . . . This rich book is highly recommended. . . . Copious endnotes and a serviceable index increase the scholarly value of the book."--Western Historical Quarterly

"While [Wenger's] rich history of the intersection of Pueblo customs and American law will doubtless be useful for those within American Indian studies, her historically routed mediations on the category of religion makes this book essential reading for everyone who studies American religions, and arguably many others in religious studies as well. Wenger's meticulously researched and theoretically sophisticated work is exceptional in any number of ways. . . . So often, books engage well with either theoretical ideas or with detailed historical work. Wenger is able to do both."--Journal of the Faculty of Religious Studies

"This is a work of exemplary archival research and conceptual nuance. I cannot overstate the importance of the insights Wenger provides for our understanding of the concepts or religion and religious freedom for Native Americans today."--Journal of Arizona History