December 3, 2012

Book of the Month

Jennifer Nez Denetdale. Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita. Tucson: The University Press of Arizona,2007.

Review by Stan Thayne

Recognition of the value and place of oral traditions in understanding how Navajos perceive their past, how narratives are used to shape their perceptions of the past and their own experiences, and how they convey beliefs and values from ancestors enlarges the historical scope to include those people conventional western history has ignored and excluded. (9-10)

Jennifer Nez Denetdale's stated goal in this work is to counter the colonizing forces of past scholarship, historical and anthropological, done primarily by non-Navajo scholars, by providing a work based in Navajo ways of knowing the past. "Until fairly recently," Denetdale states, "the Navajo past has been largely studied, classified, and written by non-Navajos with reliance on Western categories of historical production for meaning. These renditions of the Diné past have not adequately represented our own perspectives of the past." As, apparently, "the first-ever Diné/Navajo to earn a Ph.D. in history," as her faculty page at the University of New Mexico states, Professor Denetdale sets out to do just this by placing Navajo oral narratives at the heart of her study. But she begins by dismantling some of the distorting tendencies of past scholarship to portray the Diné people as recent newcomers to the American West (as anthropologists have tended to emphasize) or as an aggressive nomadic people who needed subjugating in order to stabilize the region, as historians have often portrayed the Navajo. Both of these views, historical and anthropological, Denetdale explains, have served Euro-American interests by justifying federal displacements, policies, and treatment of Diné people, and by confirming Euro-American understandings of Navajos and Native American peoples. 

At the center of the story, and stories, Denetdale tells is the life of former Navajo chief Manuelito and his wife Juanita, Denetdale's great-great-great grandparents. Past written accounts of Chief Manuelito's life, based primarily on accounts recorded in Spanish, Mexican, and American sources, have tended to diminish any recognition of the role Juanita played in the past of the Diné people, rendering her, with all other Navajo women, virtually invisible (within this historiographical traditionin contrast to Navajo narratives, where they have remained central). Navajo women have remained visible in the Western archive, when they have, primarily through photographs, which is one of the sources Denetdale creatively utilizesfocusing particularly on the way returning these photographs to Diné communities has rejuvenated traditions of story-telling centered around matrilineal clan-based organization. One of the major goals of this work is to re-center Navajo women in representations of the Diné past and present. Clan-based oral traditions about Juanita's life, Denetdale states, "reveal the centrality of women’s roles in Navajo society and illustrate how oral tradition is used to organize social units, connect Navajos to the land, and interpret life experiences and the past" (16).

Navajo creation narratives figure prominently in this work. "Drawing upon a body of studies that interrogates the relationship between 'oral tradition' and 'history,'" Denetdale writes, "I propose that traditional Navajo perspectives on the past are grounded in the creation narratives that contain within them Diné beliefs and values" (7). One of the particularly interesting ways she does this is by demonstrating how narratives told by Diné elders about their grandparents, and in particular about Juanita, "mirror the creation stories in form and motifs" (139). In a particularly enlightening moment in the text she demonstrates how the elders' narratives about their ancestors' return to Navajo Land (Dinétah) from Fort Sumner, where they were held as prisoners from 1863-68, are told in ways that mirror the shape and form of traditional Diné creation stories, and these narratives, told again and again, renew and re-cement Navajo connections to, and claims on, the land of their ancestors (140, 144). "The fact that my grandparents' and my mother's generation retain connections to lands where their ancestors once lived, in spite of these dislocations," Denetdale concludes, "attests to the enduring relationships created and recreated through narratives, narratives that link us as Navajos to the land" (161). And from the fragments of her ancestors' lives, which she collected through her elders' stories, "new stories are woven," continuing the tradition (161).

Based on narratives Denetdale collected primarily from her own relatives, this is a very personal work, which is something Denetdale is very upfront about. "As a Diné scholar, I follow the paths of other Native scholars who have begun the process of remapping and reclaiming our territory, geographical and cultural" (10). Telling stories of her own people, from their perspective, Denetdale statesdrawing from critical studies by other Indigenous scholars such as Haunani-Kay Trask and Linda Tuhiwai Smith and scholars such as Edward Saidis one way that Indigenous and colonized peoples can resist and counter the forces of colonizing discourses by asserting their own traditions, their own ways of knowing, and their own claims to the land.


Brandi Denison said...

Thanks for this review! I'll consider using it in an undergraduate class. It sounds like a great way to introduce creation narratives as being continual embedded in Dine life.

Stan Thayne said...

I think it would be a great book for undergraduates, especially in a classroom setting. It is written in a very accessible style and raises a number of issues that could lead to very productive discussions--about colonialism and the writing of history, and the way the two are intertwined; about orality, memory, community and place; etc.