Changing Woman, Part Two: The Historian

Published: Friday, September 7, 2018 - 5:00am
Updated: Thursday, September 13, 2018 - 1:21pm

In the second episode of Changing Woman, we meet Navajo historian Jennifer Denetdale. Through her story and the book she wrote about her great-great-great-grandparents, we will better understand how women’s power has been repressed.

Jackie Hai/KJZZ
Two.
The Historian

Part 1: Kinaaldá

The first episode of Changing Woman focuses on the Navajo coming of age ceremony for girls, one of the most important and sacred rituals is experiencing a resurgence today. We’ll hear parts of the songs and the rituals from the kinaaldá and learn how powerful an impact it can have on a young woman.

Part 2: The Historian

We’ll meet Navajo historian Jennifer Denetdale. Through her story and the book she wrote about her great-great-great-grandparents, we will better understand how women’s power has been repressed.

Part 3: The Leader

Navajo Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, whose middle name means “warrior,” has started her own #MeToo movement without the hashtags. She’s confronted her colleagues and has written policies about the violence against women that pervades her culture.

Part 4: The Mother

Jeneda Benally is making music that empowers indigenous youth because she wants her daughters to grow up in a world where they feel strong and powerful. She and her brother just released an album called “Fight Like A Woman.”

Part 5: The Healer

Like thousands of other Navajos, Haley Laughter was raised Mormon and had to seek out her people’s spiritual teachings. Today she bridges that cultural gap that so many young Navajos are trying to leap across.

Part 6: The Rockers

The Nizhoni Girls are redefining what it means to be Navajo. They're shaking down their assimilated ways in their songs and holding onto key Navajo beliefs in their activism.

The Navajo tell stories to better understand who they are. Their identity, which so many have tried to strip away, is wrapped up in these stories. No one understands that better than historian Jennifer Denetdale.

“Our ancestors had really difficult, difficult decisions that they had to make,” Denetdale said in a recent speech about the Long Walk. “Will I die far away from my homeland or will I flee and go back to my homeland and die? And yet and this always makes me tearful, they thought about us. They thought about their future. If they hadn’t done what they did, and their resistance and their determination, in many cases the only thing they had left was their body and they put that on the line for us.”

It's her ancestors who inspired Denetdale to be the first Navajo woman to get her doctorate in history. But people along the way doubted her abilities.

“Growing up on the Navajo Nation, there wasn’t a whole lot of teachers who thought that a little Navajo girl should even think about college,” Denetdale said.

Her parents encouraged her anyway. Her dad filled the house with books and collected dictionaries, even though there wasn’t always enough money for food and clothes.

“At the end of my dad’s two-week pay cycle the last two days we would be eating gravy and fry bread until his paycheck came,” Denetdale said. “And then we got food at Round Top Trading Post.”

Jennifer Denetdale is an Indigenous Studies professor at the University of New Mexico. Courtesy of Jennifer Denetdale

After high school Denetdale enrolled in classes at the University of New Mexico. One semester she had straight Fs.

“I had to use my own resources to bring my grade point average up to where I would be accepted back into the university,” Denetdale said.

Denetdale said on the reservation she never learned how to study. So she taught herself. And once she got the hang of it, she unlocked a door to a whole new universe.

“Looking at the course schedule was like Christmas to me and I said I want to take this class and I want to take this class,” Denetdale said.

Her love of learning continued after graduation. She went on to get her Ph.D. in history from Northern Arizona University.

But Denetdale discovered all the articles and books written about Navajos were written by white men. So she became determined to add something to the record about Navajos by a Navajo.

She was working on her doctorate when she discovered photos of her great-great-great-grandparents Chief Manuelito and Juanita.

“I drew upon oral history and I interviewed my grandparents,” Denetdale said.

Her family shared letters and stories about Manuelito, who was a key figure in Navajo history. He was a war chief who signed the 1868 treaty that freed the Navajos from the death camp at Bosque Redondo. But Denetdale’s grandparents lacked details about Juanita.

Jennifer Denetdale talks about her ancestors' letters.
Courtesy of Jennifer Denetdale

“What I had access to was fragments,” Denetdale said. “The ways in which my elders talked about her was very much in the way in which we talk about Asdzáá nádleehé, one of our holy deities Changing Woman. And so that was how I was able to understand and how I wanted to convey who she was to the Navajo people.”

Her dissertation became a book called "Reclaiming Diné History: Legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita." The Navajo Nation Museum celebrated her book with an exhibit.

“When we went there, we saw my grandmother’s dress. My dad said to me, (in Navajo) you have abilities,” Denetdale said. “And my mom said, she saw my grandmother there, a vision of my grandmother, and she said she was pleased.”

Navajo singer-songwriter Jeneda Benally said Denetdale’s book has reminded Navajos who they are.

“As Diné people there is this wonderful awakening happening where people are telling our stories,” Benally said.

Denetdale now teaches Indigenous Studies at the University of New Mexico. She also leads the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, where she’s shined a spotlight on the extreme violence against Navajo women and LGBTQ folks.

When the latest Navajo council was sworn in, they asked Denetdale to deliver the inaugural address.

She said in her speech: “We are a matrilineal people. Who we are begins with women. For it is women who birth a nation. It is women who reproduce nations biologically, culturally and symbolically.”

After she spoke, the only delegate who approached her was the only female council woman Amber Kanazbah Crotty, who said, “I don’t think people understand you.”

Still, Denetdale remains emboldened by the stories of her past to leave a legacy for her great-great-great-grandchildren.

 

 

Part 1: Kinaaldá

The first episode of Changing Woman focuses on the Navajo coming of age ceremony for girls, one of the most important and sacred rituals is experiencing a resurgence today. We’ll hear parts of the songs and the rituals from the kinaaldá and learn how powerful an impact it can have on a young woman.

Part 2: The Historian

We’ll meet Navajo historian Jennifer Denetdale. Through her story and the book she wrote about her great-great-great-grandparents, we will better understand how women’s power has been repressed.

Part 3: The Leader

Navajo Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, whose middle name means “warrior,” has started her own #MeToo movement without the hashtags. She’s confronted her colleagues and has written policies about the violence against women that pervades her culture.

Part 4: The Mother

Jeneda Benally is making music that empowers indigenous youth because she wants her daughters to grow up in a world where they feel strong and powerful. She and her brother just released an album called “Fight Like A Woman.”

Part 5: The Healer

Like thousands of other Navajos, Haley Laughter was raised Mormon and had to seek out her people’s spiritual teachings. Today she bridges that cultural gap that so many young Navajos are trying to leap across.

Part 6: The Rockers

The Nizhoni Girls are redefining what it means to be Navajo. They're shaking down their assimilated ways in their songs and holding onto key Navajo beliefs in their activism.

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