A Navajo women honored as an advocate for public health and education and as a crusader for social justice.
By Valerie Rangel
Sponsored by the Paul C. S. Carpenter History Project and funded by the King/Carpenter Charitable Trust
Annie Dodge Wauneka, daughter of K’eehabah and Henry Chee Dodge, was the second woman elected to the Navajo Tribal Council. She was an advocate for public health and education, a crusader for social justice, and was acknowledged for her humanitarian acts; she was most notably honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Annie was born into the Tse níjikíní Clan or Honey-Combed Rock (Cliff Dwelling) People, on April 10, 1910, in the Sawmill area of the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. She was a year old, when her father Henry Chee Dodge, sent for Annie to live in his home with her half brothers Tom, Ben, and half-sister Mary. She did not grow up in a traditional hooghan, like most Navajos in the early 1900’s did. Her father’s house was situated on a slope in the mountains near Crystal, New Mexico and contained four large rooms with stairs that led to the front door and a covered porch. A constant stream of relatives coming to help out at his ranch, and legislators and political leaders coming to consult with Henry Chee Dodge made for a busy house through the years. Chee Dodge was one of the few head men of the tribe that could speak English well.
Annie was raised by her step-mother Nanabah, and her aunt Asdza Yazzie, both of whom were married to Chee Dodge. Only a few boarding schools existed during this time: They were generally located far away from this part of the reservation and transportation was difficult. But mostly, Navajo families were distrusting of government run schools. Believing that education was the key to success, Navajo leader Chee Dodge chose to send his older children to private school in Salt Lake City, Utah. While her siblings were away at school, five year old Annie began helping her father herd sheep and goats; her father’s wish was that she first learn responsibility and hard work.
Annie began her formal education at the age of eight when she attended the closest school in the area, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding School at Fort Defiance, Arizona. During that first year at school, a flu epidemic struck the United States, lasting from 1917-1918. While Chee Dodge called his children home from private school, secluding his family from potential contact with infected individuals, all the pupils at the Fort Defiance School were quarantined.
The epidemic took its toll and many children, including hundreds of Navajo on the reservation died. Though Annie caught a mild case of the flu, she was able to make a full recovery. The only nurse at Fort Defiance, Mrs. Domatilda Showalter, and most of her helpers became seriously ill. Annie helped spoon feed soup to children too weak to eat and every morning she cleaned and serviced the kerosene lanterns that lit the halls and rooms of the hospital at night. Wauneka is quoted as saying, “Even though I was just a little girl, I did what I could to help in those terrible days,” adding, “I’ll never forget that experience. It remains very clear in my memory, even today.”
Traditionally, Navajo women have taken care of ewes and lambs and every spring Annie would return home from school to help with the lambing of her father’s large herd. Summers were spent with her mother, K’eehabah, herding sheep in the Sawmill area of Arizona. During her fourth grade year, an epidemic of trachoma, a bacterial infection of the eye, struck the Fort Defiance area. The school turned into a treatment center and children, who had not been exposed, including Annie, were sent to St. Michaels Catholic Mission ten miles away.
Impressed at how quickly Annie had learned English and the excellent grades she achieved, Chee Dodge allowed Annie to join her sister Mary at the Albuquerque Indian School to begin the sixth grade. Because of the diversity of American Indian tribes and languages at the school, Annie and the other students discovered that in order to talk to each other and to get along in school, it worked best to speak English. Annie’s paternal grandmother had been part Jemez Pueblo and most of the friendships she made at the school were with Pueblo girls.
In 1923, when Annie was thirteen years old, her father began his term in office as the first Navajo Tribal Chairman of the newly formed Navajo Tribal Council. The Council consisted of twelve members and was known then as the Business Council. During his term in office, Chee Dodge brought other Navajo leaders with him to visit the Albuquerque Indian School. They talked with students and stressed the value of an education and how it would ultimately benefit the tribe generally.
In 1928, Annie’s father, Chee Dodge, stepped down from the position of Navajo Tribal Chairman. When Annie completed her studies in the eleventh grade, she decided to return to sheep herding at her father’s home in Arizona. Although her formal education had ended at this time, she later returned to school and earned a Bachelor's Degree in Public Health from the University of Arizona in Tucson. Ultimately she received an honorary Doctorate in Humanities from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque for her tireless efforts to better the lives of the Navajo people.
Instead of following tradition wherein parents selected the groom, Annie chose her husband, George Wauneka, whom she had met while at the Albuquerque Indian School. George came from a highly respected Blue Canyon family from near Fort Defiance, Annie’s step-mother Nanabah and Chee Dodge approved the marriage and the families exchanged gifts in the Navajo marriage ceremony.
In October 1929, Annie married George Wauneka in a traditional Navajo ceremony. The following year, Chee Dodge, who owned two large ranches, relocated the young couple from Sonela to the Tanner Springs Ranch in Arizona. They elected to build a “modern house” made of sandstone and set with mortar. It had a flat roof and several rooms with windows, a front porch, electricity, running water, a fenced yard, and was positioned next to the Klagetoh School.
During the 1930s, Annie witnessed firsthand, the dramatic impact that the Stock Reduction Program had on the Navajo people. The Stock Reduction Program fundamentally transformed Navajo economy and society in by eliminating wide differences in stock holdings. It was intended to help Navajos manage smaller herds in a more economical manner; smaller herds meant better nourishment to animals, and less destruction of grasslands. During the late 1920’s and 1930’s, New Deal programs were initiated in the southwestern United States to improve conditions on Indian Reservations which had experienced a period of severe drought and heavy flash floods that swept topsoil away causing erosion. Grass was in short supply, herds were malnourished, and there was a lack of water for livestock. But the Navajo interpreted the Stock Reduction Program as a loss of wealth, which was measured by the size of their herd. The program was yet another control mandated by an outside government to change traditional Navajo culture.
Many Navajo people refused to relocate or sell their livestock and one October day, the U.S. government sent men to shoot one thousand head of Chee Dodge’s cattle at the Tanner Springs ranch. Though many Navajos were invited to butcher, salvage, and use the meat, still hundreds of cattle had to be dragged to a mesa to decompose. This was a traumatic event and considered wasteful. In the Navajo culture, every part of an animal is used but more importantly the Navajo system of status and prestige based on stock holdings was compromised.
Through the years Annie and George raised six children: Georgia Ann born 1931, Henry in 1933, Irma in 1935, Franklin in 1945, Lorencita in 1947, and Sallie in 1950, losing two children between Irma and Franklin. While raising her children, Annie traveled with her father; cultural leader, politician, and interpreter. She would listen to stories he told of the struggles of the Navajo. Annie attended council sessions with her father and afterward, at home, they would carefully discuss the proceedings that had taken place and analyze the arguments that had been made. She was told by her father, to not be afraid to interpret for people when they were in contact with non-Navajo people. He told her that she could help her people greatly by thinking harder about the exact meanings of words and expressions so that she could give true and correct translations to non-Navajo and to Navajo people alike.
Henry Chee Dodge returned as Chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council and served from 1944 until his death on January 7, 1947. After her father’s passing, Annie decided to run for the Navajo Tribal Council: She had served on the Grazing Committee in her local chapter. In 1951, she was elected to the Navajo Tribal Council, becoming the first woman to represent District Seventeen; the Klagetoh and Wide Ruins precincts of the Navajo Tribal Council.
Shortly after taking office, she was appointed head of the Tribal Council’s Health and Welfare Committee. One of her first tasks, as Secretary and Interpreter for the Chapter, was to interpret for Navajo people in hospitals. Annie soon determined that various cultural taboos were affecting hospital retention rates of Navajo patients infected with tuberculosis (TB). Annie focused her immediate attention to the prevention and spread of TB on the reservation through public education.
Her most effective strategy was the reinstatement of patients who were stricken by fear and loneliness and had run away from the hospital. Utilizing grassroots activism, she visited each sick patient who had run away and carefully explained how germs cause infections and the risks they were taking with their own health, as well as the health of their family, by not completing treatment. Often she would drive patients back to the hospital in her own vehicle, or arrange for a way back to the hospital for them to continue treatment. For many years, Annie engaged in active dialogue with hospital administrators in an effort to bring some traditional Navajo healing practices and other aspects of cultural traditions into the hospital setting, making it more hospitable and less intimidating to patients. Furthermore, to accomplish her goal of retaining sick patients in hospitals, she would remain with each patient through X-rays and diagnosis, then voyage long distances back and forth bringing tape recorded messages from patient to family and vise versa.
A reported twenty thousand Navajo were brought in for X-rays, with more than two thousand Navajo hospitalized for TB. Through her efforts, the Navajo tribe contributed money to develop a cure for TB, supporting a team at Cornell University Medical School. In 1955, the Public Health Service began building hospitals and clinics all over the Navajo reservation bringing health care closer to patients. Continuing her public education campaign, Annie produced two films regarding healthy habits and disease prevention that could be shown in schools or meetings throughout the reservation.
Annie traveled to the United States Public Health Service Department, staying three months to learn more about tuberculosis (TB). Upon return, she began to speak individually to Navajo medicine men, explaining the effect the disease had on populations world-wide. Initiating a joint-effort to combat TB, she diplomatically arranged meetings with “White” doctors and Navajo medicine men. While medicine men looked at the infectious disease through microscopes and listened to the doctors’ explanations, Annie took advantage of this opportunity to encourage physicians to understand and appreciate the significance of Navajo Medicine Men in Navajo culture; how they carry out the duties of doctors and priests in the lives of the Navajo.
Over the span of two years, Annie and a team of medical and Navajo practitioners created a Navajo-English dictionary of medical terms. Since the Navajo language is based on visual descriptions, there were no direct terms for words such as ‘germs’. Empowered by ingenuity and a desire for effective doctor-patient communication, Annie created new Navajo terms; ‘germs’ she described as, ‘ch’osh doo yit’iinii’, translated it means, ‘bugs that eat the body’.
In the election of 1954, both Annie and her husband were candidates for a seat on the Navajo Tribal Council; Annie won the election and served from 1954 until her death in 1997. In the two decades following the election, she would receive many awards recognizing her efforts in public service. Senator Albert Hale, former President of the Navajo Nation, recalls attending Klagetoh chapter meetings, at which Annie spoke often saying, “T’aadoo le’i mdazigi baa jilaago doo nidaaz da,” which means, “If there is something heavy, if you all work together, then it will be light.” Her eloquent words empowered people, encouraging people she would say, “Bil dashdoolnih,” meaning, “With support you can do it.”
After re-election, without pause, Annie took on the challenge of improving the standard of living, health and sanitation on the reservation; reasoning that poor living conditions, mal-nutrition, and lack of adequate sanitation, contributed to the contraction of infectious diseases on the Navajo reservation. After winning a partial popular vote, the Navajo Council voted to spend $300,000 on the installation of floors and windows in Navajo homes, monies only able to improve a few hundred hooghans of the thousands of Navajos living on the reservation. This initiative however, caught the attention of national newsman Walter Cronkite, who produced a film about Annie Wauneka for a CBS program entitled, “Twentieth Century,” which illustrated the Navajo resourceful use of simple materials and the humanitarian improvements that could be made in their lives like bringing running water to their homes.
In 1958, Annie was selected by the Arizona Women’s Press Club as “Arizona Woman of Achievement for the Year:” An acknowledgement of her many accomplishments. She also received the Josephine B. Hughes Memorial Award for promoting the health and welfare of her people and of the country as a whole. In the same year she received an award from the All-Arizona All-Indian Basketball organization for her meritorious service to others. Then in September of 1959, she was presented with the Annual Indian Achievement Award by the Indian Council Fire, a national organization. Her father Chee Dodge also was also honored with this award in 1945. Never before in the history of the organization had this award been given to both parent and child. Annie also received the Will Ross Medal, the highest award given by the Society of Public Health Educators.
By the 1960’s, more Navajo women were having their babies in hospitals and were receiving regular medical care. Traditionally, infant clothing was not bought before a child’s birth and Navajo women wrapped their newborns in a strip of blanket. Understanding the importance of cultural tradition but wanting to prevent incidences of pneumonia in newborns, Annie sought money for “layettes,” clothing and equipment for a newborn infant, through the Navajo Tribal Council.
U.S. Public Health Service reports in the 1960’s indicated that the death rate of Navajo infants had declined more than twenty-five per cent in recent years, and that the rate of tuberculosis infection had declined by thirty-five per cent, but was still five to six times more than neighboring states. The report also stated that Alcoholism was now a prevalent health crisis. After many public meetings, and travels to speak with countless Navajo, Annie ascertained that the economic disparity between Navajo people and the rest of the country and the severe rate of unemployment were the main reasons for heavy drinking on the reservation.
In 1960, she was appointed to the New Mexico Governor’s Committee on the Aging simultaneously serving on various other health committees. Workings with the March of Dimes chairman of New Mexico, she helped coordinate a vaccination program for all Navajo children against polio. Aided by Annie’s efforts, the President of the United States signed a bill that authorized the U.S. Public Health Service to construct, improve and extend sanitary facilities for the American Indians.
Drought throughout the Southwest during the 1960’s affected the water supply on the Navajo reservation. Waterborne illnesses were causing sickness and death from diseases that affected the stomach and intestines. Annie focused her efforts on rural water systems, advising the Navajo Tribal Council of the importance of water quality, and educating the public to draw water from clean sources rather than stock tanks or ponds. She requested infrastructure money to help with the digging of new wells and installation of water tanks and pipes to supply clean water to residents and to build sewer systems throughout the reservation. She then began to focus on specific illnesses such as Gastroenteritis, Impetigo, and skin diseases, launching another public education crusade focused on health and sanitation. She held workshops on proper food preparation, better nutrition, and sanitation.
During the 1960’s, few Navajos had telephone service, however most had battery powered radios. Annie devoted every Sunday morning for more than two years to a program on KGAK (1330 AM) in Gallup, New Mexico where she discussed a wide range of health topics from Alcoholism to infant care. Also of concern to Annie, were issues of tribal sovereignty, access to traditional homelands, land rights, and religious freedom. In 1961, she was one of forty-five Navajo who traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify before the Indian Claims Commission, on behalf of the Navajo tribe. They claimed that the US government had wrongfully taken several million acres of land from them between 1848 and 1868.
President John F. Kennedy sent Annie a telegram in the fall of 1963, announcing that she would be the first Indian of the southwest to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award; a prestigious award only received by men and women who have made outstanding contributions to the security of the nation, world peace, or to a cultural endeavor. The presentation was made after President Kennedy’s assassination, by President Lyndon B. Johnson, on December 6, 1963.
In the next few years after receiving the medal, cases of Bubonic plague tied to flea carrying prairie dogs were discovered on the Navajo reservation. Annie was instrumental in quickly dispersing health advisories and preventative strategies to Chapter Houses throughout the Reservation.
At the request of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Annie Wauneka spoke at the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Indian Education public hearings held in Flagstaff, Arizona, on April 6, 1968. When Senator Kennedy asked her what she thought was the single biggest problem in Indian Education, she said that she felt the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) prevented Indians from becoming sufficiently involved in their own education and that they kept schools from being Indian community centers. She also expressed the opinion that the B.I.A. did not allow Indian people an adequate voice in the location of schools, further stating that the Civil Service protected officials of the B.I.A. and did not serve the best interests of the tribal members.
By 1969, she had raised her children into adulthood and had six grandchildren. Two of Annie’s daughters became Public Health workers. In the 1970’s Annie was appointed to the New Mexico Women’s Commission. She held forums with women throughout the state, discussing the most pressing issues of the time affecting women: access to medical treatment, poor housing conditions, alcoholism, and lack of job opportunities for women. In 1973, Annie was a speaker at the first Southwest Indian Women’s Conference where an estimated eight hundred women attended, many from other tribes throughout the nation.
In 1976, the Ladies' Home Journal selected Annie as “Woman of the Year.” That same year, after 25 years years of service as an elected official, and public service on the Grazing Committee, she lost election to the Navajo Tribal Council by 13 votes. She continued to raise money for charities such as the Navajo Nation Health Foundation, often lobbying in Washington, and traveling on a cultural exchange trips.
During the 1980’s Annie focused on the problem of Alcoholism, a disease that was killing many people and she continued to press the Navajo Council for more schools and better roads on the reservation. She said that with a better road network boarding schools would no longer be needed and that better roads communication on the reservation would be improved.
Annie traveled with Dr. Peterson Zah during his campaign for President of the Navajo Nation and after he was elected, he appointed her as Health Ambassador for the tribe. In 1984, during Zah’s term in office he honored Annie on her 74th birthday. Zah commemorated her life time of service, and proclaimed a special “Annie Wauneka Day,” which was observed in both New Mexico and Arizona. In a ceremony calling her “Legendary Mother to the Navajo” she was awarded the Navajo Medal of Honor. In Annie’s opinion, this tribute from her people was her most esteemed honor. She thanked everyone, especially her husband George, for his great support.
In the years preceding her death Annie was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and finally died on November 10, 1997, at the age of eighty-seven. Throughout Annie’s life, she observed Navajo religious practices, and advocated for the continued use of the Navajo language, and cultural traditions. It was Annie’s belief that children would learn the Navajo language and take part in ceremonials if they were located closer to their families instead of at boarding school. She also hoped more native teachers would teach bilingual classes in all public schools on the reservation, and that Navajos would continue to progress and compete in the modern world while retaining the beauty of their heritage.
Transformation on the Navajo reservation has been the result of changes in the minds and attitudes of the Navajo People and from the inspired direction of leaders like by Annie Wauneka. Annie and her father Henry Chee Dodge, led by example, emphasizing education as the key to the future of the Navajo and advocating for funding to improve living conditions and access to health care. Serving over seven terms, and more than twenty-nine years of public service, Annie Wauneka is remembered most for her courageous use of intellect, empowering speeches, and bold compassion. She continues to be an inspiration to all for her great acts of humanitarianism.
1. Nelson, Mary Carroll. Annie Wauneka. Dillon Press, Inc., Minneapolis, 1972.
2. Niethammer, Carolyn. I'll Go and Do More: Annie Dodge Wauneka, Navajo Leader and Activist. University of Nebraska Press, 2001.
3. Niethammer, Carolyn. Keeping the Rope Straight: Annie Dodge Wauneka's Life of Service to the Navajo. Salina Bookshelf Inc., Flagstaff, 2006.
4. Saxon, Wolfgang. Annie D. Wauneka, 87, Dies; Navajo Medical Crusader. New York Times. Published: Sunday, November 16, 1997. https://www.nytimes.com/1997/11/16/us/annie-d-wauneka-87-dies-navajo-medical-crusader.html
5. Arizona’a Hall of Fame: Annie Wauneka. Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records: https://www.azlibrary.gov/awhof/women/wauneka.cfm
Annie Dodge Wauneka; Navajo Tribal Council; Presidential Medal of Freedom