A Voice for Silenced Histories
Jennifer Denetdale is passionate about giving a voice to
her people. When she began her dissertation at Northern Arizona University, she
set out to write the story of her great-great-great grandparents, who had been
Navajo prisoners at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, in the nineteenth century. Along
the way, however, her tale turned into something much larger, as she sought to
understand how non-Navajos constructed Navajo history. When she was finished,
she found a calling, and made history.
history to the Navajo Nation
Denetdale's dissertation turned into a book called Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Navajo
Chief Manuelito and Juanita, which was published in 2007. Her book
examined the implications for Navajo people when non-Navajos tell Navajo
histories. Afterward, she found that her
message had great resonance among members of the Navajo Nation.
"At my first book signing in Window Rock, the people
at the Navajo Nation Museum told me to bring 35 books," says Denetdale.
"I sold out in 30 minutes. There were Navajos that came from more than 100
miles just to buy my book. It was amazing. It was also inspiring to see so many
Navajo people interested in history—and in our history."
Denetdale is also passionate about raising awareness
about injustices—both internal and external—that affect the Navajo nation. Her
current research, for example, builds on a key theme she touched upon in her
first book—gender inequality in the Navajo Nation. According to Denetdale, the
Navajo Nation’s government has a strong patriarchal bent that presents some key
contradictions in a matrilineal society where women are revered as powerful
beings. She is also dedicated to illuminating the historical treatment of
Native Americans in the United States. How history is told, says Denetdale, is
critical to how a nation moves forward.
A new approach to
"I think it is really important to move people
through the boundaries of American historiography, which continues to sanitize
and deny the historical treatment of Native peoples," she says. "I
still find, for the most part, that non-Indian students do not have knowledge,
familiarity, or experience with this important part of the nation's history.
It's 2010—when does that change?"
As Associate Professor of American Studies at the
University of New Mexico, Denetdale remains committed to helping citizens of
the Navajo nation reclaim their collective stories.
"I'm trying really hard to get, in my particular
case, Navajo people interested in history," she says. "I hope we'll
continue this process of decolonization which, for me, means looking at the
goal of revaluing our own traditional principles. How do we put those back in
place for our nation, our communities, and our families? For me, that's what my
work is about."