Whose Stories? Our Stories: Taking Back Diné Identity


The Navajo delegation to Washington D.C. in 1874. Juanita and Manuelito are seated front row center with Manuelito’s son sitting next to them, second from the right. Source: UNM.edu

An indigenous person looking to investigate their past comes up against many strange ironies, greatest among them that the dominant culture, which has tried to eradicate and replace indigenous cultures, has  also been the largest producer of the histories about those cultures. In order to control an indigenous past, conquerors have often found it necessary to control what is accepted as the indigenous past. These sanctioned accounts are whitewashed yarns that talk briefly of injustices committed against the indigenous population, before focusing on the inherent, unavoidable indigenous penchant for tragedy, all the while building up to a cheery, enlightened end in multicultural assimilation.

While this is the history most widely heard, it is certainly not the only history that is told. As Jennifer Nez Denetdale shows in her book Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Chief Manuelito and Juanita, indigenous people, in this case the Navajo, have always maintained through oral history their own version of the past and what it means for the present.

Denetdale came upon the topic for her book after discovering photos of her great-great-great-grandmother Juanita, one of Navajo Chief Manuelito’s four wives but widely reported to be his favorite and constant companion. They appeared to have been taken by George Wharton James, a collector of Navajo textiles and lecturer on Indian cultures of the Southwest. “Like many other white Americans of his generation, James has imposed his own meanings on Juanita’s life and on Navajos in general.” Denetdale argues that photos such as James’ “reinforce reductionist representations while masking the unimaginable historical traumas Navajos have survived.”

In the case of Navajo women, such as Juanita, Jame’s photos enforce the image of a Navajo woman as a weaver. This image fit into the burgeoning arts and crafts market which was emerging in Santa Fe and depended on a strict criteria of Indian authenticity. Although Juanita was never well-known for her weaving abilities, James is quick to classify her as a weaver and shows her exhibiting blankets and surrounded by weaving devices. Photos such as these and ones which show Juanita with Manuelito and children frame her as a traditional mother type who does typical women’s work. They fail to capture Juanita’s skills outside the domestic sphere and the fact that traditional Navajo families are not nuclear nor patriarchal.

While the photos of Juanita’s as well as her role in negotiating with the US government have long been obscured, Manuelito’s life and image have been widely known.  He is the most famous of the Navajos both in his time and still today. Dentedale describes the official American narrative about Manuelito as one that emphasizes the military defeat of a noble leader, an Indian unable to acclimate to reservation life who tragically succumbed to alcoholism. While Manuelito’s descendents’ accounts rely to some degree on American accounts to fill the gaps of their collective memory, few are simply willing to accept the official story  about their people and history as the whole truth.

For Navajos, the most defining characteristic  of Manuelito’s life is his promotion of education as a means of tribal advancement. His name graces the tribal scholarship fund that assist many young Navajos, myself included, in funding college and graduate school. He is known to have said that education was the ladder that would lead the Navajo people to a better life. He is also memorialized as a staunch defender of Navajo people and land not only against the American settlers but also the Mexican slave raiders who targeted Navajo women and children until the early 20th century. This side of Manuelito and Navajo life reflects histories that are never acknowledged in American accounts such as American assistance with slave raiding in an attempt to seize Navajo land and the fact that many Navajos were not trapped in the past but willing to seek new ways to create a future.

Unfortunately, the hugely disruptive events that have torn Navajos from their homeland, known as Diné Bikéyah, have been catastrophic for keeping histories intact. Dentedale experienced this first-hand while conducting her research into precarious and tumultuous lives: “The first response to my queries about our grandparents included a litany  of answers like ‘I don’t know,’ ‘We didn’t ask questions,’ and “We should have listened when we were told stories of our grandmother.’” Many of the relatives she talked to were sent to boarding schools and had few opportunities to unearth memories many wanted to forget.

Memories from before 1868 are especially unstable. In 1863, the Navajo were finally subjugated by  a series of slave raids and attacks on their fields. They were forced to relocate to Bosque Redondo a prison camp far from the Dine homeland where Navajos would remain for five years. The journey to the squalor and disease and starvation that awaited the Navajos there is called The Long Walk.

The Long Walk continues to pervade Navajo stories as the central struggle defining the people’s ability to overcome hardship to reach a place of reconciliation. In the latter half of Reclaiming Dine History, Denetdale explores how this aspect of stories told about the past reflect the first story told by the Navajos, the creation story. In doing so she shows not only how the creation story is a kind of history but also how each time Navajos tell their history they experience again the process of creation. That is why Navajo-based accounts of the Navajo past are so important. They not only tell a fuller picture of what happened but also reinforce the traditions that draw a people together as a tribe.

My own story is an example of how often that does not happen, and how a person descendent from the one of the first four clans that originally classified the first Navajo families in the Southwest can lose touch with all that has drawn those clans together. Such occurrences are rarely by choice and often through trauma.

There is only a single afternoon I can truly count as spending time with my great-grandmother. My mom, my mom’s cousin, and I followed her through the rooms of the house she was staying in as she walked sideways through time. She kept asking where her children, my mom’s dad and his siblings, were though they had grown up and left decades earlier. Though we were introduced several times, I don’t think she even knew who I was. And I knew very little about her– only that she had her first child when she was thirteen or fourteen, that she was very old now and that her hair was still so black I could hardly believe it was real. She died not long after that and we never talked together.

My middle name is Catherine. I was supposedly named for my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who died when my mother was only four years old. After that, my mother was sent to live with white people, old white people who are not often talked about but who are not described as very nice people, not very nice people at all. It was not until a couple years ago that my mom found some official document with her mother’s name on it. Her name was not Catherine, but there’s no changing mine now.

Our broken, untold histories are a part of us, sometimes more so than the linear and factual narrative. What little we can remember, what we have cobbled together from what we were told and what we told ourselves to get through– that is what becomes real, that is what becomes who we are, what we call ourselves.

This is not to say that we are only our broken memories and fractured past. It is only to say that we must acknowledge the silences and gaps that spot the terrain of our consciousness as a people and resist  Western accounts that fill in what they need to believe and what they want us to believe about ourselves.  Indigenous scholars such as Jennifer Nez Denetdale provide a model for doing so by investigating her own past with the techniques of both the Western academy and the Navajo oral tradition. She is one amongst what I hope is a growing number of Native scholars rising up to uncover the traces of tribal truth and uproot the lies that have grown too long like invasive weeds in our perceptions of the past.

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