Jennifer Denetdale: Rewriting Navajo History
1991 MA in English; 1999 PhD in
Jennifer Denetdale is passionate
about giving a voice to her people. When she began her PhD dissertation at
Northern Arizona University, for instance, 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 19th century. Along the way, however, her tale
turned into something much larger, as she sought to understand how Navajo
history had been constructed by non-Navajos. When she was finished, she had
found a calling. And she had made history.
"Northern Arizona University
has been able to do something that no other university did," says
Denetdale. "I am the first Navajo to receive a PhD in history."
Denetdale's dissertation was
ultimately published in 2007 as Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of
Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita. Among other things, her book examined
the implications for Navajo people when their histories are told by
non-Navajos. 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
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 government's strong patriarchal bent
presents some key contradictions in a matrilineal society where women are seen
as powerful beings. She is also passionate about continuing to illuminate the
historical treatment of Native Americans in the United States. How history is
told, says Denetdale, is critical to how a nation moves forward.
"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?"
Going forward, Denetdale remains
committed to helping citizens of the Navajo nation reclaim their collective
stories. She is currently Associate Professor of American Studies at the
University of New Mexico.
"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."
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