History, Department of


Date of this Version

December 1996


Published in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 17:3 (1996), pp. 178-209. Copyright 1996 by Frontiers Editorial Collective; Published by the University of Nebraska Press. Used by permission. http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/journalinfo/17.html


Historians who have covered the dance controversy usually treat it just in passing as one of the events in John Collier's reform career before he became Franklin Roosevelt's Commissioner of Indian Affairs. They have generally characterized the public debate over Indian dances as a struggle over whether religious freedom should be extended to Native Americans. To many Native Americans, the threat to ban Indian dances certainly did impinge on their religious practices. Yet, the controversy itself involved more than a constitutional debate on religious freedom. Many of the non-Indian participants in the controversy were white women who, in an era in which gender roles and female sexuality were in flux, used the controversy to voice their anxieties, their hopes, and their visions regarding new roles and sexual standards. In their discourse regarding Indian dances, these white women revealed a greater concern with emerging sexual mores in American society at large than with the traditional religious practices of Native Americans. From 1900 to 1930, a conflict ensued between two groups of feminists over the issue of sexuality. One group-female moral reformers-sought to maintain female purity and exert moral authority, while another group-"new feminists"-argued for women's self-fulfillment and expression of sexual desire. Their debate on changing social and cultural mores did not always take place openly or consciously; often it showed up in arenas in which gender and sex were not explicitly being discussed. In the controversy over Indian dances, female moral reformers tended to view Pueblo dances as symbols of sexual disorder that must be curbed. "New feminists" lauded these same dances as emblems of sexual liberation that should be preserved.

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