More to Explore

Musings on the Navajo Nation

Musings on the Navajo Nation and the Ideology of Development and the Politics of Tradition

By Jennifer Denetdale, Ph.D.

For most of my career as a scholar, I have been interested in myriad ways that the Diné/Navajos have been represented by generations of travelers, writers, anthropologists, federal policy makers, and historians. The representations of Diné have had a significant impact on our identities as Diné, from the individual to the community to the Nation. On the one hand, I am determined to interrogate the existing scholarship on Navajos, for much of it reiterates stereotypes of Navajos that have proven detrimental and even disastrous for Navajos. On the other hand, I find it an imperative that we as Diné also explore those spaces in our communities which remain colonized, for after several generations of American rule, we have taken American beliefs and values as “tradition.” As a teacher of Navajo and Native American history, I often ask my students to imagine what Native and Diné societies were like prior to colonial invasions that began with the Spaniards in the 1540s. Prior to colonial invasions, the Diné were a free people who lived in a land gifted to them by the Holy People. They had in place social, religious, economic and political systems that worked for them. Once we can imagine what it means to be Diné who live by Sa’ ah naagháí bik’eh hozhóón, we can then strive to recover the traditional principles by which the Navajo ancestors had lived. My research, then traces the effects of American colonialism on Navajo hearts and minds as part of the process of recovering ourselves. Decolonization is part of the process of realizing Diné sovereignty.

In creating scholarship that is decolonizing, I look to a number of sources to inform my work. First, I intend my research for a Diné and Native audience. As the feminist scholar Andrea Smith has pointed out to me, there is a difference between “studying Indians” and creating analysis that centers Native concerns and issues. Second, although my education—from grade school to the university--has privileged Western education, I hope that my work fosters and supports Diné communities and Nation. Third, in seeking to recover our sovereignty, I rely on a community-based approach to research. I spend much time listening to Diné, their concerns and issues. I have learned a great deal from Navajos and especially the traditional scholars who know the old stories and about ceremonies, songs, and prayers. I am humbled by their knowledge and their graciousness in sharing with me. I also have the privilege of being part of a national collective of Native scholars who are forging new ground in scholarship. In addition, I also welcome alliances with non-Indians who are of like mind.

Given the project of decolonizing ourselves as Diné and our Nation, I have examined the historical and cultural construction of the Navajo Nation government. Feminist scholars have pointed out that standard scholarship on nations have failed to include an analysis of gender and so have overlooked the ways in which the imposition of nation has led to and naturalized hierarchical structures that privilege male power, thereby undermining women’s rights. The American democratic government framework was imposed upon the Navajo Nation when the tribal government was reorganized under the rules of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Never mind that Navajos rejected the IRA because they connected it with the Livestock Reduction Act. In other words, the reorganization of the Navajo political structure under the auspices of an American government model has resulted in the loss of Navajo women’s traditional status, which has been considered high in comparison to other women’s status in the United States.


In my studies, I investigate the year 1968 as an opportune time when Navajo leaders like Chairman Raymond Nakai, in collaboration with white federal policymakers and others who worked with Navajos, staged a number of cultural events calculated to have Navajos reflect upon the hundred years since the return of the Navajo ancestors from the Bosque Redondo prison camp in 1868. The cultural displays included a reenactment of the Navajo return from Fort Sumner with a staged signing of the Treaty of 1868. Other cultural events included a fair, newspaper articles about Navajo history and the treaty of 1868, and a number of publications devoted to Navajo history—all of which were produced by white scholars and educators. Significantly, the language used to describe the one hundred years since the return of Navajos from the Bosque Redondo was one of development and progress. At the time that the Navajo Centennial was being promoted, the Navajo tribe was pondering the benefits of modernization including the mining of their coal, oil, gas, and water as proposed by outside entities. In accordance with the promises of progress made to the tribe, Navajos were invited to ponder the benefits that progress would bring to them, including the joys of the nuclear family, a modern two to three bedroom home in which to house their families and the benefits of “proper gender roles.” As one page of the Navajo Times from this period proclaimed, Navajo men were to be the supervisors of departments in the Tribal government while women were to be their secretaries and clerks. Two photographs in a handsome volume praising Navajo progress, The Navajo Centennial, 1868 – 1968, portray vividly my analysis of the meaning of Navajo development in 1968. In one photograph, rows of Navajo women sit in front of typewriters. They are sporting the American fashion of the day--bobbed hair and dresses with rounded collars. The caption notes that the women are learning to be clerk typists at Fort Lewis College. Below this image is a photograph of Navajo heads of state sitting at a table with the U.S. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. The only women seating at the table are the wives of the male leaders. Young Navajo women, dressed in velveteen blouses and turquoise necklaces and earrings, are ready to serve the male leaders and their spouses. It is a portrayal of the benefits of American society—nuclear families, men as head-of-households, women relegated to the domestic sphere where they can only venture out if they agree to defer to men in the Navajo national space. It is a message that Navajo women are the bearers of tradition as defined by men in a circumscribed Nation.

How have the promises of modern American society affected Navajo gender roles? Given that Navajos in the past saw traditional gender roles as equal, that both men and women were crucial to the perpetuation of their Nation and also that at one time, Navajos had recognized more than two genders, my research explores the ways that Navajo women’s roles have seen transformations as a result of the imposition of an American governmental and sociological model. My studies interrogate how “tradition” has been used to keep the status quo in Navajo society. For example, in recent elections on Navajo land, women have been discouraged from seeking the highest political position in the tribal government based upon traditional narratives which foretold of disaster if a woman was to become President of the Navajo Nation.

As my research shows, the imposition of Western values, including nationalistic ones, has led to violence towards Navajo women, the loss of security within families and clans, and the invisibility of women in leadership roles. As feminist scholar Anne McClintock declares, “Despite nationalisms’ ideological investment in the idea of popular unity, nations have historically amounted to the sanctioned institutionalization of gender difference. No nation in the world gives women and men the same access to rights and resources of the nation-state.” While my work has contributed to the decolonization of the Navajo Nation and the Diné, there is so much more work to be done.