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diné perspectives

Critical Issues in Indigenous Studies

Jeffrey P. Shepherd and Myla Vicenti Carpio

Series Editors

Advisory Board
Hokulani Aikau
Jennifer Nez Denetdale
Eva Marie Garroutte
John Maynard
Alejandra Navarro-­Smith
Gladys Tzul Tzul
Keith Camacho
Margaret Elizabeth Kovach
Vicente Diaz
Diné Perspectives
and Reclaiming
Navajo Thought

Edited bylloyd l. lee

Foreword by gregory cajete

The University of Arizona Press
© 2014 The Arizona Board of Regents
All rights reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-­­in-­­Publication Data
Diné perspectives : revitalizing and reclaiming Navajo thought / edited by Lloyd L. Lee ;
foreword by Gregory Cajete.
pages cm. — (Critical issues in Indigenous studies)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-8165-3092-2 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Navajo philosophy. 2. Navajo Indians—Ethnic identity. 3. Navajo Indians—
Historiography. 4. Decolonization—Philosophy. 5. Postcolonialism—Philosophy. I. Lee,
Lloyd L., 1971–
E99.N3D48 2014
Publication of this book is made possible in part by the proceeds of a permanent
endowment created with the assistance of a Challenge Grant from the National
Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency.

Manufactured in the United States of America on acid-­­­free, archival-­­­quality paper

containing a minimum of 30 percent post-­­­consumer waste and processed chlorine free.

19 18 17 16 15 14  6 5 4 3 2 1

List of Illustrations  vii

Foreword  ix
Gregory Cajete
Preface  xiii

Introduction  3
American Indian Scholars  14
Shawn L. Secatero

Part I. Frameworks of Understanding

  Beneath Our Sacred Minds, Hands, and Hearts:
One Dissertation Journey  19
Shawn L. Secatero
  Understanding Hózhó˛ to Achieve Critical Consciousness:
A Contemporary Diné Interpretation of the Philosophical
Principles of Hózhó˛  25
Vincent Werito
  Morning Offerings, Like Salt  39
Esther Belin
  7pm thought, memory @ Dziłnaodiłthle-­Eastern View  44
Venaya Yazzie

Part II. Analyses of Methodologies

  Diné Culture, Decolonization, and the Politics of Hózhó˛  49
Larry W. Emerson

vi  • Contents

  The Value of Oral History on the Path to

Diné/Navajo Sovereignty  68
Jennifer Nez Denetdale
  Narrating Ordinary Power: Hózhó˛ó˛jí, Violence,
and Critical Diné Studies  83
Melanie K. Yazzie
  The Boy Who Threw the World Away  100
Venaya Yazzie

Part III. Political Challenges

  Historic and Demographic Changes That Impact the Future of
the Diné and the Development of Community-­Based Policy  105
Yolynda Begay
  The Origin of Legibility: Rethinking Colonialism and Resistance
among the Navajo People, 1868–1937  129
Andrew Curley
 Dinétah 151
Venaya Yazzie

Part IV. Paths for the Future

  Sustaining a Diné Way of Life  155
Kim Baca
  “If I Could Speak Navajo, I’d Definitely Speak It 24/7”:
Diné Youth Language Consciousness, Activism, and
Reclamation of Diné Identity  158
Tiffany S. Lee
  The Navajo Nation and the Declaration on the Rights
of Indigenous Peoples  170
Lloyd L. Lee
 Atmosphere 187
Venaya Yazzie

Contributors  189
Index  195

  The Way She Sees It  16

 Dinétah 46
 Glittering Mountain 102
  Her Name Is Resistance  188


Epistemology, or how we come to know what we know, provides the philo-

sophical foundations through which we gain perspectives of the world. In
turn, our overall philosophy guides our individual and collective behavior
in the world. How we apply philosophy forms and informs our culture and
For Indigenous people, this process of “coming to know” is embedded
in key metaphors that are shared. They are meant to be internalized in
the mind, heart, and behavior of a people. Indeed, it may be said that a
tribe’s shared metaphor is what defines them as a distinct people. For Diné
peoples, Sa’a˛h Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhó˛ó˛n (SNBH)—one’s journey of striv-
ing to live a long and harmonious life—is such a shared metaphor.
Native thought operates according to cognitive and linguistic maps that
chart and simultaneously guide collective and individual wisdom. How
things are related combined with the nature of causality in a given natural
context becomes the focus of deep reflection. For example, the ways in
which aspects of nature are transformed through time and space along
with the nature of perceived proper orientation to sacred space demand
the observation of subtle details. It is these observations and perceptions
of orientation that form the foundation of Indigenous knowledge. Just as
ritual and ceremony can be personal or communal tools for accessing
knowledge, metaphors and symbols can also be used in similar ways to
learn and remember key understandings of the natural world and of life
in general. Therefore, Indigenous thought as expressed in metaphors set
in motion an organic process as well as a specific process for coming to
knowledge and understanding in all aspects of Native American life and
In Native American thought, this process of “coming to know” revolves
around the creative process of human learning as naturally expressed in
the contexts of human life and relationship. Intervention in natural and
social human processes of learning is taken on only with great care and

x  • Foreword

much consideration. Continual emphasis is placed on the processes of

“being and becoming,” first within the contexts of a person’s own inner
learning, then in the contexts of family, clan, community, tribe, place, and
finally the whole cosmos. Working with the natural flow of this process
is the intent of individual knowers. Listening and observing closely are
consistently practiced. In all this, teachers act as mentors and guides for
learning. They never presume the role of absolute authority.
In Indigenous teaching and learning, knowledge is presented in high-­
context situations in which many levels of information are shared simul-
taneously on many levels of communication. True understanding is based
on experiencing nature and life directly. In this process, thinking and plan-
ning, doing and playing, are integral parts of Native American learning.
Elders provide guidance and facilitate learning, often through stories and
metaphors along with artifacts and manifestations of traditions. But it is the
individual’s responsibility to learn, because it is the individual’s own think-
ing, reflection, and action that bring about learning and understanding.1
These are historic precepts of traditional Indigenous ways of coming
to know. The aim was to understand in relation to and interdependence
with life. Yet, there is a contemporary dilemma at play here. These precepts
and understandings evolved from a historic tradition, which has under-
gone significant change in the face of modernity and its various forms of
colonization, education, and technological transformation. The dynamics
of these forms of modernity have affected the ways in which traditional
metaphors such as SNBH may—or in many cases may not—play out in
the contemporary lives of Diné peoples.
While epistemological metaphors such as SNBH provide philosophi-
cal guidance to leading a long and harmonious life, each individual must
make meaning and apply the precepts of SNBH to her or his personal life.
This requires both creative application and creative expression of SNBH
in a contemporary world.
All of the Diné writers in this volume reflect understandings of SNBH
from the unique perspective of their experiences and from the vantage
point of their observations and research of contemporary Diné life. Their
stories present invaluable insights into how traditional metaphors such as
SNBH can be interpreted and used to shed light on the issues of contem-
porary Diné life. Their stories also exemplify how Indigenous peoples are
creatively applying tools of decolonization and critical research to re-­create
Indigenous thought and culture in a contemporary present. Part of the
process of decolonization leading to self-­determination in an intellectual
Foreword  • xi

context is revitalizing, reclaiming, and in some cases reinventing our own

Indigenous philosophical frameworks to create a new foundation for our
collective work in cultural revitalization. Researching and bringing for-
ward our guiding philosophical traditions are an essential part of our own
cultural evolution. The narratives presented here provide perspectives for
the reintegration of our cultural philosophies in our contemporary identity
As you read each of the stories and chapters presented in Diné Perspec-
tives: Revitalizing and Reclaiming Navajo Thought, I hope you will be able
to appreciate the multiple ways a guiding Indigenous cultural metaphor
such as SNBH can be reflected upon, reformed, and expressed in search
of that elusive quality of life in harmony. When we are able to attain,
even for a moment, the harmony that SNBH points to, we gain a sense for
“that place that Indian people talk about,” that Great Mystery of Life and
the Cosmos that is an integral part of each of us. It is a universal, timeless
human quest to understand and be in rightful relationship with all life.
May we all be a part of the journey of striving to live a long and harmoni-
ous life.
Gregory Cajete


1. Gregory A. Cajete, Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence (Santa Fe,

NM: Clear Light Publishers, 2000), 65–66.

When I was a boy, I never asked my parents or relatives what it means to be

Diné (Navajo). Although I am Diné, I do not speak the language fluently.
My parents and relatives speak the language on a daily basis. I attend vari-
ous ceremonies during the spring, summer, autumn, and winter seasons.
I listen to various coyote and animal stories told by relatives, medicine
people, and others. I live Diné culture, yet I cannot comprehensively de-
fine Diné philosophy through the language. I never thought much about
Diné philosophy until college. In college I met other Indigenous peoples
from around the country and learned about their histories, cultures, and
philosophies. I learned sociopolitical concepts such as tribal sovereignty,
Native nation building, colonization, decolonization, and identity. My
college experience provided me with a better understanding of my Diné
identity and what all Indigenous peoples are fighting to protect.
After college and graduate school, I taught social studies courses at Fort
Wingate High School to predominantly Diné students between the ages
of fourteen and eighteen. Many of them did not know the history, culture,
and language of the Diné peoples. Consequently, I made a commitment
to teach Diné history and culture. I recognized that some students wanted
to know their history and culture, while others felt that they had no use for
it. I met parents who held similar viewpoints as their children. I pondered
over how I as a Diné could work to help the continuance of Diné history,
culture, language, and thought. After considerable thought and observa-
tion of Diné youths, I decided to enroll in a doctorate program to study
Diné identity and to use research as an approach for Diné continuance.
During my doctoral program, I thought about the type of project I could
work on to examine Diné identity. I chose to investigate cultural identity
among Diné college graduates and college students. The study showed
that young Diné people are expressing their cultural identity in diverse
and familiar ways. Language, philosophy, relationships, pride, and respect
frame what it means to be Diné for the individuals in my doctoral study.

xiv  • Preface

Furthermore, a college education influences each Diné in different ways.

For some, college greatly enhances their lives. For others, it reenforces
their cultural identity. Others experience minimal effect, but later in life
a college education might have a tremendous influence. Diné identity in
the twenty-­first century is continuing in an old and fresh way. During the
study, I began to examine my own perspective as a Diné man.
I thought about my father’s teachings and the way he conducts himself.
Initially I did not dwell on Diné knowledge and thought, but after further
reflection, I realized that my father taught me much of what it means to
be a Diné man and about Diné thought. He taught me what it means to
love and to want his son to be successful and happy. He never expressed
what it meant to be Diné and never told me many stories, yet I recognize
the many traits of a Diné person. A Diné is one who loves and supports
his family. He is a person who overcomes life’s challenges. He is a respect-
ful individual who does not want more than what is needed. He is a quiet
person who provides detailed information when needed. He never physi-
cally abuses any human or nonhuman being. He loves his family uncon-
ditionally. He is a person who works on a daily basis, even on weekends.
He is a strong human being. He recognizes that he is one component of
a complementary partnership. He is not a complete human being with-
out his partner. He will be criticized at times from family and friends but
will never hurt or be spiteful in retaliation. He does everything in life for
his family and community and never asks for anything in return. He is a
humble person. He is a person who believes in Diné knowledge and a
Diné way of life. This belief has helped me understand the importance of
Diné thought and perspective.
This book is about Diné thought and perspective. Each of the twelve
men and women who contributed to this book were brought up and edu-
cated in diverse ways. Their perspectives reflect elements of cultural Diné
knowledge, analyses, creativity, planning, living, and reflecting. The indi-
viduals only represent a small portion of Diné thought, yet they represent
the diversity and strength of Diné peoples. Diné thought encompasses
knowledge with all of life’s elements. This book represents various distinct
and engaging experiences. It is my hope that these experiences, perspec-
tives, and thoughts will help a Diné way of life continue and flourish. This
continuity is what Diné ancestors fought to protect and desired for their
children. The contributors to this book follow in similar steps. These steps
will help in the continuance of a Diné way of life.
Lloyd L. Lee
diné perspectives
Giving order to these sounds and words empowers me to rise above and
beyond myself. Words uplift me to heights from which I transform myself
into a power that transmutes any experience into an energy, which I may
direct toward a definite purpose that I desire to achieve. I am the maker
of my destiny. From this height, I know that words, knowledge, thoughts,
emotions, experiences are all important. Isolated and dormant, they are
useless. They are potential power. What is more important is knowing how,
when, and for what to use this power. Therein lies our personal power!
From this height, everything matters. Everything matters!
—Rex Lee Jim, “A Moment in My Life”

This book features Diné men and women’s personal perspectives of a dis-
tinct Diné matrix and their thoughts on the challenges that Diné peoples
face. I use Viola F. Cordova’s term “matrix.” Her writings were compiled
into How It Is: The Native American Philosophy of V. F. Cordova (2007),
edited by Kathleen Dean Moore, Kurt Peters, Ted Jojola, and Amber Lacy
with a foreword by Linda Hogan. Cordova used the term “matrix,” since
it implies a web of related concepts. The term is defined as something
within that something else originates and forms. A matrix forms a founda-
tion, becomes a world picture for the individual and the community, and
is culture specified. Cordova’s explanation for the use of “matrix” rather
than the terms “worldview” and “philosophy” fits well with the various
distinct Diné perspectives. These perspectives show a distinct matrix on
individual and communal levels.
The contributors share an insightful and humanistic way to under-
stand the meaning of a vital foundational paradigm in Diné thought,
Sa’a˛h Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhó˛ó˛n (SNBH). The aim of this anthology is
to initiate discussion on Indigenous philosophical principles in general
but more specifically to discuss how Diné individuals live SNBH in the
self-­determination era. Very few texts focus on Indigenous peoples’ matri-
ces and their own philosophical foundations within their communities.
The contributors to this anthology offer insights into areas impacting the

4  • Introduction

Navajo Nation and its peoples. These insights are individual critical en-
gagements raising questions on Diné thought, language, sovereignty, and
way of life.
The contributors are situated in everyday actualities of a Diné way of
life and thus write from Diné standpoints. Their writings represent Diné
intellectual sovereignty as embodied knowledge, both epistemological
and ontological, and grounded in a way of knowing that interconnects
thought, speech, experience, and land. Not all of the contributors are pro-
fessors or scholars; some are persons who help Indigenous peoples in their
fight for justice and prosperity as well as the Navajo Nation in its effort to
rebuild and sustain a free and vibrant Native nation. As embodied Indig-
enous peoples, these individuals are contributing to current philosophical
reflections of Indigenous sovereignty and challenging dominant perspec-
tives about Indigenous peoples and ways of thought. These individuals
do not provide a quintessential definition of a Diné matrix; instead, they
seek to reveal its multiple interpretations, ways of knowing, and ways of
living. They are working to ensure an intellectual and cultural sovereignty
reflected in how Diné peoples think, act, and live.
Diné peoples have diverse perspectives in all disciplines and areas of
life. More than three hundred thousand people self-­identify as Diné, and
each person has his or her own individual outlook on how to approach
and live life, what to believe in, what to aspire to be, and what lifestyle to
pursue. American thought and way of life has impacted how Diné peo-
ples think and live their lives. More than four hundred years of American
colonization, interaction, and experience with many distinct peoples has
shaped Diné matrices and lifestyles. All of these experiences also influ-
enced what once was a more unified Diné matrix. Diné thought in the
self-­determination era is fairly individualistic and less communal than in
the past. While individual people will each have different thoughts on
many aspects of life, they are still Diné because of their own personal his-
tories, their connection to the ancestors, and their resiliency to survive and
continue as distinct Native peoples.
I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, hearing about SNBH, but I
never knew the meaning of these words. My parents did not teach me the
Diné language except for words and phrases here and there. I learned cer-
tain words and phrases, and when I started college in 1990 I learned even
more. But I am still learning how to speak on a detailed and fluent level
where I am able to think and write in Diné first and English second.
At the same time I am learning the language, I am also learning a dis-
tinct matrix. This individual matrix consists of the Diné creation narratives,
Introduction  • 5

Diné cultural activities, American stories, American television, American

popular culture, and everything else in the world that I read, listen to, and
watch. All of this exposure to the world helps define my perspective and
approach to living. As I become more educated, I learn various SNBH
interpretations. Even as I earned my doctorate and started working in the
academy, I learned more about the concept of SNBH and the Diné lan-
guage. While I have learned much about SNBH, I am still learning more
about the meaning for each Diné and for the Navajo Nation as a whole.
In a world where individualism has become the way of life for many Diné
peoples, SNBH reflects space and time whereby the individual is tied to
community. Without the community’s well-­being, the person does not
achieve a sense of happiness. In a Diné matrix, the individual person was
and is tied to the community, as in all Indigenous communities.
One meaning of SNBH in the English language is long life and hap-
piness. SNBH represents a foundational principle embodied in the way
Diné peoples live their lives. Various Diné and non-­Diné scholars have ex-
amined the meaning of SNBH, and each analysis focuses on the meaning
of each word. For example, anthropologist Gary Witherspoon analyzed
the implicit meanings of each lexical item in Language and Art in the Na-
vajo Universe (1977). Linguist Robert Young, who along with Frank Mor-
gan developed the Navajo-­language dictionary and written language, also
examined the meaning of each word. While I will not discuss the meaning
of each word precisely, I will provide an overview of SNBH in general
Western terms. This general interpretation provides the reader with the
bigger picture of a distinct Diné matrix rather than the microscopic exami-
nation of each lexical item.
SNBH is a powerful and sacred paradigm that comes from the Diyin
Dine’é (Holy People). The Diyin Dine’é instructed the people to follow
the SNBH path to ensure wellness, happiness, quality of life, and sustain-
ability. This path helps the people believe in themselves and have trust
in what they are doing. This belief and trust helps the people understand
and know where they are going in life. SNBH is a course for a Diné way
of life. If the people follow the way, then life will be healthy, happy, and
prosperous. Some Diné peoples refer to SNBH as the corn-­pollen path.
Corn pollen is an offering that Diné peoples use in their prayers, rituals,
and ceremonies. Corn pollen represents the essence of life and will always
be the security of a person and the community.
SNBH is a person’s life journey. A person’s life is his or her own to live,
but a person is connected to family and community. SNBH is spiritually
multidimensional and comprehensive. It is part of the identity of a person
6  • Introduction

and a people. SBNH is interlinked to all aspects of a Diné way of life. For
instance, the Blessing Way is the backbone of all Diné ceremonies. This
ceremony is the happiest and most harmonious and peaceful ritual. The
Blessing Way is a mechanism to secure a person’s path: an SNBH trail. An
SNBH trail helps establish tranquility for a person and the community.
SNBH also guides a person and the community to completeness, whereby
balance and harmony are the norm and not the exception.
SNBH also represents a four-­part planning and learning process. Diné
College has implemented this process as part of its vision, mission, and
educational experience. The four-­part planning and learning process en-
compasses the following tenets: Nitsáhákees (Thinking), Nahat’á (Plan-
ning), Iiná (Living), and Siihasin (Assurance). This planning and learning
process is a cycle whereby a person and the community are unified and in
balance. The process also is represented throughout Diné thought. For ex-
ample, the process is associated with four cardinal directions (east, south,
west, and north), four sacred mountains (Mt. Blanca, Mt. Taylor, San
Francisco Peaks, and Mt. Hesperus), four sacred minerals (white shell,
turquoise, abalone, and black jet), four parts of the day (dawn, day, sunset,
and night), four seasons of the year (autumn, winter, spring, and sum-
mer), and four stages of life (birth, adolescence, adulthood, and old age).
All of these concepts and principles are tied together and in turn help a
person and the community teach, learn, live, and reflect. This planning
and learning process expresses a Diné’s drive and emphasis for life and
establishment of goals. The passion to live and the desire to achieve the
goals set forth by a person and the community are interwoven in SNBH.
Learning and understanding the creation narratives while instilling
the values of a Diné way of life helps a person and the community strive
for SNBH as well. The Diyin Dine’é supplied the people with SNBH to
help them understand the meaning of completeness and to receive spiri-
tual blessing and guidance. To achieve tranquility and wellness, one must
strive to live a life based on the meanings of SNBH.
Another meaning of SNBH is tied to the notion of multidimensional
ways and interconnected forces. Life is full of all kinds of energies, and it
is the responsibility of the community and the person to know these ener-
gies and use them wisely in their daily lives. In the universe, energies exist
and represent positive and negative forces. These forces are in all living
things, and for a person and the community to achieve well-­being, they
must strive to ensure equilibrium and achieve symmetry between the two
forces. In other words, a person and the community must partake of things
in moderation. Too much of any force is harmful to the individual and the
Introduction  • 7

community. All things in life constitute parts of the whole, and therefore
achieving harmony is maintaining the equilibrium of all parts.
Each Diné can achieve SNBH in various distinct ways. Historically
speaking, Diné peoples achieved SNBH through language, land, cultural
knowledge, protocols, trades, and living a distinct sustainable way of life.
Diné ancestors lived daily to achieve happiness, prosperity, and well-­being.
Contemporary Diné peoples do the same, but since the people have been
exposed to various different matrices, this has been a challenge for some.
Many Diné peoples do not know the full meaning of SNBH, and those
who do know the meaning may know only the surface knowledge and not
the entire matrix. A small number of people, particularly those individu-
als who are hataałiis (healers) and who know the protocols and steps in a
Diné ceremony, may have a comprehensive knowledge of SNBH.
Rex Lee Jim is one who has written about his journey to understand
SNBH and how he came to realize what it truly meant for his life. His
chapter titled “A Moment in My Life” in Here First: Autobiographical
Essays by Native American Writers views SNBH as a formula to empower
him to design a life that he desires. His understanding of this formula is
stated in the opening epigraph of this introduction, coming from a per-
sonal story about his younger brother who died in a car crash. Jim’s life up
to this point is his understanding of SNBH.
Jim heard of SNBH when he was a young child and saw it in action.
His grandfather brought the world to life with SNBH. According to Jim,
a basic understanding of SNBH is the beauty of life realized through the
application of teachings that work.1 He begins by discussing the meaning
of each word and then extends his discussion to include his own thoughts
and experiences:

Literally, sa˛ means old age, ah means beyond, naa means environment,
gháí means movement, bi means to it, k’éh means according, hó means
self and that sense of an ever-­presence of something greater, zhóón
means beauty, nishłóo means I will be, naasháa doo means I walk. This
may be stated in the following way. “May I walk, being the omnipresent
beauty created by the one that moves beyond old.” Now we all know
that we are born into this world and we live for some time and then we
all die.2

Jim realizes that there is more to each word and its meaning beyond the
simple definition. He writes, “Suddenly sᲠno longer meant old age in terms
of years; sᲠcame to mean quality. SᲠis quality. Quality of ever-­improving
8  • Introduction

spirituality, quality of physical growth, quality of social flexibility, and qual-

ity of mental processing.”3 Jim, along with many other Diné peoples, is
interpreting and reflecting individually what SNBH is, but the overall goal
is similar: human wellness and happiness.
The exact meaning of SNBH is based on the Diné language, but the
implementation is an individual approach tied to community. A Diné’s
well-­being, health, and happiness are always tied to another Diné’s well-
ness, health, and prosperity and to all entities on Earth and in the universe.
Diné peoples live their own individual lives, but they are always linked
together based on their clans, their nuclear and extended families, and
their communities. Jim realizes this notion:

Our responsible actions bring beauty into this world. This beauty comes
about because of following the laws set forth by sa˛’ah naagháí. Fortu-
nately, how sa˛’ah naagháí is formulated is within our complete con-
trol. By exercising this responsibility, we design our own lives. We bring
beauty into this world. The beauty comes from within us. Hózhó˛ó˛n,
then, is our inner self singing and dancing in the physical world.4

Jim has given a tremendous amount of thought to what SNBH means for
him. He has meticulously thought of how each word is translated through
his own living and his thought processes. He writes that “Acknowledgment
and acceptance of ourselves the way we are, then, is also acknowledg-
ment and acceptance of the gods. What the gods allow us is not to remain
the way we are. The gods have endowed us with the power to transform
ourselves into their own images, which ultimately reflects what we see as
ideal, what we strive for.”5 He continues to experience SNBH as all Diné
Each Diné can take a similar approach. Diné peoples as individuals
can strive for their own interpretations yet ensure that their wellness is not
selfish or egotistical. Challenges, bad energies, and negative experiences
will occur, but learning how to experience SNBH as Jim has done can
help a person and the community seize on the potential of good power and
energy. Even in the worst of situations or experiences, you take advantage
of the good in all things.
The individuals in this book reflect on life, their own personal matrices,
methodologies, and the vital issues challenging Diné peoples. The book
is divided into four parts: “Frameworks of Understanding,” “Analyses of
Methodologies,” “Political Challenges,” and “Paths for the Future.” Prior
Introduction  • 9

to the first part, we begin with a poem by Shawn L. Secatero titled “Ameri-
can Indian Scholars.” The poem sets the stage for what the contributors
have thought and written. Throughout the rest of the text, several different
poems reflect the essence of each part and the discussion that the authors
put forth. Venaya Yazzie, Diné poet and writer, wrote each of these poems.
Also included are images from Venaya Yazzie and Esther Belin. These
images embody a visual metaphor of each section. The first image in con-
junction with Secatero’s poem comes from Esther Belin and is titled “The
Way She Sees It.” Veneya Yazzie’s images, titled “Dinétah,” “Glittering
Mountain,” and “Her Name Is Resistance,” symbolize in order all three
Part 1 consists of chapters focusing on individual meanings and un-
derstandings of SNBH, the concept of hózhó˛, and how an individual’s
matrix forms one’s foundation. While the contributors to this part do not
offer a unified and absolute front to understanding SNBH, they do provide
distinct perspectives representing life’s varieties and complexities. Part 2
discusses Diné approaches to research and methodology and the appropri-
ateness of it in relation to colonialism. As more Diné peoples acquire pro-
fessional and doctorate degrees, more will use their cultural background to
discuss, critique, and offer solutions to the many issues that Diné peoples
as well as other Indigenous peoples are dealing with in this world. Part 3
focuses on historic and demographic changes, community-­based policy,
and colonialism and resistance among the Diné peoples. Part 4 provides
discussions on sustainability, language revitalization, and how the Navajo
Nation can hold the United States accountable to the Declaration on the
Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Shawn L. Secatero in “Beneath Our Sacred Minds, Hands, and Hearts:
One Dissertation Journey” starts off part 1. His story about his dissertation
journey sets the stage for perspectives on SNBH and demonstrates how
difficult and arduous a journey this can be for all human beings working
toward a similar goal. Secatero’s dissertation examining the persistence
and success factors for Native American graduate students shows how an
individual uses creativity to interpret and understand life. Secatero’s chap-
ter is not designed to be a model that any Diné or Indigenous graduate
student can follow to achieve success in school. His story instead provides
an outlook whereby students and others can read and learn how individu-
als are able to persist and succeed in graduate school. In many Indigenous
communities, a story can help people learn, understand, and reflect on
how to deal with and overcome a particular challenge. Secatero’s story
10  • Introduction

is one person’s way of trying to understand how to cope and overcome

challenges in acquiring a doctorate degree with hard work, prayer, and
Vincent Werito in “Understanding Hózhó˛ to Achieve Critical Con-
sciousness: A Contemporary Diné Interpretation of Philosophical Prin-
ciples of Hózhó˛” explains his understanding of the principle of hózhó˛
(beauty). He connects hózhó˛ to a Diné matrix of living and learning. In
his discussions, he describes his interpretations and understandings of
hózhó˛ in his life through education, thought, and vocation. He experi-
ences the process of actualization and self-­realization. This process has led
him on his journey to educate and empower Indigenous peoples.
Esther Belin in “Morning Offerings, Like Salt” describes her existence
through the creative expression of poetry. Her upbringing shows the di-
versity and vitality of SNBH in each Diné. She reveals the layers to her
being through her parents, her own children, her writing, and her experi-
ences. Her creativity is the cornerstone to her matrix and her life. Venaya
Yazzie wraps up the section with a poem titled “7pm thought, memory @
Dziłnaodiłthle-­Eastern View.”
The chapters and poem in part 1 offer different perspectives on the
understanding of SNBH. SNBH cannot be explained in one sentence or
paragraph. It must be lived. All of the authors do this in their own way, and
it is reflected in what they chose to discuss and write.
In part 2, the chapters offer tools for research methodology and analytic
frameworks based on Diné thought. Larry W. Emerson’s “Diné Culture,
Decolonization, and the Politics of Hózhó˛” starts off the part. He engages
in an important dialogue on intergenerational historic trauma, coloniza-
tion, decolonization, indigenization, and cultural knowledge. Emerson
contextualizes how the Navajo Nation has been colonized, urges the need
to understand why a Diné matrix has the potential to teach Diné peoples
how to live in a decolonized way, and discusses the meaning of decoloni-
zation and indigenization within a Diné framework.
Jennifer Nez Denetdale’s “The Value of Oral History on the Path to
Diné/Navajo Sovereignty” explores the concept of cultural sovereignty
and how oral history is a vehicle for practicing and realizing sovereignty.
Diné peoples continue to tell stories. These stories reflect the past, present,
and future of the Navajo Nation. Denetdale tells how Diné and Indig-
enous scholars’ usage of oral history and oral tradition can help to decolo-
nize Native nations and communities. Stories are paths toward helping
Diné peoples meet life’s challenges that are not that different from what
their ancestors and grandmothers and grandfathers experienced.
Introduction  • 11

Melanie K. Yazzie in “Narrating Ordinary Power: Hózhó˛ó˛jí, Violence,

and Critical Diné Studies” offers an insightful and thought-­provoking
chapter on the project of critical Diné studies. She advocates for a meth-
odology for understanding power in everyday lives and in turn helping
Diné peoples practice and commit to k’é, which will result in being pro-
ductive members of Diné society. Yazzie argues that oral transmission can
be invaluable in studying the consequences of colonialism. She advocates
the desire to alleviate the suffering that many Diné peoples experience
in their everyday lives by arguing for a critical Diné studies methodology.
Venaya Yazzie wraps up the section with a second poem, titled “The Boy
Who Threw the World Away.”
Parts 3 and 4 provide discussions on how to examine and analyze the
impacts of colonization on a Diné way of life utilizing a distinct Diné
methodology framework. In these chapters, the authors present discus-
sions on various challenges that the Navajo Nation faces and ideas on how
to adjust, mitigate, or overcome these trials.
In part 3, Yolynda Begay’s “Historic and Demographic Changes That
Impact the Future of the Diné and the Development of Community-­Based
Policy” discusses a timely and critical issue for the Navajo Nation as well
as for all Indigenous peoples in the United States. Enrollment criteria will
be a key and contentious area of discussion for the coming years on the
Navajo Nation. While the Diné population is nearly 300,000, more Diné
children are registering with less blood quantum. The current minimum
blood requirement for Navajo Nation enrollment is one-­quarter. While
blood quantum and lineal descent have been central for Navajo enroll-
ment since 1953, a deep discussion needs to take place on how to create
an enrollment system that is distinctly Diné rather than a system based on
race. Begay examines the demographic overview of the Diné population
and how enrollment is a foundational pillar for developing community-­
based policy representing a distinct Diné way of life.
Andrew Curley’s “The Origin of Legibility: Rethinking Colonialism
and Resistance among the Navajo People, 1868–1937” provides a his-
torical examination into how Diné peoples became a legible population
subject to state simplification and manipulation. In his examination,
he discusses the creation of boundaries and Diné headmen, who co-
operated with U.S. officials. Curley details how Diné peoples resisted
being made legible and also discusses the process of state formation.
This resistance is ongoing in ways that are visible and invisible to the
U.S. government and to the Navajo Nation. Understanding the basis of
historic forms of Navajo nationhood helps Diné peoples to indigenize
12  • Introduction

and promote Diné thought. Venaya Yazzie wraps up part 3 with a third
poem, titled “Dinétah.”
Part 4 begins with Kim Baca’s “Sustaining a Navajo Way of Life.” Baca
discusses how two Diné teenagers yearn to learn and speak the Diné lan-
guage and live a Diné way of life. Many young Diné peoples are con-
cerned about maintaining the language and ensuring this way of life. The
vitality and prosperity of the Navajo Nation depends on the willingness
and commitment by the younger population to Diné continuance. The
two teenagers show the possibilities of such initiatives.
Tiffany S. Lee’s “‘If I Could Speak Navajo, I’d Definitely Speak It 24/7’:
Diné Youth Language Consciousness, Activism, and Reclamation of Diné
Identity” describes the challenge of language maintenance and revitaliza-
tion. Fewer Diné youths are able to speak the Diné language fluently, and
Lee offers an idea on how to work toward language revitalization in the
Navajo Nation. She calls for a critical language consciousness tied to the
principles of hózhó˛. This consciousness can steer youths toward strength-
ening their cultural identity through language.
My chapter “The Navajo Nation and the Declaration of Rights of
Indigenous Peoples” discusses how the Navajo Nation is implementing
various articles of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
While the Navajo Nation was very much involved in the discussion and
drafting of the declaration, the nation has not fully implemented many
of the articles, although there are many articles that the nation fully sup-
ports. The examination includes a discussion on how Diné individuals
and communities can hold both the Navajo government and the United
States accountable to the declaration’s implementation. Venaya Yazzie
wraps up part 4 with her fourth poem, titled “Atmosphere.”
All of these narratives exemplify how Diné peoples are creatively inter-
preting SNBH and utilizing it to make sense of the many issues in contem-
porary life. SNBH is central to thinking, planning, living, and reflecting.
While these writers focus on various topics, the epistemological blocks in
SNBH are always present in their thoughts and words. They are applying
tools of decolonization, critical research, and creativity to re-­create Diné
thought and way of life in the self-­determination era. They want Diné
peoples to continue to interpret, analyze, and synthesize SNBH, and they
advocate for a more sustainable Navajo Nation whereby all people live
with prosperity, happiness, and well-­being.
Introduction  • 13


The epigraph is taken from Rex Lee Jim, “A Moment in My Life,” in Here First: Au-
tobiographical Essays by Native American Writers, edited by Arnold Krupat and Brian
Swann (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 245.
1. Ibid., 232.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., 233.
4. Ibid., 235.
5. Ibid.
American Indian Scholars
Shawn L. Secatero

We are American Indian Scholars

We wonder if we are strong as our elders and ancestors
We envision a time when more young people go on to college
We need a sense of belonging and trust
We think our people are the most resilient on earth

We are American Indian Scholars

We lead our people with pride, knowledge, and wisdom
We feel we can make a positive difference
We worry that we will let our people down
We cry when we think of those we lost along our way

We are American Indian Scholars

We understand the importance of education
We dream of a better life for our children
We try to balance the traditional and modern worlds
We hope our people find the support and strength to succeed

We are American Indian Scholars

We love our people, our mother earth, and our father sky
We pray that all of our surroundings will be blessed
We will soar to new heights in our minds, hands, and hearts
We plan to become prominent leaders

American Indian Scholars  • 15

We are American Indian Scholars

We thank those who were part of our educational journey
We must remember who we are
We acknowledge where we are from
We know where we are going
We are American Indian Scholars
The Way She Sees It
Esther Belin

Frameworks of
Beneath Our Sacred Minds,
Hands, and Hearts
One Dissertation Journey

Shawn L. Secatero

Today, very few statistics and demographics are available on persistence

and success rates for American Indian graduate and professional students.
Only a few identifiable quantitative data studies exist. As for qualitative
data, “No study, to date, has been published on the experiences of AI/AN
[American Indian/Alaskan Native] graduate and professional students”
(Buckley 1997, 6). In the current study, an Indigenous corn model based
on well-­being factors and personal narratives was employed to examine and
identify graduate and professional school success and persistence factors.
This study’s methods involved an in-­depth qualitative analysis of per-
sistence and success factors with twenty-­three American Indian graduate
students who recently attained their degrees. Participants representing
eighteen different tribal groups and nineteen institutions completed an
electronic survey and a short questionnaire. Participants had varying levels
of graduate degree completion and different majors. Electronic surveys
were completed from March 2008 through October 2008 and were de-
signed to acquire participant demographic information, graduate school
preparation, financial aid, academics, tribal ways of knowledge, and shared
words of wisdom.
In addition, four participants submitted stories to provide an analysis
of success and persistence factors. Participants identified the following sa-
lient issues: (a) spiritual well-­being as the most important success factor,
which focused on family, belief system, and giving back to the community;
(b) mental well-­being, which included critical thinking, personal and ca-
reer development, academic rigor, and leadership; (c) social well-­being,

20  •  Frameworks of Understanding

which was viewed as networking, mentorship, communication skills, and

advanced literacy; and (d) physical well-­being, which incorporated hard
work, endurance, and a healthy lifestyle.
Recommendations from this study included the following: develop-
ment of a national American Indian mentorship program, institutional
follow-­up with graduate students, graduate school preparation institutes,
the establishment of a graduate school guidebook for American Indian
students, and the dissemination of personal histories as models for life.
This dissertation study serves as a foundation for the development of an
Indigenous perspective, as more research is needed to address the persis-
tence and success factors of American Indian graduate and professional

Dissertation Experience

As part of my Navajo identity, I was taught by my elders to wake up be-

fore the early morning sunrise. I would face east toward the majestic San-
dia Mountains to pray with my precious corn pollen. I often performed
this ritual every morning in hopes that the pieces of my dissertation study
would eventually weave together like the beautiful rugs made by my grand-
mother. I often recollect my college career as a way of remembering the
importance of my Navajo way of life as I was learning about success and
persistence factors of American Indian graduate students. As part of this
process, I would like to share my own experiences and words of wisdom as
I continue my vision of becoming a well-­respected Indigenous researcher.
The setting of all my thinking comes from my home on the Tohajiilee
Navajo Reservation. I live in a small, modest house with no Internet access
but with the recent luxury of cable television. I concentrate most of my
work at the kitchen table with a slow-­burning woodstove beside me. Dur-
ing the cold early morning hours, I would motivate myself at three o’clock
and begin making a fire. I would chop wood outside and bring in loads of
it to warm up the house and my mind, hands, and heart.
While gathering wood outside in the briskly cold air, I would look up
to the beautiful dark purplish sky that was sprinkled with stars and flanked
by the upcoming light of the sun. I remember those I lost along my edu-
cational path, such as my beloved mother, father, and grandmother and
so many others. In many respects, some people often refer to losing some-
one as a barrier. However, I remember those in the spirit world and use
their teachings as a means of strength, perseverance, and survivance. My
Beneath Our Sacred Minds, Hands, and Hearts  • 21

traditional Navajo elders have advised me that when a person passes on

to the spirit world, it is customary to utilize his or her positive traditional
teachings to grow and prosper in life’s endeavors. These teachings have
made me a stronger person, able to persevere through all of life’s chal-
lenges. In addition, my elders have always emphasized the term “surviv-
ance,” which is important in remembering our ancestors and the sacrifices
they have made so we can exist in an ever-­changing world. Today, surviv-
ance is deemed as attaining an education and learning both the modern
and traditional worlds.
In 1995 I finished my master’s degree in education, but I lost my
mother due to cancer. She was a shining example of a proud and strong
Navajo woman who even without having a college education supported
me through many difficult times. On graduation day, I was unconsciously
looking for my mother after commencement exercises outside Johnson
Gym at the University of New Mexico. I found my family amid a sea of
many proud parents, students, and children. I asked my older sister, “So
where’s mom?” My sister replied, “She’s here. You just can’t see her, but
I know she is proud of you.” Tears slowly rolled down my face as I walked
sadly to my vehicle. My family members consoled me, but rather than
being happy, I was very depressed.
Later on that evening my father was outside studying the nighttime
sky, and I joined him. I expressed my sadness because my mother was
not there. He began advising me about remembering people in the spirit
world. My father said, “You always remember things they taught you. It’s
a way of honoring them, and it will make you strong.” He encouraged me
to find the brightest star in the sky when I was not in good spirits. “That
bright star is your mother,” he said. “The star is twinkling; she is happy and
dancing for you.” He began pointing out other stars and made reference
to my great-­grandmother Jessie Platero, my great-­grandfather Desiderio
Platero, and many others who have strongly influenced my life. My tears
suddenly turned to short smiles. As we were walking back inside the house,
we had the pleasure of witnessing a falling star. My father told me, “That
is a gift to you from those in the spirit world. They are very proud of you.
They are giving you a blessing to go on with your doctorate degree.”
My father would tell me about the various stages in life and how our
people view the sacred elements of corn through songs, prayers, and cer-
emonies. I was strongly encouraged to keep the corn model as Indigenous
as possible and to develop a sense of purpose by helping all American
Indians achieve higher education. The corn model can be deemed as a
higher education model that encompasses spiritual, mental, social, and
22  •  Frameworks of Understanding

physical well-­being. The basic elements for college survival are these four
ingredients that must coexist in balance and harmony. For example, physi-
cal well-­being is the first element of the corn model, which embodies our
seed of knowledge and our sense of place. That is where our education
begins and how we motivate ourselves to learn new concepts in life. As
we continue to grow like a stalk of corn, we advance to social well-­being,
which is the second element of the corn model. We develop networks and
communication skills to further enhance our college survival skills. In this
stage, ears of corn are often grown that represent our mentors and support
persons. As we continue to develop our social well-­being, we continue to
think in advanced ways, which can be noted as mental well-­being. In col-
lege, we learn advanced concepts and ways of thinking and develop learn-
ing strategies. Finally, we progress to our final stage, spiritual well-­being,
which encompasses our life goals and career aspirations.
As part of Navajo spirituality, the tassel of the corn is deemed sacred,
and corn pollen is made for prayers. In this element, we often utilize ad-
vanced teachings from our elders and professors as we reach our fullest
potential. The corn tassel can also symbolize achievement; we turn our
tassels when we attain our degrees. Once a person graduates, he or she
stands tall like a corn stalk and nourishes the people through his or her
skills. My father advised me, “When you are writing this dissertation, make
sure that you include us and our way of thinking. Our elders want to read
this as well, so combine both the modern and traditional ways of research.”
As I continued to organize the research, I had my computer in the living
room. I remember one time when my grandmother came to visit, and
she noticed that I was constantly on the Internet and not paying attention
to her. She strongly advised me, “Don’t spend too much time looking at
those things [Internet icons]; those images are not good for your mind.” I
listened to her and her underlying statement that using the Internet may
indeed become an addictive behavior and how she considered the Inter-
net a taboo among our people. I moved my computer into the back room
and cancelled my Internet service. I asked my father why grandmother
said those things to me. He mapped out an explanation to me like a stern
college professor:

You’re not working for the knowledge like you are supposed to. Long
ago, we had no Internet and you had to drive to the university, park your
vehicle, and walk to the library to conduct research. That is physical
well-­being. Then you go into the library and ask for help to find your
information; that is social well-­being. After that, you find the knowledge
Beneath Our Sacred Minds, Hands, and Hearts  • 23

that you are looking for and begin studying; that is mental well-­being.
And finally, you make meaning of what you just read so you don’t forget
that information; that is spiritual well-­being.

My father often reflected on his college days. Although he completed only

one year of study, he demonstrated the keen knowledge of a professor. He
implied that the younger generations have lost that way of working for
knowledge and that instant information, such as the Internet, has created
a lack of patience and deep understanding. I began listening to his advice
and continued my research.
I instilled these cultural ways of knowledge in my mind, hands, and
heart. I would value and work for my knowledge and visit the library very
often. I read, analyzed, and made meaning of all the stories and online sur-
veys. However, I knew that I would eventually need the Internet and tech-
nology to help me organize and acquire research information. Therefore,
I combined both the modern technology of the online survey method and
the traditional American Indian–based corn model to ultimately finish
this study.
There were many frustrating times and many sleepless nights while de-
veloping the corn model, but I often credit my study participants for keep-
ing me on track. Every submitted online survey and success story instilled
a belief in me that accomplishing this dissertation would be possible. Sev-
eral participants telephoned and emailed me, which ignited every little
spark to keep the fire going within me and in the woodstove in my house.
I was constantly encouraged by my participants, who emphasized that we
need studies like this so that many more Indian people will continue to
earn advanced degrees. I could not give up.
In September 2008 I lost my father due to a long battle with diabetes. I
often felt the pangs of discontinuing this study because I lost focus in my
life. However, on the clear night of his funeral, I was outside studying the
stars once again as tears rolled down my face. I looked up at the bright-
est stars, which continued to twinkle and dance. It was my father stating
that he was very proud of me. I studied almost every bright star in the sky,
which resembled the coding and analysis that I used in my research. I said
to myself, “That star is my grandfather So’mamel, there’s my mom, and I
even see my great-­grandmother, Jessie, who scolded me for dropping out of
graduate school.” To my amazement I again witnessed a falling star, which
reignited my spark for attaining knowledge and motivated my research.
I also continued to pray in hopes that I would get through this difficult
time and finish my study. Much to my surprise, it began to get cold and
24  •  Frameworks of Understanding

chilly as the morning stars began to disappear. Suddenly, several members

of my family as well as friends appeared and stood beside me. My circle of
support reconnected with me, and I have been blessed. They opened their
medicine pouches and offered their blessings to the rising sun. One elder
spoke to me and said, “Are you going to finish your father’s work and your
dissertation?” I replied with a smile, “Yes, our work is going to help Ameri-
can Indian people.” I reached into my medicine bag and gently touched
the grains of corn pollen. I sprinkled the pollen toward the east once again.
Together, we all prayed for a new light, a new beginning, and a continuing
beautiful vision. Sa’a˛h Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhó˛ó˛n: May you continue on
the beauty way path.


Buckley, Apanakhi. 1997. Threads of Nations: American Indian Graduate and Profes-
sional Students. Heritage College, ERIC Document 444 771, http://files.eric.ed
Understanding Hózhó˛ to
Achieve Critical Consciousness
A Contemporary Diné Interpretation of
the Philosophical Principles of Hózhó˛

Vincent Werito

Kodóó Hózhó˛ Dooleeł: It Begins in Beauty,

Harmony, and Peace

I awoke to the sweet smell of burning cedar and juniper in the stove, the
sound of light footsteps shuffling around in the house, and the whispered
voices of my mother and father telling my brothers and me to wake up.
Then, I felt a warm strong hand on my shoulder and heard the voice of
my father say to me “Nidiidaah shiyázhí, t’í˛ ’ tł’óógo ch’ídiikah” (Get up
my little one, let’s go outside). Slowly I raised my head and started to get
up. I felt the cold, brisk morning air in the house as the signs of early light
came through the window and the open door. As I put on my shoes, I saw
my younger brother still moving around in his golchó˛ó˛n (quilt blanket)
and my older brothers rolling up their yaat’eeł (sheepskin bedding). With
great effort, my younger brother and I followed suit. Then slowly we filed
out behind our mother and father as we walked out to the front of the
house toward the early dawn light, with the sound of birds chirping in the
distance. As we stood there behind our parents, they began their prayers.
I listened intently as they both started praying “Kodóó hózhó˛’dooleeł” (“It
begins in beauty”).
Nánitł’ah dóó biyáhoyee’nidii hózhó˛ó˛go naashaa dooleeł diiní means
“although it is hard and difficult to aspire to it we want to live our lives
in beauty/harmony.” In my childhood, I had heard my parents and other
elders make this statement on many different occasions. As I grow older,

26  •  Frameworks of Understanding

I now realize that they were referring to the idea of living according to
the Diné philosophy of Sa’a˛h Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhó˛ó˛n (SNBH), or the
lifelong journey of striving to live a long and harmonious life.1 So what
does that really mean in our contemporary lives as Diné peoples? SNBH
is a hard concept to understand on a personal level because there are
some challenges to understanding what each part of the phrase means,
such as the concept of hózhó˛. Oftentimes, for many young people today
it is easier and more convenient not to have to think about it, especially
now in the contemporary contexts when other things such as the popular
media and technology seem to pervade our psyches. For purposes of this
chapter, I will discuss what I believe constitutes Diné critical theory and
thought by explaining my interpretation of the concept of hózhó˛ and mak-
ing some connections to key philosophical aspects of Diné philosophy.
Furthermore, I offer these ideas as a way to begin a critical dialogue about
consciousness raising, community revitalization, and decolonization by
discussing and referring back to the principles of hózhó˛.
For Diné peoples or Ni’hookáá’ Diyiin Dine’é—the five-­fingered Earth-­
surface spiritual beings—SNBH is who we are; it is part of our thought
processes and everyday lives. SNBH is what we strive for, hope for, and
pray for, because we believe that its essence and meaning lie at the base
of our language and cultural identity and traditional cultural knowledge
and teachings. Also, SNBH is an intangible idea that is often evoked and
referred to in many aspects of our lives, especially in the ceremonial and
personal contexts. Thus, as a Diné, whether I am at home, in school, driv-
ing on a road, lying awake at night, sitting in a prayer meeting, or out in
the early dawn praying, I have to remind myself and think of how I want to
live my life in a better and more harmonious and peaceful way.
Hózhó˛ has been defined and discussed by linguists and anthropolo-
gists who have studied Navajos as meaning “in a state of harmony and
peace and/or a positive ideal environment.”2 As formulated here, this is
already quite a complex idea. However, as a Diné, it means a lot of other
things to me as well. For example, my understanding of hózhó˛ is that it is
a part of all traditional Navajo ceremonies and cultural teachings because
of its emphasis on harmonious outcomes in most every situation. For ex-
ample, many Diné prayers start with “kodóó hózhó˛ dooleeł” (“it begins
with beauty”) and end with “hózhó˛ náhasdlí˛ ˛í ” (“it is done in beauty”). So
while hózhó˛ could be discussed as a simple idea, it is also multifaceted
and difficult to understand. Furthermore, while it could be interpreted as
being essential to Diné holistic thought and life, it could also be seen as
Understanding Hózhó˛  • 27

part of a much larger Diné worldview and the Diné philosophy of SNBH.
While these ideas may seem contradictory, they also reveal a dialectical
nature in that a synthesis of meanings is necessary.
As a philosophical idea, hózhó˛ has been described by Navajo scholars
as being central to Navajo life and integral to the philosophy of SNBH and
the Hózhó˛ó˛jí (Blessing Way) and Naayee’jí (Protection Way) teachings.
SNBH is our life that we strive to live, yet it is also part of our thoughts, lan-
guage, prayers, and songs and is integral to our inherent human quality for
making sense of our lives and striving for harmony, peace, and justice. For
that reason, I believe that understanding the principles of hózhó˛ is contin-
gent upon how a person interprets and comes to understand SNBH and
how the individual wants to live her or his life according to its philosophy.
Correspondingly, I have often heard the phrase “t’áá hó’ajít’éego t’éíyá”
(“it is all up to you”). This idea is also captured in the philosophy of SNBH
by which individuals internalize how they want their lives to be and what
they must do to achieve SNBH. The important aspect of this idea is that
it is up to each individual to pursue and live her or his life according to
SNBH by recognizing how to live according to the principles of hózhó˛ as
the individual understands it.
Furthermore, the principles of hózhó˛ are encapsulated in the cogni-
tive (mental), physiological (physical), psychological (emotional), and
intuitive (spiritual) aspects of human development and growth—or ho-
listic living and learning—as discussed by philosophers and psychologists.
According to Dr. Wilson Aronilth Jr., a prominent Navajo scholar who
teaches at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, the Diné philosophy of SNBH
actively involves and engages these four aspects of human development,
which are embedded in and reflective of the natural processes of nature
and the cosmos.3 Specifically, the Diné philosophy is associated with and
orientated to the four cardinal directions, starting with the east direction;
the four seasons, starting with spring; and the four parts of the day, begin-
ning with early dawn and moving around in a clockwise direction with
the path of the sun. This is commonly referred to as the T’áá shá bik’ehgo
na’nitin, or the Sun Wise Path Teachings. So in relation to human life,
this process of orientation for living and learning guides how an individual
lives and develops respect and/or reverence for self, his or her relatives,
and the natural world. These four aspects of the Diné philosophy of learn-
ing and living are Nitsáhákees (Thinking), Nahat’á (Planning), Iiná (Liv-
ing), and Siihasin (Assurance), in respective order. These four aspects of
Diné philosophy are understood to represent life principles that guide our
28  •  Frameworks of Understanding

processes of thinking or conceptualization, planning or self-­actualization,

doing by establishing relationships with others, and reflecting or being
self-­reflective and aware of others and the natural spiritual world.

’Iiná Baahózhó˛ Bó’hoo’aah: Learning about Hózhó˛

in My Childhood

I was born in an Indian Health Services hospital in Shiprock, New Mexico,

forty winters ago and raised in a small rural Navajo community located on
the eastern part of the Navajo Reservation. From my early childhood to
about the age of five, I remember some specific things that I believe have
greatly contributed to and influenced my understanding of the principles
of hózhó˛ and my cultural identity as a Diné. As a child growing up in a
Diné home and learning about the world through the Diné language first,
I learned some important values and beliefs about who I am as a Diné. In
learning about myself, my family, and my community through the Diné
language first, I gained a basic understanding of what hózhó˛ is and what it
means. For example, two important Diné cultural values that I believe my
parents have taught me are contingent upon the principles of hózhó˛: (1)
having reverence and respect for nature, for myself, for others, and for the
land and (2) nurturing my spiritual faith.
For example, I cannot recall how often I heard my mother or father say-
ing “hózhó˛’ó k’é dahdooní” (“express yourself properly to your relatives”),
“hozho’ó náhisoot’a˛” (“sit still in a proper manner, especially during par-
ticular times like a ceremony or during a thunderstorm”), or “hozho’ó
da’íísinoołts’a˛a˛’ ” (“listen carefully and with purpose to what is being said”).
Also, I remember how we as a family would all sit down on the floor to
eat from one large bowl. Years later, I learned that my mother had us do
this to reinforce and strengthen our familial ties and to learn the values of
sharing and giving. Also, I remember cleaning up and fixing things around
our family homestead with my father and brothers. In retrospect, I learned
that we did all that work in order to maintain the appearance of our home
and family life, which reflected our life goals, outlook on life, and values,
referred to as Iina’ baa hózhó˛ó˛go silá.
For example, today when I talk to my father about these things, he
mentions that he wanted us to gain a sense of understanding of what re-
sponsibility and ownership meant in respect to having a good home and
a good livelihood. In both instances we learned about hózhó˛ through the
Blessing Way and Protection Way teachings. Specifically, I learned about
Understanding Hózhó˛  • 29

maintaining and strengthening familial relationships within the home in

order to maintain peace and harmony, which is part of the Blessing Way
teachings. Also, I learned about taking responsibility for my actions by
maintaining and caring for the family’s belongings to ensure peace and
prosperity, which is part of the Protection Way teachings. Consequently,
my parents were trying to instill in me the principles of hózhó˛—through
their teachings of love and respect—to be a good and outstanding family-­
oriented, caring, giving, responsible, and loving Diné man. I believe that
these teachings helped to shape my thinking about who I am as a Diné
and what it means to live according to the principles of hózhó˛ and the
Diné philosophy of living and learning.
In reflecting on my childhood, I realize now that as I learned the literal
meaning of the word “hózhó˛” and its associated concepts, I also internal-
ized it into my thinking. For example, when the word “hózhó˛” is used now
to describe the beauty and peacefulness of a place or the good attributes
of a person, it has great meaning for me because it reminds me of when
I was in a similar place or state of mind. When people say “t’óó hózhó˛ó˛ní
yé” (“it is such a peaceful place”) or “baa shił hózhó˛” (“I am happy about
it”), I think back to that time or place when I felt at peace and/or was
happy about something. Yet I also learned that used in another way, such
as “hózhó˛ naashá,” the word “hózhó˛” takes on a metaphysical meaning
to imply, “I walk in a sacred manner with beauty all around me.” As an
adult, I now realize that while the essence of the meaning of hózhó˛ could
be interpreted as a fixed or constant idea to imply a state of peace and
harmony, it can also be interpreted and understood as an ever-­changing,
evolving, and transformative idea, especially in how an individual applies
and interprets its meaning to her or his life. For example, whether the
word is used in a philosophical, literal, or metaphysical context, the basic
meaning stays constant, yet it is also relative and fluid in terms of how it is
interpreted and internalized.
While philosophically hózhó˛ could be interpreted as a state of being
or a state of existence with harmony and peace, it is really about how the
idea or concept influences a person’s manner of living and thinking. Put
another way, hózhó˛ is more significant when the meaning is conceptu-
alized, actualized, lived, and reflected on at a personal level. When the
multiple meanings of the concept of hózhó˛ along with its principles are
taken together into mind, body, and spirit, it has the potential to generate
power and energy in the form of possibilities that are beyond measure to
help an individual achieve harmony, peace, and conscientization or the
development of critical consciousness through a process of reflection and
30  •  Frameworks of Understanding

action. In this way, the principles of hózhó˛ as they exist in Diné thought
are inherently a form of critical thinking and can be a powerful liber-
ating force by applying them to issues facing Indigenous communities.4
Thus, while part of the motivation for moving toward decolonization is to
redress language and culture loss, it is also to create possibilities for criti-
cal dialogue and engagement with others that address difficult issues and
questions around race, gender, and class oppression. In the long term, the
connection between working to reach or achieve critical consciousness
and the principles of hózhó˛ are related and significant to decolonization
and community culture-­and language-­revitalization efforts.
Subsequently, the idea of decolonizing our minds and the institutional
practices that maintain the status quo involve taking on responsibilities
and the consequences of what that entails as well as looking to and think-
ing of new possibilities. That is, in addition to the work of naming our op-
pression, we must always remember to center our politics, our worldview,
our cultural beliefs and values, and our goals. For example, in a keynote
address titled “Indigenous Struggle for the Transformation of Education
and Schooling,” Linda Smith advocates for using a critical consciousness
lens that is more proactive and not reactive as well as an approach to de-
colonization that is focused on centering Indigenous knowledge.5 Smith
states that by being reactive instead of proactive, we are engaging and re-
sisting in a politics of distraction, which is the colonizing process of being
kept busy by the colonizer. Instead, “in moving to transformative politics
we need to understand the history of colonization but the bulk of our work
and focus must be on what it is that we want, what it is that we are about
and to ‘imagine’ future.”6
As I reflect on my life starting with my childhood when I was attending
boarding school or when I was in high school or in college and even today,
I think about some of the obstacles that have manifested themselves in my
daily life. For example, I remember at the age of six going off to boarding
school far from my home. Although I was with my older siblings, I remem-
ber feeling homesick and out of place. Once there, I noticed that I had
to get readjusted to many values because they were different from what I
had learned and what I was used to at home. Also, I remember the stress
of trying to learn the white man’s ways and speak English. Moreover, I
remember how I struggled to learn English because I was told that this was
the language of school. This idea was very much hammered into us by the
school staff, especially the white teachers. Soon it became apparent to me
that who I was, what I knew, and what I wanted for myself were frowned
upon by the school. That is, the best part of me was left outside. Much
Understanding Hózhó˛  • 31

of what I learned and what was instilled in me in Western education had

little to do with my initial understanding of the world.
Although obstacles in life can serve as barriers to achieving life goals,
they can also become the impetus for engaging in the processes of con-
ceptualization, actualization, action, and self-­reflection and ultimately
achieving critical consciousness. That is, before one can reach critical
consciousness, one also has to come face to face with reality and to name
his or her oppression(s) through a process of conceptualization, realiza-
tion, action, and reflection. Since the time I have been in school, I have
become bilingual in Navajo and English. Despite struggling with what it
means to be a bicultural person or a Navajo living in a white man’s world
using Du Bois’s idea of double consciousness,7 I am also aware that I have
the potential and agency to act and work against the many injustices and
inequities that have been placed in my life’s path that are a result of op-
pression. As a result of my life experiences and due to my growing under-
standing of hózhó˛ as described above, I engage in a process of naming,
reflecting, and acting upon the world to develop a critical consciousness
about who I am and what I want to be in the future. Thus, through this
ongoing act of being conscientious and always having a constant focus on
hózhó˛ó˛go’iiná (positive harmonious life outcomes), I believe that I learned
at a young age to think critically, plan for and make life goals, live accord-
ing to hózhó˛, and constantly reflect on my thoughts and be aware of my
actions. As a result, I have learned to remain steadfast and true to what I
believe, remember where I came from and always appreciate the value of
my traditional Indigenous (Diné) cultural knowledge to help guide me
where I want to go in life. I believe that this learning or understanding has
also informed my understanding of the world, thus allowing me to read
the word and to read the world. Moreover, it has also encouraged me to
respect and appreciate the diversity of cultural perspectives and the value
of getting a good education within an Indigenous and Western paradigm.
All in all, no matter what I am doing at a particular time or where I am
at in a particular place, I always try to remember my parents saying to me
“hózho’ó ‘adaa’á’hoolya˛’ dóó hózho’ó naniná” (“take care of yourself and
always do what is right”). At one time, I thought that it only meant simply
to “take care of yourself.” Instead, I have learned and I am still learning that
it means a whole lot more than simply watching or being mindful of my
actions and behaviors. It also implies that I must take care of my physical,
emotional, social, and spiritual needs. In every situation where and when
I recall this teaching, I always think about how my parents demonstrated
this particular way of thinking through their reverence for nature and
32  •  Frameworks of Understanding

strong faith in SNBH. More significantly, I would think back to all those
times when my parents would take us out to greet the early dawn to say our
early morning prayers, or I would go back in my mind to our family Native
American church prayer meetings where we would all pray and sing for
good blessings in the spirit of hózhó˛. As I reflect back on my childhood,
I see that I internalized the meaning of hózhó˛ and its principles through
the different ways that my parents demonstrated to me, encouraged me,
modeled for me, and showed me what it means to live in hózhó˛ as they did
in those early morning prayers, so that the idea of hózho’ó ‘adaa’á’hoolya˛
(taking care of one’s self) became clear and relevant to my life.
Simultaneously, this process of conscientization or consciousness rais-
ing as I have described it above in an Indigenous (Diné) context is also
defined by the renowned Brazilian educator Paulo Freire as emancipatory
or liberatory education.8 Furthermore, hózhó˛ as a philosophy of peace
and harmony transcends space, time, and diverse cultural perspectives,
as discussed by John Mohawk and Thich Nhat Hanh.9 In this way, I have
learned that hózhó˛ can be interpreted as more than just achieving a har-
monious and peaceful state of being; it can also be a way to achieve clear
thinking and apply it to our day-­to-­day conscious living. Hózhó˛ is also inte-
gral to that lifelong process of learning and living to achieve your life goals
that involves a process of naming the world, action, and reflection that
results in transformation or emancipation of mind, body, and spirit. Essen-
tially, then, hózhó˛ could be applied to how all humans want to live their
lives to achieve a harmonious state or outcome (life). Therefore, when the
goal or outcome is hózhó˛, hózhó˛ is then essentially the life force behind
the philosophy that determines how SNBH is achieved. Consequently, the
question of how can this be done in a practical way also begs the question
of how you understand or interpret and apply the principles of hózhó˛ into
your thoughts, actions, and behaviors in order to reach your life goals and
to validate or reaffirm your way of life. So, no matter where one finds one-
self, hózhó˛ is an ideal state of mind and being or living to be attained and
achieved as a life goal. In this way, one becomes SNBH—an embodiment
of and becoming everlasting life in happiness.

Hózhó˛ó˛go ‘Iiná: Living in Peace and Harmony

As I continue my life journey, I have discovered within myself that there

are many ways of learning about the life principles of hózhó˛—that is, what
informs my basic beliefs, values, and thoughts. There may be some people
Understanding Hózhó˛  • 33

who believe that there exists only one truth or philosophy superior to oth-
ers. Yet I believe that it is more important for me to discover that there
are many ways of finding out about myself. For example, over the past six
years I have been studying a Japanese martial arts form called aikido to
seek balance and harmony in my hectic life as a student and teacher. Ai-
kido emphasizes harmony in budō, or martial ways. Through the study of
aikido, I have become more aware in the study of myself as a way to reach
a state of full potential physically, mentally, and spiritually as a human
being. According to Mitsugi Saotome, in striving to achieve ai, or a state
of harmony, one learns through aikido to harmonize one’s ki, or life force,
with the natural world, or the universe’s ki.10 Thus, I find the principles
of aikido to be in many ways congruent to some of the guiding principles
found in the Diné philosophy of SNBH. So, as I continue to practice and
study aikido, I am naturally reminded of the transcendental nature of the
principle of hózhó˛. Consequently, as far back as I can remember, I have
to remind myself that hózhó˛ involves not only learning about the esoteric
philosophical forms of knowledge but also that hózhó˛ is integral to my
immediate contexts, my innate and natural ability to learn, be creative,
control my life energy in order to overcome obstacles in life, and find my
inner strength in a harmonious way that is in line with the life force of na-
ture. This idea, which is significant to the study of aikido, is also very much
in line with my own understanding of the Diné philosophy of life energy
and its potential for a harmonious (hózhó˛ó˛jí) or destructive (naayee’jí˛ )
path, depending on which path (or way) one seeks.
Thus, as I strive to learn more about myself and how to live according
to the principles of hózhó˛ to achieve conscientization and become in es-
sence the life force of SNBH, I realize that understanding hózhó˛ involves
learning about and gaining a greater understanding of the mind, body,
and spirit and harmonizing with the universe. On a personal level, this
process of trying to understand hózhó˛ has been beneficial not only to my
thinking but also to my physical health, emotions, and overall social and
spiritual development. In this way, I continue to pray and hope to walk in
beauty to find happiness and peace in my life or, in the words of my elders,
“hózhó˛ó˛gó ‘iináágoo baa hózhó˛.” Furthermore, in my search for knowl-
edge of universal truths and human interrelationships, I have learned and
gained much respect for all knowledge that seeks to develop humans to
their full potential and capacity for the sake of all life on Earth instead of
promoting one universal truth.
Today, I continue to try to interact with family, friends, and colleagues
as much as I can in a renewed and hopeful way. As such, I try to do this as
34  •  Frameworks of Understanding

much as I can, because I know that this is in line with my values, beliefs,
and worldview. That is, based on what I have learned so far about the
principle of hózhó˛, I try to maintain a sense of balance and harmony in
my life by acknowledging priorities in my life, my relationships, and my
responsibilities. For example, I visit my parents often to help with chores
around the house like I used to when I was a child, such as taking care of
livestock and attending social, cultural, and religious events in my com-
munity. Beyond that, I also spend a lot of time with my new family and
in schools and classrooms with students working to reaffirm and revitalize
their Diné language and cultural knowledge. More recently, I have begun
to explore ways to live that highlight ideas and issues around cultural and
ecological sustainability. Again, this is in line with my constant struggle
to live by the philosophical principle of hózhó˛ to my heart’s content yet
always moving and looking ahead on behalf of others—such as my family,
other relatives, and my people—for the sake of finding or achieving hózhó˛
and a better place and a better way to live.

Hózhó˛ Nahásdłí˛ ˛í ’: It Is Fulfilled in Beauty

Over my lifetime until now and continuing into the future, I hope to in-
terpret the principles of hózhó˛ and internalize them in my life, my educa-
tion, my worldview, and my vocation. In this final section, I share how I
am still learning to interpret and apply the principles of hózhó˛ to my life
today, as in the past.

1. The first principle of hózhó˛ involves conceptualization: ‘ádá nitsídzí-

kees, or thinking for one’s self. This principle helps to define who I
am ontologically and metaphysically as Ni’hookáá’ Diyiin Dine’é,
or Earth-­surface spiritual being, and Diné, a child of Earth and the
sky. More so, it is part of a deeper humble belief that I am part of a
larger and more complex spiritual, natural world. Therefore, these
ideas inform my most basic belief as a Diné that I am from and of
my mother, Earth, and that I walk with the guidance and protection
of my father, the sky. Finally, this knowledge informs my worldview
that my family, my language, all my relations (e.g., the Holy Peo-
ple, the winged ones, and the four-­legged ones), my prayers, stories,
songs, and cultural traditions are central to my survival. All of this is
consummated in the principles of living with hózhó˛ or Hózhó˛ó˛go
Understanding Hózhó˛  • 35

2. The second principle is about actualization: ádaa’ákózhniidzí˛ h, or

coming to realization about who you are. This principle reinforces
the value of my Diné language, philosophy, and pedagogy. With
realization begins critical conscientization, which entails a plan to
strategize ways to empower myself and other Diné peoples. Also,
I realize that I must continue to learn through Western and other
paradigms of knowledge to help guide my work and scholarship as
an Indigenous (Diné) educator and scholar so that I may counter the
language and discourse of oppression. In doing so, it is important to
emphasize Diné culture and language and to reaffirm Indigenous
thought and worldview in everyday life as a way of decolonizing and
transforming colonial structures and notions of Indigenous nation-
hood, sovereignty, and leadership through the development of an
Indigenous intelligentsia.11 Also, with this principle, I am constantly
aware of my life goals to do good and my potential to do good for
others. Thus, I am walking a good path of life in search of happiness
and fulfillment, or SNBH bik’ehgó yiishaał.
3. The third principle entails action: ‘t’áá hwó’ajít’éego ‘iiná ‘ajilééh, or
acting to achieve life goals. With this in mind, I begin to understand
that the conceptualization and actualization of life goals results in
action to achieve new consciousness or new understandings that
continuously informs ongoing acts of advocating for self and others
in the spirit of peace and justice. This principle helps to remind
me about the different ways to advocate for my people, my commu-
nity, for my students’ learning and development of positive self-­worth
and self-­identity by recognizing individual and group language and
cultural strengths in hopes of achieving transformation and change
within the process of schooling. My life goals and purpose are inter-
twined with my vocation as an Indigenous educator with the central
goal of helping others (students) to achieve consciousness and to
reach their life goals in the process.
4. Finally, there is the principle of reflection: síísdinídzin, or having
hope, faith, respect, and reverence for life. This principle continu-
ously informs the other principles as well as my lifelong personal
and community goals, my faith, and my hope in life as I continue
walking on the path of SNBH, or long life and happiness, as a Diné.
Also, this principle reinforces my commitment to recognizing and
honoring other Indigenous communities, ethnic groups, and forms
of knowledge, languages, and cultural traditions that have faith and
love for self, others, and the natural world.
36  •  Frameworks of Understanding

In sum, through this creative process of living and learning and engage-
ment with others and my natural surroundings, I am constantly learning
and striving to reaffirm myself and embrace my humanity today as a child
of Earth and the sky and respect the humanity of others and the natural
world around me through the principles of hózhó˛.
I have shared some of my personal ideas and beliefs about the meaning
of hózhó˛ and how I try to live my life according to its principles as they
exist in Diné philosophy, which I partly frame in Western theory using the
work of Paulo Freire and other nonindigenous scholars. My hope is that
this chapter will help to explain for other Native and nonnative scholars,
students, teachers, and researchers how I came to and continue to work
to understand and live by the principles of hózhó˛. I am well aware of how
this act of framing the ideas in a Western paradigm is not in line with In-
digenous thought, and I am also aware of how as an Indigenous educator I
have to be careful not to speak out of place if it is not my place to speak or
to pretend to speak out for my community from a privileged position. With
that in mind, I think it is important to note that I have only shared what
information or knowledge is already out in academia and written about by
other Diné scholars. I have not overstepped my boundaries by describing
ceremonial knowledge. Instead, I have only tried to explain and share my
own interpretation of the principles of hózhó˛. Also, instead of trying to fit
an Indigenous paradigm into a Western framework, I have used the mas-
ter’s tools to make it fit. Furthermore, my intent for framing it in a Western
discourse is to avoid essentializing Navajo thought and philosophy and
romanticizing Indigenous forms of knowledge. In the end, I hope that
I was able to articulate my understanding of hózhó˛ using my Diné and
Western frames of mind as well as the language and theory of academia so
that others may gain a new appreciation and understanding of Indigenous
intellectual sovereignty.
Since this writing is not primarily for the academy only, I am using
this forum to speak out and speak to my relatives, peers, and friends in the
Indigenous communities about asserting our intellectual sovereignty, as
discussed by Robert Warrior.12 I hope that we can begin to think of ways
to engage in more critical dialogue and praxis with other Diné, Native
American, and even nonnative scholars to work for the benefit of all chil-
dren. All of this work ultimately should be to achieve and realize a trans-
formative educational model for the next generation of Indigenous and
other youths. That said, part of my message here is also to give courage and
hope to Indigenous youths, families, and communities that we are capable
of reclaiming, rearticulating, and reaffirming the value and worth of our
Understanding Hózhó˛  • 37

cultural knowledge and heritage without having to compromise ourselves,

even within a Western framework.
Finally, I maintain that as Indigenous scholars we can utilize Indig-
enous thought to make sense of Western concepts and vice versa whether
they exist in traditional or contemporary forms. Diné philosophy and theo-
retical frameworks were around for thousands of years before the advent
of Euro-­Western thought, and these principles or philosophies continue
to mean something and everything to our contemporary lives and under-
standings of ourselves. In this way, the contemporary interpretation of
the principles of hózhó˛ emanate from and continue to reverberate with
the traditional Diné philosophical aspects of human growth and develop-
ment, or human living and learning. As I have described before, these
ideas are a conceptualization of the mind and the realization of self for
positive outcomes (Nitsáhákees), achieving critical consciousness through
the process of achieving and planning life goals (Nahat’á), developing an
awareness and responsibility to act for self and others (Iiná), and engag-
ing in an ongoing process of self-­awareness and reflection (Siihasin) for
the good of self, family, community, and the natural world. In the end, I
hope that these kinds of dialogue will help to create and illuminate the
need for more discussion, thought, and interpretation about Indigenous
life principles, such as the concept of hózhó˛, that will ultimately lead to a
pedagogy of love and hope for all.


1. There are many translations of what SNBH means, but I chose to use this one
based on how I have come to understand the concept/idea.
2. For more information, see John Farella, The Mainstalk: A Synthesis of Navajo
Religion (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1984); Gary Witherspoon, Language
and Art in the Navajo Universe (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1977).
3. Wilson Aronilth Jr., Diné bi bee’ Óhoo’aah Bá Silá: An Introduction to Navajo
Philosophy (Tsaile, AZ: Navajo Community College Press, 1991).
4. Michael Yellowbird, “Tribal Critical Thinking Centers,” in For Indigenous
Eyes Only, edited by Waziyatawin Angela Wilson and Michael Yellowbird (Santa Fe:
School of American Research Press, 2005), 15.
5. Graham Smith, “Indigenous Struggle for the Transformation of Education
and Schooling,” keynote address to the Alaskan Federation of Natives Convention,
Anchorage, Alaska, October 2003,
6. Ibid.
7. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1953; reprint, Chicago: McClurg,
1973), 3–5.
38  •  Frameworks of Understanding

8. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970; reprint, New York: Continuum
International, 2001).
9. John Mohawk, “The Iroquois Confederacy,” in Original Instructions, edited by
Melissa K. Nelson (Rochester, NY: Bear, 2008), 56–57; Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is
Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (New York: Bantam, 1991).
10. For more details about ki and its relationship to harmony, see Mitsugi Saotome,
The Principles of Aikido (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1989), 200–201.
11. Taiaiake Alfred, Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto (On-
tario: Oxford University Press, 1999). Other Indigenous scholars, such as the Haude-
noshonee scholar Taiaike Alfred and the Osage scholar Robert Warrior, assert that the
struggle to maintain intellectual sovereignty along with our languages starts by find-
ing new strength and hope in Indigenous knowledge systems. Only by utilizing such
systems can we continue to look clearly at the ways and possibilities in which critical
Indigenous decolonization theories can inform contemporary Indigenous education,
politics, research, and governance.
12. For more about intellectual sovereignty, see R. A. Warrior, Tribal Secrets: Recov-
ering American Indian Intellectual Traditions (Duluth: University of Minnesota Press,
Morning Offerings, Like Salt
Esther Belin

I am surrounded by the rocks from Dibé Ntsaa. At my desk, the rocks sit
and write with me. The story penetrates like early spring wind, creamy and
spread evenly along my spine. The rock crystals breathe and rest. Their
sharp edges speak in rhythmic high tones trailed by melodious low tones,
inviting me to speak.
My beginnings according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs records:
DOB: 07-­02-­68
Location: Indian Health Service Hospital, Gallup, New Mexico
According to my clan:
Tłogí diné nishłí, Tódich’íínii báshischíín, Kinłichíínii éi dashicheii, or the
fourth part to my whole consists of a last name: Belin, Bilíí.
According to my tribe:
When I fill out tribal forms, I am never asked for my Diné identity. How-
ever, I am always asked for information about my physical beginnings on
this planet. Within the same forms, I am usually asked for that same data
numerous times. The consistent focus on that data infers its significance
as a part of my being, suggesting that my tribe has replaced our traditional
living system with a defined Westernized world order. I am never asked
for clan documentation. I am always asked for date of birth, place of birth,
Social Security number, and then census number. Ironically, the date of
birth, birth certificate, and Social Security documents are usually required
before one can obtain a tribal census number.

40  •  Frameworks of Understanding

When I think of a traditional tribal lifestyle, a census number is furthest
from my mind. Growing up away from my tribal homeland, I never con-
sidered my urban lifestyle as traditional or tribal, yet my census number,
revealing a 4/4 blood quantum, qualified me as authentic, while my physi-
cal elements existed in Los Angeles (LA)—a trail of vapors stemming from
an exiled status. The cosmos of legitimatizing ourselves in terms of the
Bureau of Indian Affairs veils us as colonized. Or does that cosmos protect
us? The question is one of individual preference and semantics. I love
the freedom to choose my definition of Indian, Navajo, Diné, urban, rez,
beat up and knocked down, yet never dead. As a writer, the pleasure is
definitely in the play among vocabulary and embracement of the English
language. I confidently say that English is a tribal language. I give it the
power to be Indian, Navajo, Diné, urban, rez, beat up, knocked down, and
never dead.
Somewhere along my lineage, someone imagined. Nitsáhákees safely
transferred into the next world. We reimagine ourselves, re-­create our
Diné worldview wherever “home” is reestablished. Thus, the manner in
which I was raised in a small town south of downtown LA was an extension
of the Diné way of life. In the town of Lynwood, California, my parents
imprinted Sa’a˛h Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhó˛ó˛n on my sister, brother, and I
(California style, of course).
I stare into the rocks on my desk. Immediately, the most obvious observa-
tion is the diversity: size, shape, color, texture, density, clarity. All stem
from the same vicinity, yet they are vastly unique, contributing to my world
in complementary and tangled ways not as a tangible text but as a text that
is constantly in the making. The text contains me, as a five-­fingered being,
on a journey through a web of cultural constructs. Are the words from my
mouth, which represent the thoughts from my heart, tethered to the sky,
as well as to Earth? Are those words contributing to give order to both the
male and female parts of me? Are the fertile parts of my roots nourishing
equally, seasoned with the vibrating stars as well as the dampened, miner-
alized earth?
As a child, I lived in two constructed worlds—one around my father and
the other around my mother. Part of that era of termination and relocation
was a lacerating disruption to the essential elements: moisture, substance,
air, and heat. My parents went about their own ways to reconstruct those
Morning Offerings, Like Salt  • 41

essential elements and adjust their senses. Moisture emerged from the
oceanic tug of the Pacific, its salty breath, a helix of sea ribbons in coher-
ence with the splashing surf, an anchor, my limbs winding to warm under-
currents and gulping riptides. The salty tears held in the drinking vessel
between my internal organs and fatty tissue now hold my substance, shi-
jish, a rock salt that feeds me. The air in my lungs sharply stitches together
shihizaad with bilagáanaa bizaad; the zigzagged union, feathery soft with
scar tissue, is now the hybridized language I use. California heat snapped
as refined as lightning and usually emerged from my father. The fire in his
water sourced flames barbed deeper than the ultraviolet sun. My mother’s
nudging fed the LA soil, remoistening the earth. Shijish, the smoky sand
glittering, the crashing down of waves, the murmur of moistened earth.
My father tested the LA soil like a chemist, collecting blood, saliva, wind,
and fire. He lived in continuous experiments, constructing his compiled
elements, reformulating, renaming, never finding the logic behind his re-
location. The LA soil circulates and gathers the early dawn mists that are
easily burned off by the sharp blue rays of daylight.
My mother does not allow us to say “stupid” or “shut up.” I think about
those words now, and even today I do not allow my children to use them.
I think about the power that words have, the searing effect that they have
on our outer layer and sometimes deep to our inner core. My mother dis-
tinctly nurtured a vocabulary that I continue to fold and fold, deeper and
deeper. Shihizaad rests at the base of my neck, a polished white shell urg-
ing me forward. Even as a child, the words she spoke to us were carefully
constructed; word by word, she built me.
Now as a mother of four daughters, I understand her teaching. I see how
her molded breath blessed me. I now unwrap those reservation teachings
that I long ago folded into neat packages as artifacts. More than ever, I
appreciate her continued patience to mark me with her wind. Shimá was
separated from her home and family as a young teenager, relocated to a
five-­year program at Sherman Institute in Riverside, California. This era
of termination and relocation intersects me as a ray infinitely traveling
at the speed of light. While my parents attended Sherman Institute, the
immersion of a foreign culture covered them like a flash flood in an ar-
royo—quick and fierce; an anointing of unknown contents; residue and
trauma relived on occasion; the quickness and fierceness intensified; shift-
ing, transcending through; pouring out; purging. The aftermath created
the piercing ray that intersects my side, a visual map on my flesh.
42  •  Frameworks of Understanding

Only at a certain angle, with an unusual amount of navigation, is the

map revealing. Who wants to take the time to decipher a cryptic, relo-
cated, tribal dialect? I chose that mission for a short period during my
undergraduate years at the University of California at Berkeley. Here are
my findings:

1. The tribal dialect was buried under the remnants. Its thoughts ran
through a razor-­sharp maze before methodical words eventually ar-
ticulated. And the maze changed, with each person, each situation,
until finally a calloused tongue and a damaged voice box remained—
a taciturn damp depository, reforming sliced emotions, resuscitating
vapors back into speech.
2. When my mother speaks English, it is pretty good. She learned Eng-
lish while she scrubbed soiled toilets, skin, and spit. She learned to
talk the American way of division, separation. She relearned how to
acquire small items, accumulating her own layers of protection. I
observe how she separates thoughts into units of assorted value then
reassembles and breathes life back into them. I share her awareness
and sorrow over the loss of words.
3. Subsequently, the relocatees spoke in a colonized English. Its role,
compliant with each new movement in federal Indian policy, is
changing. The rhetorical awareness of the speaker and the audience
transcends this dialect into an affirmation of finding home, a newly
crafted center built on the developmental stages of achieving total
and full Diné personhood.

Naming the Ray

A ray is a line with only one end that starts at a given point and goes off in
a certain direction forever, to infinity. This dictionary definition is typical
of a description conscribed from the English language cosmos whereby
the complementarity and synecdochical manifestations are not discussed,
as if the single ray does not possess the sun’s vibrations, the lightning bolt’s
vocal commands. Those considerations are crucial to adjusting the relo-
cated zenith, nadir, and center cardinal points.

1. By two complementary points

a. Eddie and Susan
b. Torreon and Birdsprings
Morning Offerings, Like Salt  • 43

c. Tłogí and Tódich’íínee

d. Gallup and Lynwood
e. Termination and Relocation
f. Stupid and Shut Up
2. By a constructed space
a. x6
3. By synecdoche

The rocks sit with me. I am eclipsed by their still outer layer, elucidated
by the inner layer—a melody: holy on the side of protection, peaceful on
the side of order. I live in the sun-­setting shadow of Dibé Ntsaa, practicing
stillness, fastening my prayers tight around the rainbow at its base.
7pm thought, memory @
Dziłnaodiłthle-­Eastern View
Venaya Yazzie

walking—naashá naashá

out where arroyos

overflow with rain cloud

Dziłnaodiłthle center sacred mountain

to Naabiho Diné who gather its strength
in locks of their checkerboard Diné hair.

It has become DZ—to the 21st-­century urban tongue.

moving—naashá naashá

out where
hogan earth women speak
of movement
and dialogue flows from the bark of
juniper and cedar trees.
they step, step with bare feet
along the vertical lines of western horizon-­

existing—naashá naashá

7pm thought, memory @ Dziłnaodiłthle-­Eastern View  • 45

abalone girl with courage seeped deep

in the lines of her hands
carries a bow of rain
as rainbow dances along her form.
beetle girl with strength adorned
in the grids of her shell
reflects the sheen of blue rocks
set along the whispering southern river bed—

at this space the People live—iiná iiná

called the rock that turns in all directions,
is center mountain roughly the one our youth call,
DZ—it rolls off the 21st-­century urban tongue
translated to Euro-­English convenience.

this space is where

grandfather, shícheii
rolled his wisdom
over the brown ears
of the Manyhogans clan children.

where masani brushed, brushed

black hair over brown shoulders
her stories absorbed the souls of birds
perched in our twilight.

living—naashá naashá

reflects the vertical patterns of star life in this checkerboard rez.

Dziłnaodiłthle the first emergence talk settled

above the rim of the women’s brow.

at dawn cumulus clouds gesture gesture

at the rising sun where Dziłnaodiłthle
catches the web of prayers
found on the
Venaya Yazzie

Analyses of Methodologies
Diné Culture, Decolonization,
and the Politics of Hózhó˛
Larry W. Emerson


Tsénahabiłnii nishłí˛ dóó Tó’aheedlíínii báshíshchíín. Hooghanłání da

shináłí. Kiyaa’áanii da shichei Akwot’áó Diné nishłi˛. Tsédaak’á˛á˛n wolyéedi
t’áá’áyisí áádé˛é˛’ naashá.
I am the Over Hanging Ledge Rock People born for the Water Flows-­
Together People. My paternal grandfather’s clan is Many Hogans People,
and my maternal grandfather’s clan is Towering House People. I am Diné.
I am really from Tsédaak’á˛á˛n.
My life work has been a journey and quest to integrate Diné hózhó˛ and k’é
teachings into my work as a Diné scholar. We have a responsibility to iden-
tify ways of knowing that can help us understand the nature of our struggle
and quest for freedom. My quest is not limited to a local one. Instead, the
local intersects with the global. This intersection is clear regarding the
growing global population, climate change and global warming, environ-
mental pollution, increasing demands on finite water sources, and fossil
fuel–driven political economies. There is growing evidence of Indigenous
people as environmental refugees trying to escape catastrophic disruption
caused by environmental degradation.
I heard one commentator say that more and more humans are adopting
a Western lifestyle tied to high fossil fuel consumption, unchecked use of
water for personal benefit, and demands for more electric consumption,

50  •  Analyses of Methodologies

more cars, more lumber (e.g., for paper and homes), more processed food,
and so on. The Diné future, once seen as local and very rural, is undeni-
ably locked into global forecasts such as this.
Also, we still experience more than 250 years of colonization. While
a colonialist pattern of conquest, control, and subjugation has been well
documented, a second pattern also persists. This has to do with resistance
to colonialism. Diné resistance has taken many shapes: armed warfare;
a countering with cultural and linguistic voice and action; demands for
tribal sovereignty, self-­governance, and self-­determination; the creation of
Indigenous-­centered, non-­Western institutions; and the advent of tribal
I have been very interested in the realm of Indigenous cultural expres-
sion and resistance, since culture functions as a source of identity and
is a place to return to after, let’s say, experiencing various forms of co-
lonial oppression. Culture provides a set of values, codes, and maps to
help guide our return home. As such, culture is also a site or theater of
engagement of the political, social, and economic realms. Culture can
easily become a battleground of sorts too. For example, a Diné might say,
“Larry, that return home is impossible. That was 250 years ago. We cannot
go backward.”
I believe that we can go back 250 years and further. Yes, we cannot
find the same exact material culture, but we can find vital principles of
life there. Principles, values, mores, processes, concepts, structures, lan-
guages, and sciences remain intact. The question is whether we revital-
ize and restore our culture by restoring and regenerating the nonmodern
realm still embedded in our language, ceremonies, prayers, songs, art, and
Even though non-­Diné scholars have credited Diné peoples with an
ability to adapt to change—and say that we have learned to balance tradi-
tion and change—medicine people, elders, and Native American scholars
question whether adaptability still works. About 95 percent of Diné youths
under five years old no longer speak Diné or know their traditional Diné
identity. Diné parents and grandparents are often cited for this loss and
discrepancy. Whatever the case, Dinétah is in trouble while at the same
time remaining quite resilient and sturdy.
My scholarly journey connects to these thoughts with how I grew up
and how my family and community attempted to survive in a rapidly
changing world. Needless to say, our collective journey has been both a
sad and joyful one.
Diné Culture and the Politics of Hózhó˛  • 51

In this chapter, I share six concepts and learning tools that might help
us critique our inner and outer worlds to address Diné issues. These are
concepts, theories, and practices relating to (1) colonization, (2) intergen-
erational historic trauma, (3) decolonization, (4) Indigenization, (5) tradi-
tional knowledge, and (6) Indigenous human rights.

My Story and Journey

When I talk to younger Native American people these days, I wind up

saying something like “Wow, I am beginning to sound like a poster boy
for boarding schools, alcoholism, addiction, and shame about being Diné
along with a personal history of not being a good family and community
member.” My earlier journey was based on misguided and uninformed
notions about the nature of a healthy Diné lifestyle. I was taught by Chris-
tian and public school people to view the Diné world negatively and as ir-
relevant. I was taught to deny my Diné identity, history, culture, language,
and politics.
Unlike other Diné peoples who grew up in homes that stress Diné tra-
ditional knowledge and language, I was not privileged to grow up this way.
This was very unfortunate, but my parents did the best they could to raise
us children by stressing the English language and teaching us to live the
modern way (whatever that meant). We were fortunate to learn basic ele-
ments of the Diné language through ceremonies and visits from elders,
but this was interrupted by boarding and public schools that stressed Eng-
lish. My parents tried to raise us to know the American (Bilagáanaa) world
even though they were not really familiar with the intricacies of the mod-
ern Bilagáanaa world.
It was the severe trauma of boarding school, poverty, and family breakup
that influenced my parents to seek out an alternative way of living. They
never forgot the Diné language and culture though. They knew that
survival in the modern world required modernized competency, as they
learned it from the U.S. government back in their own boarding school
Today, I journey and way-­find with a sense of cultural and language loss
that is equivalent to what some writers call cultural and linguistic trauma.
I believe that cultural trauma and language loss account for the manner
in which a large number of us Diné peoples live in unhealthy imbalance.
This is not to say, though, that all Diné peoples are therefore imbalanced,
52  •  Analyses of Methodologies

in crises, or in depression and misery. However, public health statistics

indicate that Native American people do not enjoy good health, adequate
jobs, adequate housing, and safe communities. Public education statistics
paint a dismal picture of disparity regarding how well we perform in a
Western academic sense.
I have tried to live my life in a way that attempts to understand why
things are the way they are and how they got that way. An important ques-
tion has always been this: What happened? I have been a twenty-­two-year
alcoholic and a divorcee, and I now live with diabetes. I am now twenty-­
two years clean and sober, as AA folks say. I refuse to allow my personal
trauma to dictate or rule my life.
I have never really left my home in Tsédaak’áán (located east of
Shiprock). I want to reconstruct a renewed sense of well-­being and hu-
manity for family, friends, my community, and myself. To reconstruct
implies to deconstruct. Reconstructing and deconstructing are basic con-
cepts of decolonization. Decolonization is impossible without a creative
drive to change things that are not appropriate and are unhealthy for Diné
peoples. I want to learn decolonized skills and competencies to help oth-
ers like myself free themselves from traps that have relegated us to a life
of unresolved shame, anger, rage, and grief. This sort of condition can be
changed. Suffering can be stopped.
I believe that it is essential for people like myself to locate themselves
in a precolonized state of knowing and being. This is a nonlinear and ho-
listic process that engenders or reveals a traditional or nonmodern sense
of identity, history, spirituality, holiness, and self-­respect. It is in this place
that one can restore and regenerate a sense of healthy self. As Indigenous
people who are caught in modern world colonization and confusion, we
need to find and construct new ways to know this world in ways that are so
old that they look new.
A basic tenant of Diné or Indigenous journeying has always involved
questions of how to know this world, how to be in this world, and how
to become a good human. Among questions regarding who I am, who I
am supposed to be, if I am my tribe’s vision of itself, how I am supposed
to know what I am supposed to know, and how do I know what to know,
a huge questions is this: How do I respectfully make relational and inter-
connected decisions for myself, the land, the plants, my family and kin,
and community within the Diné Four Sacred Mountains in a good way
Diné Culture and the Politics of Hózhó˛  • 53

Colonization and Diné History

I mentioned earlier that Diné experience with colonization is more than

250 years old. Diné traditional knowledge says that one good life span is
102 years; however, because of colonization, our life expectancy rate is
around 65 years. If so, we have lived under colonial rule for some four
Colonialism is concerned with power, wealth, control, and exploita-
tion and is the willful domination, displacement, and subjugation of one
people over another. Colonialism also describes how settler people invent
their ideas and theories and apply them to Indigenous people. My experi-
ence of colonialist scholarship is that it shifts and changes Indigenous real-
ity by superimposing its own notions of “romance, exotic beings, haunting
memories and landscapes, [and] remarkable experiences” on Native Amer-
ican people (Said 1978, 1).
The Spanish arrival in Dinétah around 1540 had enormous cultural
and economic impact on us. Contact was violent, as all colonial invasions
are. The Spaniards warred with the Diné peoples but were never fully able
to militarily conquer them and their lands. Spanish colonialism did not
influence us as much as the American colonials who began to arrive in the
area in the early to mid-­1800s. However, Spanish contact did benefit Diné
peoples enormously through technology, language, and culture.
By the late 1860s, the Bilagáanaas, who in 1847 staged a military take-
over in Santa Fe, wrested political and economic control from the Mexi-
can government. Americans immediately set up economic and political
rule over Diné and other tribal territories, including Mexican lands, and
proceeded to maintain and protect their ruling authority gained from no-
tions of racial, economic, and class difference and intellectual, racial, and
cultural supremacy (Iverson 2002b).
The Euro-­Americans most directly and thoroughly colonized the Diné
peoples. Euro-­American colonialists waged military conflict with the Diné
peoples throughout the early 1850s and the 1860s, setting up various mili-
tary forts (i.e., Fort Lewis, Colorado; Fort Wingate, New Mexico; and Fort
Defiance, Arizona) around the parameter of Navajo country. Navajo and
American wars culminated with the 1864 internment of some 9,000 Diné
prisoners of war at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The four-­year internment
ended in failure and in 1868 resulted in the Treaty of Bosque Redondo,
in which the Diné peoples agreed to live in peace and return to a U.S.
government–defined reservation in what is now called the Four Corners
area of the United States.
54  •  Analyses of Methodologies

The 1868 treaty outlines several terms that the Diné peoples agreed to
abide by. These terms reflect a pattern of colonization. For example, the
U.S. military was allowed inside Diné country. We agreed to never wage
war against the United States and to allow the United States to educate
us. We also agreed not to interfere with a railroad to be built alongside
Diné country. While a treaty between two countries signifies mutual sov-
ereignty, the 1868 treaty was also a colonizing document. I must mention
here that the practice of treaty making is important in understanding the
validity of tribal sovereignty. It is just that treaty terms can be colonialistic.
By the early 1900s Americans established control over Diné education,
economic development, land use, and tribal government, enlisting sup-
port from various Christian denominations. The Navajo Tribal Council
was created in the early 1920s with assistance from the Bureau of Indian
Affairs. The real purpose of this new council was to sign oil and gas leases.
The years between 1900 and 1950 are characterized as an assimilation
period. Although before 1868 Diné resistance to colonialism was common,
after 1868 it did not outwardly manifest until the 1960s and 1970s with the
advent of the American Indian Movement (better known as AIM), the
Coalition for Navajo Liberation, Indians Against Exploitation, and other
activist organizations. This is not to say, however, that resistance ceased be-
tween 1868 and the 1960s and 1970s. There is evidence of Navajo success
in coping with various issues involving land, water, agriculture, livestock,
oil, gas, and social problems and forming a particular Navajo way of politi-
cal expression and discourse (Iverson 2002a). Today, we might character-
ize Diné society as being in a state of quasi recovery from colonialism or
in a state of early decolonization.
Colonial and neocolonial ideology and hegemony have blinded many
Diné peoples, who no longer recognize or acknowledge the extent of dam-
age and despair caused by colonial invasion. Instead, many Diné peoples
tend to blame themselves for Diné social upheaval, to the approval of many
Bilagáanaas. Most Diné peoples still use Westernized and even colonial
methods to solve our problems caused by colonization. Rather than en-
gage a politics of hózhó˛, modernized Diné politicians, having assimilated
a Bilagáanaa hierarchical politic of power, tend to reject the politics of
hózhó˛. The traditional politic of communal love, respect, and interdepen-
dence has been deemed outmoded or unmanly in a similar way that the
Black Power movement marginalized a black politic of love (hooks 2001).
Newer forms of colonialism, or neocolonialism, thrive today as well.
Colonizing practices have merely changed form and context over the
Diné Culture and the Politics of Hózhó˛  • 55

years. While some scholars believe that colonialism is past history, others
acknowledge that it simply reframed and retooled itself. Neocolonialism
still operates through schools, economics, politics, religion, the media,
and government. Neocolonialism extends to the conquest and control of
Mother Earth (Nihimá Nahazdáán) and Father Sky (Yádiłhił). Virtually
all life forms are at risk from colonial assault. The term “biocolonialism”
describes neocolonialism linked to biological science and methodology as
it is used to commodify the natural world.
Colonialism is not a thing of the past. Instead, this ever-­present reality
continues to affect how we live our lives within the Navajo Nation, the
Diné Bikéyah, or the Navajo Reservation. How one names Diné coun-
try seems to relate to how one views history, politics, and culture. Neo­
colonialists tend to call Dinétah the “Navajo Reservation.” Contemporary
Navajo officials call Diné country the “Navajo Nation.” Traditionalists still
call it “Diné Bikéyah” in a sacred way. Colonialist practice maintains po-
litical domination not only over Diné place-­names and personal names
but also over Navajo government. Neocolonialism in the meantime has
reached global proportions as it envelops and flows through Diné country.
Obviously, we Diné peoples find favor with aspects of the modern
world that help with our subsistence. However, Diné peoples do not agree
with everything modern. I think this may happen because of the secular
demand of colonialists for Diné peoples to abandon the sacred.
Visitors to the Diné Nation often expect to see Diné peoples living a
serene, pastoral existence. The visitors are attracted here because of our
well-­publicized Beauty Way philosophy but often wind up perplexed be-
cause they don’t see Beauty Way. Instead they see poverty, trash lining the
highways, a few inebriated hitchhikers along the roads, and so on.
Diné men seem to be affected in a very raw and vulnerable manner.
Yet as many know, males in general tend not to exhibit vulnerability and
intimacy. But when we drink too much alcohol, the anger and rage too
often explode into violence. Navajo versus Navajo violence often turns
to physical abuse and sometimes murder. These contradictions, conflicts,
and tensions manifest in our homes, communities, schools, and govern-
ment. We wind up fighting among ourselves. Statistics regarding violence,
abuse, and addiction are rampant. We fear one another. This happens
despite our traditional knowledge that urges us to live in harmony, beauty,
and balance. Tension and conflict play a major role in how we now live
our lives. This is not healthy for us, because we are in conflict with each
other and with our inner selves.
56  •  Analyses of Methodologies

I have devoted a good amount of study, conversation, dialogue, and

even sometimes debate to understanding why conflict, tension, and con-
tradiction impact a significant portion of our lives. Much of my own life
has been plagued by contradiction and tension. I often tell Native youths
that in the 1970s I was an activist by day and an alcoholic by night or that
I portrayed myself as some sort of Pan-­Indian cultural expert. As I reflect
on my life in the context of Diné colonial history, I see many contradic-
tions, conflicts, and tensions that mark our daily lives. On the one hand,
I see integrity, honesty, beauty, and a sense of respect in song, prayer, and
ceremony that dwell in the hearts of our people. On the other hand, I wit-
ness unresolved anger, loss, shame, guilt, and rage among all ages of our

Intergenerational and Historic Trauma

As many people know, Indigenous peoples have undergone more than five
hundred years of colonization and suffer the effects. One effect is intergen-
erational historic trauma. In the 1980s a Lakota scholar investigated the
effects of war, land loss, family and community breakup, and the like on
contemporary Native American life and experience. This scholar, Maria
Yellow Horse Brave Heart, helped usher in a relevant set of thinking that
opened a very different way to understanding trauma itself as it is con-
nected to healing, self-determination, survival, transformation, and action.
When I heard this view of trauma, the idea that whole sets of unresolved
negative beliefs and behaviors (of oneself and one’s family and people)
can be transferred from one generation to the next awakened something
dormant in me. Intuitively, I knew that this was true.
Part of my concern as a Diné scholar has been to understand how op-
pression, for example, embedded in colonization, has disrupted our age-­
old quest to walk in harmony, beauty, peace, happiness, and balance and
to practice k’é, or compassionate interdependent kinship relations. His-
toric intergenerational trauma theory and practice helps me link history,
psychology, culture and spirituality, language, oppression, self-­concept,
and identity to Earth and the sky as well as to individual and community
action (or inaction). There are many other possible linkages, but the point
is that this thinking opened up a different way to link concepts so that new
explanations could emerge regarding our somewhat baffling, contradic-
tory, and conflictual beliefs and behaviors that are the way they are for
some valid reasons.
Diné Culture and the Politics of Hózhó˛  • 57

Historic intergenerational trauma theory helps answer a whole host of

questions, such as:

•• Why are we so angry and in conflict and tension with one another
when traditional culture recommends and assumes compassionate
interrelations (k’é)?
•• Why, if we are supposed to walk in beauty, is our land so trashed up?
•• Why can’t the younger generation speak Diné to the older genera-
tion, which causes a serious generational communication gap?
•• Why do certain parents refuse to teach the Diné language to their
•• Why are there such high addiction and violence rates in our
•• Why are so many of our people depressed?
•• Why do many Native American people support Native American
mascots that dehumanize and racialize us?
•• Why is there such a high prevalence of diabetes and heart disease?
•• Why do so many of our youths identify with non-­Diné culture?
•• Why do we no longer really know ourselves as Five-­Fingered
People, or Bíla Ashdla’ii, who used ceremony to sustain the Earth
and sky communities?

The questions go on and on. But historic intergenerational trauma theory

and practice has the capacity to answer them primarily in the psychologi-
cal realm. However, because Native American people come from cultures
that are holistic, limiting our answers just to the psychological realm is not
enough. We are a spiritual people too. Our language isn’t so obsessed with
classifying, categorizing, and objectifying the world.


Decolonization practices resist and reject colonization. It is almost that

simple. Decolonization theory and practice attempts to relocate oneself
(or one’s group) apart and away from colonizing impacts and influences.
Decolonization is a process, not an event. Between 1918 and 1981, global
colonization created worldwide resistance, marking a first wave of decolo-
nization. Decolonization is a distinctive theme in twentieth-­century his-
tory, but Diné peoples do not know about this history.
58  •  Analyses of Methodologies

Colonialism’s high point was reached in 1919 after World War I when
the Treaty of Versailles brought many countries under European rule. This
marked the point whereby European imperialism thrived on a worldwide
scale—enough to produce worldwide resistance organized by colonized
countries (Ashcroft 1995). Colonies and former colonies covered nearly
85 percent of Earth’s surface by the 1930s (Loomba 1998). The bulk of
Asian countries regained local control, while the bulk of African countries
did the same later. Actually, one of the last decolonization agreements oc-
curred in 1994 in South Africa.
To see decolonization as an event is not accurate, because this view fails
to see decolonization in waves of change. Today, decolonization is many
things and involves a complex set of ideas, concepts, and truths. It can be
an individual or micro matter of decolonizing one’s mind and healing
the self. It can also be a macro matter if it involves a government agree-
ing to embark on such a journey. Macro decolonization, which implies
community-­wide healing, transformation, and mobilization, is theoretical
and can propose fresh new democratic practices.
Indigenous-­centered decolonization integrates its own experience of
truths (not necessarily theory) to articulate a new way of knowing and
being that is so old that it looks new. At some point, Indigenous scholars
find ways to understand and situate a precolonized, nonmodern, and non-
market self.
Colonization-­decolonization frameworks suggest a dialectical and op-
positional relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed, the privi-
leged and the disenfranchised, the settler and the Native, the colonizer
and the colonized, or the conqueror and the conquered. Furthermore, this
framework expresses a dichotomous relationship between the traditional
and the modern, the natured and the denatured, the humanized and the
dehumanized, the Indigenous and the Western, and the racialized and
de-­racialized. Within the world of Indigenous scholarship, a growing body
of literature and research is now devoted to this framework. After all, if we
are to detach from colonial mentalities, we must understand the nature of
these dialectics and dichotomies by resorting to Indigenous-­centered ways
of knowledge, existence, and critique.
Indigenous-­centered decolonization theory and practice is concerned
with multiple issues. Most important, it is concerned with healing, trans-
formation, self-­determination, autonomy, and action. For example, for
these things to happen we must also understand the nature of indigeniza-
tion, since this process can incorporate the modern or Western world con-
cepts that may help Indigenous people better understand the process of
Diné Culture and the Politics of Hózhó˛  • 59

living in two worlds in a good way. Since Indigenous culture and language
are concerned with sustaining a sense of identity connected to a sense
of place, kinship, community, song, prayerfulness, and ceremony, indi-
genization offers us an opportunity to restore, recover, and regenerate a
sense of self and community. I discuss the indigenization concept later.
Decolonization theory and practice facilitate a process of liberation.
Granted, in Diné creation stories, forms of oppression and certain forms of
war, theft, land acquisition, and economic expansion did exist. However,
the practice of colonization—when defined as the use of money tied to
political power and control in order to acquire land, labor, capital, and
human service—was pretty much nonexistent. The word for “money” was
acquired sometime after Spanish appearance in the mid-­1500s. The Diné
word béeso is a derivative from the Spanish word “peso.”
If decolonization involves the practice of resisting oppression, then
there is ample evidence that the Diné peoples began such resistance early
in the 1500s with the arrival of the Spanish people. This resistance contin-
ued through the American occupation in the mid-­1800s and continues to
this day.
Contemporary Diné decolonization resists English-­only U.S. history
that skips over Native American experiences, generic academics that
subordinate Diné knowing and being, and assimilationist mandates that
remind us of boarding school trauma by demanding Diné culture and
language revitalization as well as k’é teachings that promise kinship
and community—not disconnected individuality that leads to isolation
and fragmentation.
One need not call it “decolonization,” but Diné resistance histori-
cally involved a military struggle to defend its territory to preserve itself.
Diné leaders quite naturally used Diné thinking and action to embark
on this task. The Diné way of thinking and knowing became the mode
of resistance. Diné history with Europeans has always involved a clash
between worldviews. This clash continues to this day and is exemplified
by Diné claims to Indigenous-­centered sovereignty, self-­government, and
Today, not all Diné peoples claim to be traditional because we have
converted to Christianity and various forms of Western thinking. Thus, we
experience Diné versus Diné conflict. This conflict is political, economic,
religious, racial, linguistic, and cultural. Some Diné peoples may argue
that this conflict is inevitable because we were and are a backward people
and the modern or Western people are forward thinking. Whatever the case
may be, the fact is that Diné peoples are divided regarding approaches to
60  •  Analyses of Methodologies

economic development, education, use of natural resources, social well-­

being, and political destiny.
In 1989 this conflict took a very dramatic stance when two political
factions warred and one Diné elder was eventually killed. This conflict
resulted in a measure to reform Diné government by restructuring it into
three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. This form of govern-
ment has been labeled a copycat government since it mimics the U.S. gov-
ernment, a very modern and Western governmental form. Some scholars
point out that Indigenous forms of government that are rich in democratic
thinking have consistently been marginalized and subordinated, forcing
Western forms of government to operate inside Indigenous territories and
thus creating puppet governments.
But here’s the point: When two different cultures and languages col-
lide in a colonialistic framework, one culture and language will become
subordinated to the other. In our case, we experience cultural, political,
economic, and social subordination and the various forms of unresolved
loss, shame, guilt, and anger that come with it.
Decolonization theory and practice can assist us in understanding how
to undo the negative impacts of colonization. Knowledge of deconstruc-
tion and reconstruction, learning and unlearning, restoring, reclaiming,
regenerating, creating, reframing, gendering, democratizing, connecting,
and storying creates a legitimate place to reknow and remember ourselves
as Diné peoples. Dismemberment of who we are and who we were meant
to be (as hózhó˛ó˛jí people) has never been healthy. Colonizers still insist
that we are not who we are (in a Diné creation sense) and mythologize our
history, culture, and identities. Colonizers insist that we not be actors in
our own story. Instead, they insist that we be actors in their story.
Access to our own historical and cultural story has been eclipsed or
denied us. This has resulted in an insidious situation in which we no lon-
ger truly believe in our own experience. This is why the language—par-
ticularly in public spaces—to describe the truth of our story is difficult
to articulate. Today, Diné students cannot find specific literature written
by Diné peoples regarding the effects of colonization and/or the practice
of Diné-­centered decolonization. But as we Diné scholars interact with
Indigenous people worldwide, we will begin to put one plus one together
and in larger and larger numbers construct new meanings for ourselves by
assuming the responsibility to tell our own stories, describe our individual
and collective journeys, and articulate critical decolonization markers es-
sential to our individual and collective journey and story. These markers
Diné Culture and the Politics of Hózhó˛  • 61

will provide a new context through which we can understand ourselves

that is more clearly aligned to our hózhó˛ó˛jí selves.
If you have ever suffered from any form of oppression, you know that we
often mistakenly adopt markers that reinforce our oppression. If colonized
markers become guidelines for how we know our world and ourselves, and
if these markers become beliefs and habits, then social change and social
justice will not easily emerge. It is only when we transform the colonized
markers that we will see the benefits of hózhó˛ó˛jí and k’éíjí.
This is why decolonization is a worthy learning tool for helping us tra-
verse a pathway that is filled with all sorts of unhappy and chaotic sign-
posts. How much do our high rates of suicide, alcoholism, drug usage, and
violence drive and define how we see ourselves? Decolonization theory
and practice can help us undermine these negative views of ourselves.
Here’s the good part: We Diné peoples have a beautiful philosophy
of life that is best described as the Blessing Way or Beauty Way. These
ceremonial ways of engaging life are counterbalanced by what is called
the Protection Way. This is how male and female knowledge counter-
balance each other so that our society can envision a life of harmony,
beauty, balance, peace, and happiness. The whole Diné system is bound
together through an interdependent kinship socialization system that at
its very core speaks to love, care, compassion, and respect. Additionally,
sacred mountains define our sense of place. We call ourselves “Holy Earth
Surface People” and “Five-­Fingered People” to humanize (not dehuman-
ize) ourselves and to embody a sense of respect and humility. Needless to
say, like our medicine people and elders tell us, it would take many, many
days of storytelling, singing, prayers, and ceremonially-guided dialogue in
conversation to adequately describe who we are—our history, language,
culture, art, ethics, science, and identities.
In any event, the philosophy of hózhó˛ lies at the center of how we know
the world and how we know how to become a good human being within a
good social system. The philosophy of hózhó˛ is a pedagogy, an epistemol-
ogy, and an ontology. Diné knowledge is predicated on the assumption
that an ancient people can restore and regenerate its understanding of
truths and can organize those truths through ceremony and present those
truths through sacred song, prayer, and dance. Decolonization theory and
practice will help us appreciate and understand ourselves in a good way—
good enough to offer ways to connect the local with the global.
We are losing our language and our sense of kinship with each other
and with Earth and the sky, but our traditional knowledge is still accessible.
62  •  Analyses of Methodologies

For sure, Diné knowledge has not disappeared. Instead, Diné knowledge
stands to be restored and regenerated, again, so we can walk in harmony
and beauty despite the ravages of colonization. Because of this colonial–
decolonial dynamic, we must articulate Diné-­centered decolonization
methodologies that promise to honor and respect our original sense of
ourselves. Today, this original sensibility has become known as traditional
Diné-­centered decolonization, seen as a non-­Western way of knowing,
being, and becoming, will always be about the eternal goodness in our
lives. Hózhó˛ (or hózhonáházdłí˛ ˛í ’) and k’enahazdlii’ knowledge are eter-
nal truths. The combination of these two truths forms the roots of Diné
Finally, neocolonization now reflects the nature of contemporary con-
flict, tension, and contradiction that still plagues the Diné Nation. Other
Indigenous nations face the same problem. Whereas land theft, slavery,
and racism may have constituted past understandings of colonization,
today neocolonization integrates biology, technology, the pharmaceutical
industry, the media, political ideology, and food. Needless to say, we must
find ways to disengage or liberate ourselves from any form of colonization
by relying on the philosophy of hózhó˛ to define what we mean regarding
decolonization. This is why a politics of hózhó˛ is necessary.


The concept and practice of indigenization is another vital learning tool

and has been defined as a way to center cultural and political action in
Indigenous ways of knowing and being (Smith 1999). Indigenization is the
process of relating, for example, the Western or modern to the Indigenous,
the colonial to the de-­colonial, the natured to the denatured, the dehu-
manized to the humanized, the oppressed to the oppressor, or the modern
to the nonmodern.
I visualize indigenization as a process and a set of nonmodern values,
concepts, morals, arts, sciences, and ethics that can serve as criteria or at-
tributes through which Indigenous people can propose appropriate social
change and transformation maps and models. The concept of indigeniza-
tion can help us construct critical lenses through which to view the world
and ourselves. Indigenous concepts will help us fulfill the promises we
have made to our communities, promises that liberate us from coloniza-
tion frameworks that keep our voices suppressed. Indigenous concepts
Diné Culture and the Politics of Hózhó˛  • 63

offer us the opportunity to make the world increasingly relevant to how we

know ourselves as beautiful and harmonious people.
Indigenization is not only about harmony and beauty, however. Indig-
enous knowledge also understands the nature of chaos, imbalance, un-
happiness, fragmentation, and isolation (naayee’iji). Because Indigenous
worldview is nonmodern at its core, it is able to uniquely inquire into the
causes and effects of colonization.
I am assuming that each tribe has its own understanding of how indi-
genization can take place. Tribal colleges are already making significant
strides to define Indigenous processes that can be integrated into decolo-
nization theory and practice. Results of this approach propose meaningful
ways to understand the nature of social change, healing, survival, self-­
determination, and transformation.
We only have to look in our own front yards to find the Indigenous in
our lives, our histories, our languages, and our cultures. We have to locate
ourselves in the precolonial, nonmodern, nonmarket, uncommodified,
and diseducated dimensions of life. Remember that Indigenous knowl-
edge is not linear and is nonhierarchical. Indigenous knowledge stresses
cooperation, not just competition; collective action, not just individuality;
relationality, not just compartmentalization; interdependence, not just in-
dependence; and the natural rather than the unnatural.
When we study Indigenous knowledge in this way, we see that indi-
genization seen as concepts and methods can offer Diné scholars a way to
propose decolonization theories and practices that privilege—not reject—
the Indigenous in our lives. The Indigenous human being is someone who
is spiritual, respects the sacred, honors Earth and the sky, and considers
all living beings as part of his or her community in a good way. The Indig-
enous sense of kinship is vital to our future and to how we understand the
inclusive nature of tradition, change, sustainability, and continuity.

Traditional Knowledge

I enjoy talking about the value and validity of what has been called tradi-
tional knowledge. According to one Sufi scholar, traditional knowledge
came into being at the moment certain modern human beings began
to desacralize knowledge. It was necessary for the concept of tradition to
name itself in order to contrast itself from people who came to view knowl-
edge merely as secular (Nasr 1989). I view traditional knowledge in two
branches: (1) theory and practice and (2) as a set of primordial truths.
64  •  Analyses of Methodologies

This Sufi scholar, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, uttered something very mean-
ingful to me in the mid-­1980s when he lectured at the Shiprock cam-
pus of what was then known as Navajo Community College, now called
Diné College. I cannot quote him directly, but he said something like this:
Man, in his quest to understand the heavens, forsook Earth, and in forsak-
ing Earth he forsook the heavens.
Upon hearing this, I sensed that something deep inside me had been
affirmed. The reason was because I, a Diné, had undergone throughout
boarding and public school a serious process of what scholars call cultural
genocide. Nasr’s statement resonated with a part of myself that had been
repressed or hidden from view. His statement caused me to know myself
and my people in a way that acknowledged the validity and importance
of our nonmodern or non-­Western history, culture, politics, and identity.
This is tied to the importance of our reclaiming our own voices, stories,
and action.
I felt good and angry at the same time. These two contradictory feel-
ings and thoughts are commonplace throughout Indigenous territories.
One reason is because of colonialist ideologies regarding power, control,
capitalism, wealth, class, and other modes of being.
Nasr went on to engage several questions of importance to traditional

•• What is tradition?
•• How do we regain tradition?
•• What are the implications of regaining tradition?
•• What about compromise?
•• How do we clear the ground?
•• How do we relate traditional knowledge to modern science, art, tech-
nology, ethics, philosophy, and worldview?
•• How is traditional knowledge a set of truths?

Remember, this speech was given in the mid-­1980s, when Native Ameri-
can people were in the midst of debates regarding the validity and/or value
of traditional knowledge. Simply put, two opposing views were engaging
one another: traditional people versus the “Apples,” or the Bureau of Indian
Affairs sellouts. Other debates concerned tribal government and our treaty
relationship with the U.S. government, our relationships with state govern-
ments, the truths and nontruths embedded in how we were taught history
in public and boarding schools or how we view ourselves as Diné peoples.
Diné Culture and the Politics of Hózhó˛  • 65

It seems the 1980s was a time when the seeds of decolonization theory
and practice and Indigenous-­centered sovereignty were being planted. It
was a time of contention between Native American people. Non-­Indian
people supported much of this contention. Native American people who
aligned themselves with traditional knowledge saw the need for political
autonomy and spoke about the philosophy of knowing and how to live
together differently.
Traditional knowledge is concerned with infinite time, sapient wisdom,
perennial philosophy, and a respect for natural law. According to Nasr, he
who has no sense of the sacred cannot perceive the traditional perspective,
and the traditional man can never be separated from the sense of the sa-
cred. Another traditional saying is that by appearing to the Tao of the past,
you will master the existence of the present. These perspectives illustrate
why tension exists between traditional and modern peoples. Modern peo-
ple, by and large, have rejected and denied sapient knowledge and peren-
nial wisdom. This rejection is also a rejection of a certain form of human
intelligence. Herein lies another conflict between Native Americans and
the settler people. To be Indigenous can mean to be traditional.
Indigenous knowledge and traditional knowledge, in my view, are not
necessarily the same thing, because Indigenous knowledge encompasses
a wider range of phenomena that might include Indigenous people who,
for whatever reason, could not care less about being Indigenous, have
adopted Christianity, or have no interest in traditional knowledge. It is
important to make this distinction, because Indigenous knowledge en-
compasses the manner in which modernity has either helped or hindered
us. Indigenous knowledge can also imply secularity, because it requires
the flexibility to see things in secular and modernized ways to accurately
situate Indigenous people in time and space. I think that if we as scholars
can make these kinds of distinctions regarding the traditional and the mod-
ern, we can structure ways and define methodologies to answer questions
that Nasr posed in the 1980s.
As Diné scholars, we need to find ways to situate ourselves in this day
and age using our concepts of time and space. I think that we should
always include and integrate Diné traditional knowledge into all that we
do. The most compelling reason to do this is because Diné traditional
knowledge embraces a sense of harmony, beauty, peace, happiness, and
balance. As scholars, we should learn how not to compromise hózhó˛ and
all the ways of knowing and being that are vital to knowing the past, the
present, and the future.
66  •  Analyses of Methodologies

Indigenous Human Rights

In September 2007 the United Nations (UN) member states together with
Indigenous peoples reconciled a painful history by embarking on a human
rights journey. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples
affirmed that Indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples with a rec-
ognition of rights to be different, to be respected as such, and to live free
from discrimination of any kind. The UN declaration is rich in a compre-
hensive articulation of human rights for Native American peoples.
Indigenous rights embody political, economic, and social structures as
well as culture, spiritual traditions, histories, treaties, nationality, cultural
autonomy, languages, democracy, and philosophies of Native American
people and includes rights to land, territories, and resources. This also in-
cludes rights of families and communities to raise, train, and educate their
children in ways that they see fit consistent with children’s rights. There
is an anti–forced assimilation clause that provides redress for depriving In-
digenous peoples of integrity as distinct peoples, cultural values, and eth-
nic identities; rights to community or nation in accordance with traditions
and customs; environmental protection; and rights not to be forcibly re-
moved from their homelands. The document provides a useful framework
for all Native American people to seek redress, protection, and recognition
of culture, language, tradition, lands or territories, and environment.
All Native American children should learn this framework to under-
stand their rights to be human and to be free from dehumanization. Never
mind those who claim that the UN declaration is invalid or does not apply
to the United States, for example. The declaration provides a useful way
for us to see our rights to be ourselves, to know our histories, to live on our
land, and to enjoy our ways of knowing, being, and becoming.

Conclusion and Afterthoughts

I have offered a few thoughts regarding six learning tools. I know that there
are many other learning tools available to Diné scholars. However, with-
out these six tools, I believe that we cannot adequately define the nature of
Diné sovereignty, self-­determination, and sustainability in these contem-
porary times. The prospect of environmental refugees, water shortages,
and the like prompt me to connect the local to the global.
It is best for us to envision a future of peace and harmony and to evolve
practices that promote such outcomes. After all, as Diné peoples we have
rights to hózhó˛, or harmony, beauty, balance, peace, and happiness.
Diné Culture and the Politics of Hózhó˛  • 67

I also know that Diné sovereignty and self-­governance are predicated on

nurturing a sense of who we are, who we were meant to be, and how we
can attain a healthy sense of well-­being. The process must be a marriage of
individuality and collective thinking, a process that balances cooperation
with competition, independence with interdependence, self-­reliance with
coreliance, hierarchy with heteroarchy, and linearity with nonlinearity.
Tribal sovereignty is no longer an isolated phenomena, because of our
need, for example, to cooperate with other governments to deal with eco-
logical and environmental issues, which are in essence borderless.
The key seems to be our need to understand why the Diné philosophy
of life has the capacity and potential to teach us how to sustain ourselves
in a good way. If we can pass on to Diné youths decolonized knowledge
that is rooted in traditional knowledge, skills, and competencies regard-
ing indigenization, healing, and transformation and the insidiousness of
colonization, as scholars we will have done a good job. After all, isn’t it
still important for all Diné peoples to be able to declare in all four direc-
tions “in beauty, it is finished?” If the contemporary political framework
involves a colonial–de-­colonial dynamic, then thinking in hózhó˛ terms is
automatically a political one. Is it the task of the Beauty Way or Blessing
Way scholar to embark on a knowledge construction pathway that guaran-
tees us a way to sustain hózhó˛? I think so.


Ashcroft, B., G. Griffiths, and H. Tiffin, eds. 1995. The Post Colonial Studies Reader.
New York: Routledge.
Brave Heart, Maria Yellow Horse. n.d. “Welcome to Takini’s Historical Trauma.”
Iverson, P. 2002a. Diné: A History of the Navajos. Albuquerque: University of New
Mexico Press.
———, ed. 2002b. “For Our Navajo People”: Navajo Letters, Speeches, and Petitions.
Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
hooks, bell. 2001. Salvation: Black People and Love. New York: Harper Perennial.
Loomba, A. 1998. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. New York: Routledge.
Nasr, S. H. 1989. Knowledge and the Sacred. Albany: State University of New York
Said, E. W. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
Smith, L. T. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples.
Dunedin, New Zealand: University of Otago Press.
The Value of Oral History
on the Path to Diné/Navajo
Jennifer Nez Denetdale

One day my father walked into the house and placed a gray stone slab,
about 8 x 16 inches, on the kitchen table. One side of the flat sandstone
was rough and of a familiar red color. On the other side, the surface had
been polished to a smooth black from so much use. My mother looked at
it and said in Diné, “I never thought I’d see it again.” Taking my cue that
this was one of those worthy storytelling moments, I quickly pulled out the
tape recorder and a camera and sat them both at the table to tell me the
story of the stone. My father did the majority of the sheepherding, and as
was his habit, he found things to bring home—bits of colorful pebbles,
arrowheads, and rusted bits of metal. Once he even found a Navajo scout
button off of a uniform—probably from the late nineteenth century. On
this particular day, he had ventured over to a one-­room stone house where
my mother had lived as a child. The tiny stone house can be seen from
Highway 491 when one is driving between Gallup and Shiprock, New
Mexico, about four miles north of Tohatchi. Walking around in the shell
of the house, my father spied the blackened stone’s surface through the
dirt. He uncovered and cleaned it and then brought it home.
That afternoon, I sat and listened to my mother tell me more stories of
my grandmothers, to whom the cooking stone had belonged. In the Diné
language, the cooking stone is called a tsé’ est’éí. Women mixed up a thin
blue cornmeal batter and, using the palm of a hand, spread the liquid
on the hot stone to make nóogazi, which is also called tsé’ est’éí.1 Deftly

The Value of Oral History  • 69

spreading the batter across the hot stone, the cook quickly rolled up the
curling layers. The stories went from the specifics of the cooking stone and
how my great-­grandmothers had made tsé’ est’éí and then moved to its dis-
appearance. According to my mom, her grandmother had either put the
stone away for safekeeping or had lent it to a female relative. My mother
didn’t know how long the cooking stone had been in her family, but she
guessed that it had been passed from mother to daughter for several gen-
erations. She remembered sitting as a child near her grandmother as she
made the paper-­thin bread on the hot stone, under which a fire burned. In
any case, the stone had been lost for at least fifty years. The memories and
reflections continued as my parents warmed up and shared corn recipes
and details about my grandmothers. As my parents spoke of their mothers
and grandmothers, unspoken but understood because we are knowledge-
able about Navajo relationships were the distinctions we make between
our maternal and paternal grandparents. My dad recalled that as a child,
his family often had one meal a day. On several occasions, his mother had
mixed the batter for ałkaad—the cake baked in a pit in the ground for
the young women’s puberty rite ceremony—and then placed it outside in
the winter. By morning the mixture had frozen, and my dad said, “It was
like eating ice cream.” That was often the meal for the entire day. At one
point my dad declared that a woman who could withstand the heat on the
palm of her hand as she swiftly spread the cornmeal batter on the tsé’ est’éí
spoke volumes about a woman’s dedication to her family, for cooking food
reflected qualities of nurturing and loving. The stories of my grandmoth-
er’s cooking stone added to my collection of stories and not only indicate
how much more can be learned about traditional values and practices but
also give an indication of their persistence.
In this chapter, I explore the concept of cultural sovereignty and how
oral history is an important vehicle for practicing and realizing sovereignty.
Cultural sovereignty seeks to revitalize and affirm the values and practices
that undergird Native American belief systems and encompasses the spiri-
tual, emotional, mental, and physical aspects of Native Americans’ lives.
As reflections of traditional thought and practices, oral histories are power-
ful tools for engaging with the ongoing consequences of colonialism for
Native Americans and remain sources for creating, re-­creating, and affirm-
ing the value of Native American traditions. I discuss oral history and oral
tradition as crucial to decolonization projects, including how I have used
them in my own work, and then move on to articulate how oral histories
are important to tribal nation-­building enterprises whereby efforts focus
70  •  Analyses of Methodologies

on revaluing traditional philosophies and thought as the foundations of

nations and communities.

Decolonization, Cultural Sovereignty,

and Oral History

I first began my search for a Navajo-­centered history because I rejected

American histories that subsumed the Diné within American narratives
where the experiences of all peoples are expressed as the successful in-
corporation into American society. Based on multicultural themes where
immigrants have access to the American Dream, these narratives suggest
that the United States has realized its ideals of democracy and equality for
all its citizens. As Amy Kaplan has shown, these ideals are founded upon
white patriarchal supremacy and strive to embrace differences across race,
class, and gender under the umbrella of domesticity. Furthermore, these
same ideals have been reformulated into American foreign policies to re-
inforce relationships of domination and subordination, thereby re-­creating
structures of oppression, racism, and gender discrimination.2 Outside of
Native American Studies, there is little or no acknowledgment that In-
digenous peoples are citizens of their own tribal nations, are culturally
distinct with recognizable governments, and in many cases hold defined
territories and homelands. Today tribal nations and their leaders seek legal
recognition as sovereigns and struggle to claim a nation-­to-­nation relation-
ship with the United States.
Native scholars Wallace Coffey and Rebecca Tsosie note the refusal
of the United States to acknowledge tribal sovereignty: “In a world where
tribal political sovereignty is dependent upon federal acknowledgment,
Indian nations will always be vulnerable to restrictions on their sover-
eignty, and perhaps even to the total annihilation of their sovereignty.”3
They insist, as do tribal leaders and peoples, that tribal sovereignty is not
dependent upon a grant, a gift, or acknowledgment by the federal gov-
ernment. “The concept of sovereign tribal nations preexists the arrival of
the European people and the formation of the United States.”4 Further-
more, Joanne Barker notes that the concept of sovereignty took on new
currency for tribal nations after World War II because it refuted American
dominant notions that Indigenous peoples were just one among many of
its minorities. “Instead, sovereignty defined Indigenous peoples with con-
crete rights to self-­government, territorial integrity, and cultural autonomy
under international customary law.”5 However, given that tribal nations
The Value of Oral History  • 71

continue to experience limitations on their legal and political sovereignty,

a reappraisal of the tribal sovereignty doctrine draws upon a conception of
sovereignty that responds to the challenges that confront Indian nations
A reappraisal of the sovereignty doctrine, according to Coffey and
Tsosie, calls for the reaffirmation of the cultural component of tribal na-
tion building. For Native American nations, concepts of self-­government
are intertwined with traditional cultural philosophies, teachings, and val-
ues. Cultural sovereignty encompasses the spiritual, emotional, mental,
and physical aspects of our lives. Cultural sovereignty is about Native
American peoples planning for the future and protecting our rights to lan-
guage, religion, art, tradition, and the distinctive norms and customs that
guide our societies. Navajo writer Reid Gomez also comments on tribally
determined sovereignty: “I speak of a different source of power, one that
we retain and exercise in our ability to think, speak, and act as Native peo-
ples on these our homelands. This requires us to understand sovereignty
as motion and as a spiritual and intellectual recognition of the sources
of power that we as Native peoples retain but do not always recognize.”6
Thus, concepts of cultural sovereignty revitalize and affirm the values and
norms embedded within Native American belief systems.
Coffey and Tsosie link concepts of cultural sovereignty to the actions
of the ancestors: “The way our Ancestors used to think about the things
they believed in was perhaps their greatest attribute. They died for their
most central beliefs and gave their lives for their most critical possessions.
Because of this, we are here today.”7 Importantly, placing the ancestors’
teachings within a cultural sovereignty framework acknowledges the con-
nectedness of culture to the political and reveals the links between power
and knowledge. Enacting cultural sovereignty requires attention to an in-
ternal cultural-­and community-­based model whereby tradition and his-
tory are crucial to affirming Native American epistemologies and provide
the material upon which to rebuild tribally centered nations and com-
munities. Furthermore, history not only is a vehicle for countering the
debilitating effects of dominant histories that work to erode tribal sover-
eignty and deny the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Indigenous peoples
but is also crucial to transmitting oral traditions to future generations. Oral
history, which includes oral traditions, is a valuable tool in the work of cul-
tural sovereignty whereby the reaffirmation of traditional values unmasks
American settler colonialism and also becomes the foundation for finding
our way back to the ways in which our ancestors envisioned the past and
the future.
72  •  Analyses of Methodologies

Decolonization and Oral History

Today, it is difficult for Diné peoples to imagine what it means to live

under one’s own sovereign powers, for after a brutal subjugation by the
Americans and following generations of ethnic cleansing under Ameri-
can occupation, our capacity to imagine and envision the future as free
people has been diminished.8 The term “settler colonialism” is useful for
describing the ongoing occupation of Indigenous lands and territories by
the settler Unites States that seeks to eliminate its Native peoples either
through genocide or disavowal, which includes the disappearing of In-
digenous people into the dominant American landscape. Furthermore,
multiple layers of structures and institutions—including legal, cultural,
and religious—disseminate, promote, and reinforce settler claims to Indig-
enous lands so that settler occupation is a “structure and not an event.”9
That is, the colonization of Indigenous peoples is not something that hap-
pened in the past or in isolated incidents; rather, settler occupation is on-
going and is just as violent today as it was in the past.10 History is but one
part of epistemological frameworks that uphold and support settler occu-
pation, which oral histories work to unsettle and disrupt. Oral histories also
have the capacity to remind us of the value of Indigenous philosophies and
to affirm their usefulness for the issues and problems that we face today. As
Native American historians have maintained, Indigenous historiography
privileges oral history as vehicles for addressing settler colonialism and,
simultaneously, Native American cultural persistence and survival.11
In my own scholarship, I have worked to deconstruct powerful colonial
portrayals of Diné peoples as being in need of paternalistic U.S. interven-
tions beginning in 1846, when the U.S. government claimed the South-
west as its territories. In the formative stage, my first ventures into Diné
studies engaged with existing studies as acts of decolonization. Because
I value traditional teachings and practices, I was interested in questions
of how traditional Diné philosophy might be used to create a Navajo-­
centered history. Oral history, of which oral tradition is not separate, can
show how history is a production that legitimizes power and knowledge
over Indigenous peoples. Some of the studies that helped me think about
the significance of oral history include Julie Cruikshank’s work on how
oral traditions are frameworks for understanding the past from Indigenous
perspectives. As Cruikshank argues, history and oral history are windows
into the past and can illuminate how the past is viewed through a cul-
tural lens. History and oral history are constructions of the past and illumi-
nate cultural values.12 American history promotes themes that undergird
The Value of Oral History  • 73

the U.S. story of exceptionalism, including narratives that the American

Dream can be had. In contrast, Navajo oral history, which is true of other
Indigenous oral histories, refutes American claims of the benefits of colo-
nization and exposes American claims of exceptionalism by illuminating
how the processes of imperial expansion into Navajo lands and the ex-
ploitation of Navajo resources has not benefited Navajos. Furthermore,
oral histories open up space to think about how our ancestors responded
to colonialism and the persistence of these narratives to provide founda-
tions to create and re-­create nations and communities based on traditional
Dakota historian Angela Cavender Wilson (Waziyatawin) provides a
useful definition of oral history. She notes that oral history also encom-
passes oral tradition. The term “oral tradition” refers to the ways in which
information is passed across generations and includes personal informa-
tion, pieces of information, events, and incidents that happened to the
narrator and the ancestors. Creation narratives are components of oral his-
tory and include stories of interactions between humans and the natural
world.13 Additionally, creation narratives provide the framework for under-
standing how the primordial past informs understandings of the present
and the future. These narratives show the incorporation of new material
culture, thoughts, and practices in ways that belie still prevalent assump-
tions of Indigenous traditions as static and unchanging. As a person listens
to stories relayed, she or he takes on the memories of the person who tells
the narratives. In this way, our ancestors’ memories become our memo-
ries, and we become part of the vehicle of oral history. In my own exami-
nation, I discovered that many elements of what is considered real history
are not seen as crucial to talking about the past. For example, rather than
take the construction of history as a process of becoming a progressive
democratic state, Native American perspectives on the past focus on the
creation as a time of perfection, and the narratives become instructional
tools about how to return to those philosophies and values. History as a
discipline is also concerned about a chronology and names of humans
who acted in events. Native perspectives on the past, in contrast, often are
vague about when exactly an event occurred; rather, what is important
is how the story is framed within the storylines of the creation narratives
in which humans were the most important actors. Because of American
ethnic cleansing policies, names of ancestors have not been passed down
through the generations; rather, what is important are the qualities of the
ancestors, for those who are seen as positive role models take on the char-
acteristics of actors in the creation narratives.14 Although I see distinctions
74  •  Analyses of Methodologies

between what is considered history and what many Indigenous peoples

take as history—oral history—I am not suggesting that they are separate
and distinct but that these are bodies of knowledge that inform each other
and are drawn upon to shape our perspectives on the past.
In Diné studies, one cannot understand Diné history and culture with-
out noting that the Long Walk (1863–1866) is a historical watershed, for it
marked dramatic transformations for the Diné peoples. Initially retained
in extended family’s memories, these stories have been drawn upon for
discursive purposes, including the creation of American multicultural nar-
ratives, and have been redeployed by tribal leaders and intellectuals to de-
clare tribal sovereignty. Oral history becomes widely disseminated through
mediums such as cultural events that are nationalized and through pub-
lications that work to create a collective Navajo consciousness.15 In this
chapter, I move back and forth between personal reflections on the mean-
ing and influences of oral history on identity and community making but
also do not isolate their use in tribal nation building; rather, oral histories
are dynamic and fluid and are a part of our lived experiences as Indigenous
peoples. Orally transmitted stories, of which creation narratives are impor-
tant components, are constantly invoked and referred to as sources that
help to make sense of the present and the future. They are the sources for
engaging with decolonizing our tribal nations and communities. As Native
American scholars Joanne Barker and Jodi Byrd have shown, U.S. settler
colonialism relies on static portrayals of Indians to inform their relation-
ships to America’s Indigenous peoples; at the same time, tribal nations and
their leaders have incorporated American and Western discursive practices
into tribal models of nation building in ways that reinforce Native Ameri-
can subjugation.16
In the master narrative of American history, Diné peoples are most often
depicted as a scourge to the waves of colonizers who sought to control the
Southwest. Not until 1863 did the Diné peoples finally admit military de-
feat after the Indian fighter Kit Carson scorched Diné Bikéyah and starved
and humiliated the Diné peoples into subjugation. Navajo legal scholar
Raymond Austin invokes Navajo oral history when he references the con-
sequences of the U.S. war on Indigenous peoples, calling it the time when
the Americans declared war on all life: “t’áá ałtso anaa’ silíí ” (when every-
thing—humans, plants, animals—turned enemy).17 That thought comes
down through generations of Diné storytelling and gives evidence of how
Diné peoples saw the American war on them as a war on the land and the
natural world. This gives a Navajo-­speaking listener space to contemplate
how her or his ancestors saw their kin relationships to the natural world
The Value of Oral History  • 75

and to each other. Once the Diné peoples were rounded up at the military
forts in Navajo country, they were force-­marched to the reservation prison
camp at the Bosque Redondo, Fort Sumner, where they were then sub-
jected to U.S. ethnic cleansing policies.18 Of these policies to turn Native
Americans into compliant U.S. citizens, Standing Rock Sioux scholar Phil
Deloria explains how Native Americans, once they had been militarily
defeated, were then under constant surveillance in order to eradicate all
undesirable thoughts, practices, and traits. Overall, the point was to create
“perfect” Native Americans who would embrace American thought and
values but would never be wholly integrated into American society.19 As
feminist scholar Andrea Smith notes, the history of white–Native Ameri-
can relationships demonstrates that the colonizers intended “not only to
defeat Indian people but also to eradicate their very identity and human-
ity.”20 Oral history becomes a vehicle that reaffirms our humanity and il-
luminates central Diné beliefs and values.
In my own work, I was interested in how American history constructed
U.S.–Native American relationships as narratives of cultural pluralism and
inclusion that suggested Diné acceptance of American citizenship with
little resistance. Furthermore, these American narratives intimate that
Navajo nation building followed a natural and inevitable progression of
all societies toward nations. For example, typically after historians narrate
the Navajo experience at the Bosque Redondo reservation, they conclude
that the people who had experienced violence and trauma for four long
years took home “an improved knowledge of agriculture and vocational
trades, better methods of constructing hogans in which they lived, and
an appreciation of wagons.”21 They offer that the experiences at Hwéeldi
had afforded the newly released Navajo prisoners a “fresh, strong sense of
the tribal unity, and a determination somehow to make their way peace-
fully in the Anglo world while retaining their own values.”22 According
to conventional wisdom, as a result of the experience of being corralled
together at the Bosque Redondo, the people “increased their own sense of
themselves” and “continued to expand their material cultural repertoire
during this period, becoming acquainted with the art of silversmithing”
and in general adding new elements to their cultural repertoire.23 It is in
this period that Navajos supposedly began to see themselves as one people,
as a nation. Such conclusions about the meaning of the Navajo experi-
ence under American occupation remain standard and indicate the power
of American narratives of exceptionalism.
Of Native Americans’ historical experiences filtered through nationalist
discourse, which includes Navajo experiences, anthropologist Elizabeth A.
76  •  Analyses of Methodologies

Povinelli observes that nations such as the United States value aspects of
Indigenous cultures and laws in order to free themselves of their settler
pasts and simultaneously confirm their contemporary reputations as mod-
els of (post)multiculturalism.24 Furthermore, as feminist scholar Veena
Das argues, standard narratives of imperialist nations, filtered through na-
tionalist discourses, often present the subjugation of peoples as the catalyst
for the founding of modern nations. Das writes that it is a “paradox that
while modern states claim legitimacy on the grounds that the rule of law
established through their agency has led to enduring social peace, in fact
terrible atrocities have been committed on populations that threatened
existing perceptions of national unity and security by the agencies of the
Countering American settler colonialism, oral histories remain sources
that illuminate the possibilities of re-­creating Navajo organizations, from
governance to community to family. For example, my work in oral history
led me to recognize the ongoing centrality of concepts of matrilineality in
Navajo society. As a Diné woman, I come from at least five generations of
women who have lived in the Tohatchi region. I live in a place where my
grandmothers returned in the years after the Diné were released from the
hellhole, Hwéeldi, at Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory, in 1868. My
great-­great-­great-­grandmother Asdzáá Tłogi and some of her immediate
family members were survivors of the American war on the Diné peoples.
Upon the death of her husband Hastin Chi’l Hajin in 1894, Asdzáá Tłogi
moved closer to Tohatchi with her two daughters. The extended family
moved onto lands claimed by the daughters’ husbands—they were mar-
ried to brothers. After that, the lands came to be associated with the wives’
clan, the Tł’ógi. This area where my grandmothers set up new households
became known as Dibé bi’tóh (Sheep Spring) because it is said that one
can always hear sheep somewhere in the distance. Their bleats echo across
the flatlands and against the slopes of hills and mountains. During the
course of my research, I came across the photographs of George Wharton
James, who took photographs of my grandmothers around 1902. He had
met them during their visit to the Tohatchi School, where their children
were enrolled. Several of the photographs show an extended family with
grandmother Juanita, her two daughters and their children. The photo-
graph gives a suggestion of how Navajo sensibility of family was of an ex-
tended family where women were central figures of authority.26
Diné stories connect the land to women in several ways to show how
identity is central to women’s places in Navajo society. Stories of the
The Value of Oral History  • 77

emergence from the lower worlds explain how the Diné peoples came to
be and what is important about life. In one story, after the parameters of
Diné Bikéyah had been established and teachings about proper relation-
ships and practices had been instituted, the Holy People left to live in the
sacred mountains. They told the people that we would never see them in
physical form, but when we remember the mountains through prayer, we
know they are still here.27 Central to Navajo identity are the stories that
relay how clans originated and how they continue to construct many as-
pects of Navajo organization, from the social to the political. Furthermore,
the clan stories indicate how concepts of k’é, or relationships, inform all
relationships based on hózhó˛. Changing Woman created four key clans,
and all other clans are related to these four original clans. In my family’s
stories, my grandmothers told me of how we became Tł’ógi Diné. Tł’ógi is
our word for the Zia Pueblo, which lies between Albuquerque and Farm-
ington, New Mexico. When my grandmothers were returning with their
families from Hwéeldi, they were with their family of the Tó dík’ó˛zhí (Salt
[Bitter] Water) clan. As they journeyed back from Fort Sumner, one group
of the Bitter Water clan decided to go to Zia Pueblo where they had rela-
tives and friends. The other group opted to continue their travels to Diné
Bikéyah. Today, my grandmothers who stopped at Zia Pueblo retain the
memory of that exchange with the naming of our grandmothers’ clan as
Tł’ógi Diné.
Interestingly, American documentation often contradicts Navajo oral
sources, and this was the case regarding my great-­great-­great-­grandmother
Juanita, whom historians name as a Mexican slave who married the Na-
vajo leader Manuelito. Indeed, many of my relatives and other Navajos
often asked me if this was true. Oftentimes I have asked if my grand-
mother Juanita was indeed a Mexican slave and therefore not a Navajo
woman. Some Navajos have a great stake in being able to name all of
their grandmothers as being Navajos. Rather than confirming or denying
this bit of information, I pointed them to Navajo oral history that sheds
light on the history of slavery in the Southwest and how it shaped identity
formation for Navajos.28 During my search through the oral histories that
were collected during the Navajo land claims case in the 1950s, I came
across a penciled notation next to Juanita’s name: “Her grandmother was
Zia.” Given the extensive trade in Navajo women and children from the
Spanish to the American period, it is entirely possible that my great-­great-­
great-­grandmother was the offspring of a Zia woman and a Hispanic man/
master. That her descendants remembered the story of how we became
78  •  Analyses of Methodologies

matrilineally Tł’ógi speaks to clan formation and identities and sheds light
on how Navajos incorporated other tribal peoples into their society. Dur-
ing the course of my research, I also discovered her Navajo name, or at
least her Navajo public name, in the St. Michael Mission archives. Next
to her name, “Asdzáá Tł’ógi,” were her two daughters, one of whom I am
a direct descendant. The older daughter was known as “Daghaa chíí bé
asdzáá,” or “Wife of Red Mustache.” These are women who had made tsé’
est’éí (blue cornbread) on the cooking stone.
As I listen to my mother and father tell stories of the women in their
lives, I once again imagine my grandmothers rising to the challenge of
restoring order after incredible hardship and trauma. Across centuries of
colonialism, they were burdened with the loss of family members and the
disruption of their households. They were subjected to ethnic cleansing
under American occupation and sent their children to American schools.
How much intimidation and threats were used, along with words of hope
and encouragement, is hard to determine. My ancestors moved back and
forth from home and the homeland to places outside of Diné Bikéyah as
part of the consequences of history. In the oral histories, told and relayed
through matrilineal clans, women are at the forefront. On that afternoon
when my parents shared their memories of their families, they also re-
layed Navajo teachings about clans, families, grandmothers, and moth-
ers. My mother’s pleasure at seeing the cooking stone again reminded me
that storytelling and sovereignty are about a cultural context of sharing
and re-­creating a sense of community, in this case around women and
As my parents talked, what home means in terms of sustaining and what
the role of mothers means in preserving tradition were called up. Chang-
ing Woman is one of our most benevolent and compassionate of the Holy
Deities. She is the Mother of the Diné peoples. In the telling of stories
about women and cooking, the imagery of ideal Navajo womanhood was
relayed. A cookbook of corn dishes includes kneel-­down bread, corn stew,
steamed corn on the cob, k’eenisbishi, and blue cornmeal pancakes. As
children, my parents drank goat’s milk, which was boiled, and cornmeal
was stirred into the milk, making a tasty breakfast. Their memories moved
to food storage. During the harvest, green corn was packed into an outside
oven, in which a fire had been going all day. Water was poured on the
corn and the over sealed up until morning. Dried and shucked off the
cobs, the corn was placed in bags and made excellent stews in the winter.
Squash and melons were cut into looping circles and dried on ropes strung
The Value of Oral History  • 79

outside hogans and, once dried, was packed into bags for winter meals.
Dried melon rinds were boiled and then eaten as a treat. Dad then went
on to talk about farming. Raising one’s own crops meant that one never
went hungry. Cornfields are considered sacred and have the power to re-
adjust one psychologically. That afternoon, I was reminded not only of
the strength and beauty of Navajo women but also of our Navajo cultural
values of industry, responsibility, and self-­sufficiency. A favorite Navajo
saying is ta’hwooji’tei’, which means to be able to move under one’s own
power and implies that the only way to get things done is to expend one’s
own energy to complete tasks. Certainly, my grandmothers had always dis-
played the power to move, to complete a task put before them. On another
level, these stories that were shared also commented about contemporary
Navajo society and the problems and issues we face. The stories remind us
to look to the past to see how we should live.


It is the end of another semester. I have enjoyed working with graduate

students who are immersed in critical scholarship, who are not afraid to
explore colonialism and the effects on Native Americans. They are curi-
ous about the intersections of tradition, tribal nations, and gender. They
eagerly embrace emerging scholarship around Indigenous gender and
sexuality Native American Studies. I have a pile of papers to grade, meet-
ings with students, and university events to attend. In the evening, most
evenings, I assist in the care of grandchildren and talk to my older sister
about helping her more with caring for my elderly parents.
I am excited and honored that a Navajo woman I have worked with on
a museum project has asked me to tie her daughter’s hair for her Kinaaldá,
the young woman’s puberty ceremony. I take a few days off from my world
of work, which I thoroughly enjoy no matter how demanding it can get, to
join in the celebration of a young Diné woman’s passage to womanhood.
It is a beautiful ceremony, and her extended family from both her mother’s
and father’s sides of the family work diligently to ensure the completion of
the four-­day ceremony. The grandmothers, aunts, and sisters speak with
deliberateness to the young woman, who is confident. My part in the cer-
emony—to tie the young woman’s hair, act as her mentor, sit beside her
during the last night when the Blessing Way takes place, and mold her in
the morning—goes smoothly. I am able to follow the instructions in Diné,
80  •  Analyses of Methodologies

instructions that come from the women and from the medicine people
conducting the ceremony. The last night, when the Blessing Way is per-
formed, is so beautiful, and we are all once again blessed by the Holy
People. The young woman has been blessed with the powers of Changing
Woman and is already a beautiful, strong young woman.
Several weeks later I am at the flea market and cross paths with a young
Diné man who had been a student at the university. He had left under
very difficult circumstances, for as Diné peoples we are still grappling with
historical trauma. I am happy to see him at ease and happy. We spend the
afternoon talking and sharing stories. He is learned about Diné ceremo-
nial knowledge, and we talk about the meaning of Sa’a˛h Naagháí Bik’eh
Hózhó˛ó˛n (SNBH). Our talk reminds me of when I go talk to my dad, who
is now eighty-­one years old, about all of life’s difficulties. SNBH is about
life, about the good and the bad of life. It is about reaching into the past
and taking the teachings of our ancestors to meet the challenges of con-
temporary life, for what I face today as a Diné woman is not different from
what my grandmothers have faced.


Diné peoples continue to struggle with dominant narratives of what it

means to be Diné, and we see the realities and complexities of how Na-
vajo sovereignty is eroded through the American legal framework as well
as through other discursive practices. Because American historiography
incorporates Native American histories into its multicultural narratives
whereby Native Americans are subsumed under the category of U.S. citi-
zen and people of color and thereby racialized, it remains difficult to artic-
ulate formulations of tribal sovereignty and self-­determination that move
beyond the domestic dependent relationships that tribal nations have with
the United States. However, in direct challenge to the positioning of In-
digenous histories, Native Americans continually affirm rich intellectual
traditions that are rooted in oral traditions. Similarly, Diné research in-
cludes critiques of how Western-­based scholarship presents Diné peoples
as always in Western narratives, but it also intends to be transformative
in ways that affirm tribal sovereignty.29 As manifestations of cultural sov-
ereignty, oral histories have proven crucial in projects to decolonize the
Navajo Nation and our communities, for the teachings of our ancestors
are reaffirmed in the retelling of stories.
The Value of Oral History  • 81


1. “Traditional Corn Foods with Harry N. Begay,” Leading the Way: The Wisdom
of the Navajo People 8, no. 9 (September 2010): 18–21.
2. Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).
3. Wallace Coffey and Rebecca Tsosie, “Rethinking the Tribal Sovereignty Doc-
trine: Cultural Sovereignty and the Collective Future of Indian Nations,” Stanford
Law & Policy Review 12, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 194.
4. Ibid., 192.
5. Joanne Barker, Sovereignty Matters: Locations of Contestation and Possibility
in Indigenous Struggles for Self-­Determination (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,
2005), 18.
6. Reid Gomez, “The Storyteller’s Escape: Sovereignty and Worldview,” in Reading
Native American Women: Critical/Creative Representations, edited by Inés Hernández-­
Avila (New York: AltaMira, 2005), 146.
7. Coffey and Tsosie, “Rethinking the Tribal Sovereignty Doctrine,” 196.
8. Scholars who engage with decolonization have begun to rearticulate Native
American peoples’ historical experiences under U.S. occupation as genocidal and seek
to address our grievances in the international forum. See, for example, Waziyatawin,
What Does Justice Look Like: The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland (St.
Paul, MN: Living Justice, 2008).
9. Mihuana Goeman, “Introduction to Indigenous Performances: Upsetting the
Terrains of Settler Colonialism,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 35,
no. 4 (2011): 4. See also Patrick Wolfe, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation
of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event (London: Cassell,
1999), 163.
10. Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal
of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (December 2006): 387–409.
11. Susan A. Miller and James Riding In, eds., Native Historians Write Back: Decol-
onizing American Indian History (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2011), 3–5.
12. Julie Cruikshank, “Images of Society in Klondike Gold Rush Narrative: Skoo-
kum Jim and the Discovery of Gold,” Ethnohistory 39 (Winter 1992): 20–41.
13. Angela Cavender Wilson, “Power of the Spoken Word: Native Oral Traditions
in American Indian History,” in Rethinking American Indian History, edited by Donald
Fixico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997), 103.
14. Jennifer Nez Denetdale, Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief
Manuelito and Juanita (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007).
15. Jennifer Nez Denetdale, “Discontinuities, Remembrances, and Cultural Sur-
vival: History, Diné/Navajo Memory, and the Bosque Redondo Memorial,” New Mex-
ico Historical Review 82, no. 3 (Summer 2007): 295–316.
16. Joanne Barker, Native Acts: Law, Recognition, and Cultural Authenticity (Dur-
ham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); and Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: In-
digenous Critiques of Colonialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
17. Raymond Austin, Navajo Courts and Navajo Common Law: A Tradition of
Tribal Self-­Governance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 2.
82  •  Analyses of Methodologies

18. Native peoples have long criticized U.S. discursive practices that sanitize and
deny the trauma and grief inflicted on Indigenous peoples by the U.S. government.
Language use is important in exposing colonialist practices of dispossession, grief, and
trauma. One Native American scholar, Waziyatawin (formerly Angela Cavender Wil-
son), provides examples of how discursive practices can expose settler colonialism’s
aims to eliminate Indigenous peoples works. See, for example, Waziyatawin, “Relieving
Our Suffering: Indigenous Decolonization and a United States Truth Commission,” in
For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook, edited by Waziyatawin Angela
Wilson and Michael Yellow Bird, 189–205 (Santa Fe: SAR Press, 2005).
19. Phil J. Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places (Lawrence: University Press of
Kansas, 2004).
20. Andrea Smith, “Rape and the War against Native Women,” in Reading Native
American Women: Critical/Creative Representations, edited by Inés Hernández-­Avila
(New York: AltaMira, 2005), 65.
21. David Lavender (The Southwest, 1980), quoted in Jennifer Nez Denetdale, Re-
claiming Diné History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita (Tucson:
University of Arizona Press, 2007), 76.
22. Ibid.
23. Peter Iverson, Diné: A History of the Navajos (Albuquerque: University of New
Mexico Press, 2002), 64.
24. Elizabeth A. Povinelli, The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and
the Making of Australian Multiculturalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press,
2002), 42.
25. Veena Das, “Violence, Gender, and Subjectivity,” Annual Review of Anthro-
pology 8 (2008): 283–99,
26. I included several of George Wharton James’s photographs of my grandmothers
in my study, Reclaiming Diné History, 115–19. James’s photographs are housed at the
Southwest Museum in Pasadena, California.
27. I thank my father Frank Nez for this story. I once asked him what he thought
about stories that one of the Navajo gods had appeared to a Navajo grandmother in
northern Arizona. His response was to tell me this story, which relayed the message
that when the Holy People created the world and established the teachings and values
by which we would live, they left to live in the sacred mountains. They told their
grandchildren, the Diné peoples, that we would not see them in physical form again
but that we were to know that they are still with us when we see the bluebird. His story
illustrates the vitality of Navajo oral history.
28. Several studies have examined the importance of the Indigenous slave trade in
the Southwest and how cultures, including that of the Navajos, practiced slavery and
incorporated captives into their societies. These studies are valuable and give us pause
to rethink the construction of indigeneity around blood quantum and race purity. See,
for examples, Dave M. Brugge, Navajos in the Catholic Church Records of New Mex-
ico, 1694–1875 (Santa Fe: SAR Press, 2010).
29. Lloyd L. Lee, “Navajo Transformative Scholarship in the Twenty-­First Cen-
tury,” Wicazo Sa Review 25, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 33–45.
Narrating Ordinary Power
Hózhó˛ó˛jí, Violence, and
Critical Diné Studies

Melanie K. Yazzie

Ordinary Power in Diné Life

A couple of weekends ago, my sister drove down from Boulder, Colorado,

to come with me to a Kinaaldá to which one of my Diné mentors had
invited me. It was a difficult time; my semester at the University of New
Mexico was coming to a rapid and stressful end. Student papers, research,
and emails cluttered my mind, and the seams of my small apartment in Al-
buquerque’s North Valley were constricting under the intellectual freight
of a graduate student’s life in the fast lane.
Despite these constraints on my energy and time—or perhaps more
so because of them—I carved out the space that weekend to attend the
Kinaaldá. As often happens when I am overworked and spiritually un-
dernourished, I find myself drawn to the calmness and strength of Diné
teachings. It is a characteristic irony of being a modern Diné scholar that
the very research I conduct on the legacies of colonial violence and his-
torical trauma that continue to affect fellow Diné peoples also drains and
threatens to dislodge me from the sacred anchors of hózhó˛ó˛jí that compel
such work in the first place. Although entangled in these anxieties, I am
thankful that I was sensible enough to submit to the call of Sa’a˛h Naagháí
Bik’eh Hózhó˛ó˛n, set my work aside, and hit the road west with my sis-
ter to get what Diné poet Luci Tapahonso has wittily called a “hózhóójí

84  •  Analyses of Methodologies

As this chapter’s readers may know, the Kinaaldá is one of the most im-
portant ceremonies for Diné peoples, and the Blessing Way songs shared
during it are some of the most sacred. Although I certainly do not speak
or understand Diné well enough to grasp their full impact, I know their
blessings to be enduring and influential in often startling ways. More than
this, I know their effect to be as real as any other form or measure of influ-
ence in my life. Indeed, the hózhó˛ó˛jí tune-­up received from the Kinaaldá
has been absolutely instrumental in my ability to push through the final
demanding moments of this semester, write this chapter, and feel good
about what I might have accomplished during this time. It has locked me
back into what feels like the right path.
I tell this story to reflect on another insight that Tapahonso relates in her
important collection of poems and stories, A Radiant Curve, regarding the
power of blessings and their continued relevance to our everyday lives as
Diné peoples:

Must remember the worlds
Our ancestors
Always wear the songs they gave us.
Remember we are made of prayers.
Now we leave wrapped in old blankets of love and wisdom.2

What is especially potent about Tapahanso’s work—and this poem in par-

ticular—is its simplicity. She narrates the Diné everyday with the kind of
poetic attentiveness that I have come to identify with commentary that
many of my own family members and friends make regarding ordinary life.
Blessings by way of hózhó˛ó˛jí, although special, are rendered by these Diné
peoples as ordinary effects that shape Diné lives and histories in the pres-
ent. In another poem from the same collection, Tapahanso describes the
speeches that occur during the family meal that follows funeral services,
events in Diné Bikéyah that often draw k’é from wide and far, much in the
same way that a Kinaaldá does. In the poem, Tapahonso similarly relates
how the “spontaneity” and “natural tendency for poetic cadence and flaw-
less repetition” in such speeches provide an “assurance that simple words
can be beauty flowing from the mouths of ordinary people” in ordinary
The notion of beauty flowing from the mouths of ordinary people reso-
nates with me, for it describes a kind of power that is said to “work on you,”
Narrating Ordinary Power  • 85

a phrase that I have heard many times from my dad, my uncle, and others
to describe the way that blessings become a part of us and how we are sup-
posed to take daily responsibility for their presence. Indeed, it is the ordi-
nariness of this power—its everyday effect in our lives—that is particularly
compelling when we consider scholarly discussions on any matter related
to Diné life, past and present. As Tapahonso’s writings convey, and as I
hope my own story at the outset of this chapter demonstrates, regardless of
our racial or ethnic heterogeneity, vocation, or location in the broader ge-
ography and imaginary of Diné modernity, we Diné peoples are still widely
and actively invested in various forms of hózhó˛ó˛jí. Moreover, we have a
keen sense of how these forms of power work on us and how their diffuse
and capillary nature conditions our continued negotiation with the world.
It is almost as if these forms of power channel in, through, and around
us in a way similar to what Foucault attempted to describe with his no-
tion of biopower. For Foucault, power infuses the very matter of the bios
(hence the prefix “bio”), or human life—soma, thoughts, dispositions, af-
fect, consciousness—with its intense interest in disciplining subjects in
order to influence the most intimate and routine of phenomena in their
everyday lives. When reading his many discussions about the operations
of biopower—something I have done regularly over these many years that
I have been training in graduate school—I have often been reminded of
the everyday discursive economy of Diné sensibilities, such as those evi-
denced in hózhó˛ó˛jí: the channels they take, the relations they permeate
in order to reach the most tenuous and individual modes of behavior, the
acts that give them access to rare or scarcely perceivable forms of affect,
or how they penetrate and potentially influence everyday experience—
in short, their polymorphous character that is registered in a number of
ways through the matter that comprises the world, including landscapes,
human bodies and their effects, and the consequences of social design.4
Like Tapahonso’s notion of beauty flowing from the mouths of ordinary
people, Foucault points out that biopower has its own life force that works
in, through, and around us and that it can be captured at various moments
in various narratives, thoughts, interactions, and behaviors.
Importantly, my father has always warned my sisters and me of staking
too much claim in the notion of power, for it has the danger of activating a
modern context of capitalist greed, colonial domination, and political vio-
lence that is often described by Diné as backward and against the interests
of the Bíla Ashdla’ii. In his groundbreaking collection of poetry, Shape-
shift, Diné poet Sherwin Bitsui offers a similar warning, using English to
narrate a Diné perspective on the nature of this power:
86  •  Analyses of Methodologies

I circle my shadow
at 5 A.M. when crickets gather in the doorway
showing their teeth and striped tongues,
silver eyes,
singing about a wind-­blown desert
sinking into the waist of a setting sun.

I have become a man crawling over his broken fingers,

searching for a ring to plant my lips on,
eating cinders while breaking eggs on my brother’s white skin.
I have either become a black dot growing legs,
running from the blank page,
or the mud that is caked over the keyhole of a church hiding
its bandage.

The bed quivers;

it wants to become a spider again
and sting silent the antelope that leap over children
Whose mothers abandon their pots
and follow hoofprints into the city,
smudging themselves with the smoke of burning hair.
Look! There between the eyes of the horizon:
two crows waiting for our bodies.
Imagine this at 5 A.M.,
when the river slides into a silent city
stuffed with decaying corn husks,
when everyone discovers razors in the womb of this land,
and the sun decides which bridges should be covered with skin
and leaves
and which should remain as goat ribs submerged in sand smelling
of diesel engines.5

Bitsui, who is a fluent speaker of Diné and is versed in ceremonial knowl-

edge and the ordinary effects of hózhó˛ó˛jí, engages English in a way that
narrates the unfolding processes of perversity that mark common forms of
modern power, such as capitalist greed, state-­sanctioned violence, and co-
lonial domination. His use of such images as crows, decaying corn husks,
antelope, burning hair, and the aberration of a desiccated night descend-
ing at dawn—the holiest moment of the day for Diné peoples—is sugges-
tive of the contrary way that modern power is perceived and dealt with
Narrating Ordinary Power  • 87

within the discursive economy of blessings that condition ordinary forms

of Diné power vis-­à-­vis philosophies and practices such as hózhó˛ó˛jí.
I offer this poem in its entirety because it evokes several interrelated,
visceral images of power that are at once disturbing and elegiac, forceful
and real. Its narrative simplicity belies the complex history of violent en-
counter and imposition that it labors to describe. The poem warns us of
these unwelcomed forms of power and their impending deviance and un-
ruliness, yet describes them as real and intractable elements of everyday
Diné life with as much life force as hózhó˛ó˛jí or any other Diné blessing.
The poem also points to how difficult and daunting it is to discuss no-
tions of power and violence in the context of ordinary Diné life, especially
considering the somewhat taboo nature of concentrating too closely on
such forceful and potentially overwhelming matters. It is especially dif-
ficult to position these forms of power in intimate relation to the effects
of hózhó˛ó˛jí, which are intended to have a positive, harmonizing impact
on Diné lives. However, and as Bitsui’s poem demonstrates, it is unde-
niably important for Diné peoples to consider the ongoing effects and
impacts of violence, harm, and trauma in our lives and how the meeting
of these elements with Diné teachings shape our everyday experiences in
profoundly ordinary ways. My contention in this regard is influenced in
part by a growing body of work in the emerging field of Indigenous femi-
nism, which has been instrumental in critiquing tribal national forma-
tions, articulations of sovereignty, and Native American social movements
for their dismissal or outright perpetuation of violence such as domes-
tic conflict, sexual violence, child abuse, and homophobia.6 Although
women, children, and queer community members historically bear the
disproportionate burden of this violence, its everyday occurrence “devas-
tates human dignity and freedom and rips apart the lives of victims, their
families and kinships” across entire communities, not just in small sectors
of our populations.7
To repeat, the perversity of these forms of violence is a direct affront
to the way that power is configured and made intelligible in discourses
and practices of hózhó˛ó˛jí, yet I stress that it possesses an undeniable force
within Diné families and Diné politics. Indeed, in quoting Sherman
Alexie in the introduction to her groundbreaking book Reclaiming Diné
History, Diné historian Jennifer Nez Denetdale convincingly argues that
Native American life is rife with chronic unemployment, inadequate hous-
ing and food supplies, and high homicide and suicide rates, all forms of
violence that arguably also characterize daily life for citizens throughout
the Diné diaspora.8 Moreover, when we consider the structural legacy of
88  •  Analyses of Methodologies

such violence within the context of what Patrick Wolfe calls “Indigenous
elimination,” which is a logic and practice that constitutes modern power
and is deployed through settler colonial technologies aimed at the “racial
death” of Indigenous populations, the need to account for how violence
calibrates other forms of power in Diné life becomes even more urgent.9
Let me elaborate.
In his important article “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of
the Native,” Wolfe argues for seeing settler colonialism as “a structure
rather than an event” and defines settler colonialism as “an inclusive,
land-­centered project that coordinates a comprehensive range of agencies,
from the metropolitan center to the frontier encampment, with a view to
eliminating Indigenous societies.”10 He urges scholars to see histories of
violence, harm, and trauma beyond the event-­based context of genocide,
shifting our focus instead to the structural relevance of Indigenous death
in the formation of modern global power:

When invasion is recognized as a structure rather than an event, its his-

tory does not stop . . . when it moves on from the era of frontier geno-
cide. Rather, narrating that history involves charting the discontinuities,
adjustments, and departures whereby a logic that initially informed
frontier killing transmutes into different modalities, discourses and in-
stitutional formations as it undergirds the historical development and
complexification of settler society.11

Importantly, Wolfe’s comments challenge us to see death and violence

beyond their manifestations as massacre or military-­led removal, events
that defined colonial periods of frontier history. Instead, he urges scholars
to think about death and violence as ongoing transmutations or as mul-
tifaceted modalities that adapt to changing historical circumstances in
order to maintain the broader design and intent of elimination. Because
of its structuring role in the ongoing development of modern power, Wolfe
argues that Indigenous elimination must be seen as continually shaping
Indigenous life on all fronts.
Recent work at the intersection of mainstream queer theory and Native
American Studies has offered special insight into the complex ways that
Indigenous elimination works on, through, and around Indigenous lives
subjected to its logic of racial death. Drawing on Ann Stoler’s foundational
critique of Foucault’s notion of biopower,12 both Andrea Smith and Scott
Lauria Morgensen link the biopolitical regulation of Native American
sexuality with a logic of elimination concerned with separating those who
Narrating Ordinary Power  • 89

should live from those who must die in order to maintain the health and
well-­being of a normative, nonnative species. In the case of U.S. settler
colonialism, normativities are fashioned in part from their opposition to a
primitive Other—the Native American object—that has no future in the
context of elimination because this Other has already been marked for
death by the discursive economies deployed in service to settler colonial
definitions of power.13 This queering of Indigenous populations as nonnor-
mative and therefore already dead similarly speaks to Achille Mbembe’s
notion of colonial necropolitics that describes Indigenous encounters with
the eliminatory designs of modernity.14
As these scholars aptly demonstrate, this preoccupation with and de-
pendence on Indigenous death constitutes the fundamental imperatives
and projects of modern power and one of its many offspring, settler colo-
nialism.15 It is perhaps no stretch, then, that Bitsui and even Tapahonso16
correlate modern power with a violence that is no less powerful in everyday
Diné life than the blessings of the Diyin Dine’é (Holy People), intended
to promote balance, harmony, and vitality. This is particularly apparent
in the intimate and bodily form that the structure of elimination takes in
our lives as Indigenous people. Here I draw from works in the diversely
situated field of postcolonial studies. With his classic work The Wretched
of the Earth, Frantz Fanon was one of the first to theorize violence from
the perspective of the colonized. He argues that colonized people not only
experience disproportionate amounts of violence but also that their sub-
jectivities are in fact fully constituted by it. As scholars over the years have
pointed out, what is particularly powerful about Fanon’s conceptualiza-
tion of violence is its embodiedness, what he calls its “naked” quality.17 He
describes the subjectivity of the colonized as negotiated primarily through
the “aggressiveness sedimented in [a person’s] muscles,” an aggressiveness
that contains multiple registers of trauma and memories of colonial vio-
lence that can be activated and realigned for multiple intentions at the site
of the actual human body.18 Much like Foucault’s definition of biopower
as a kind of power that infuses and animates the very matter of human life/
bodies, Fanon speaks of violence as if it possesses its own compelling force,
a force that furrows and comes into being through the raw matter of physi-
cal encounter and bodily confrontation.
As an optimal technique for delivering the dehumanization and death
that modern power has dealt to the colonized—and especially to Indig-
enous people—corporeal violence saturates Indigenous subjectivities to
such an extent that Fanon invests it with the formidable power of decolo-
nial possibility when used toward alternative ends:
90  •  Analyses of Methodologies

Violence . . . , although constantly on edge, runs on empty. We have

seen it channeled through the emotional release of dance or possession.
We have seen it exhaust itself in fratricidal struggles. The challenge now
is to seize this violence as it realigns itself. Whereas it once reveled in
myths and contrived ways to commit collective suicide, a fresh set of
circumstances will now enable it to change directions.19

In this passage, Fanon directly embeds violence in the bodily, affective,

and metaphysical dimensions of human experience such as dance, spiri-
tual possession, fratricide, suicide, and emotion. In her equally classic text
Decolonizing Methodologies, Maori educator Linda Tuhiwai Smith cites
Fanon and other Third World scholars in order to stake a claim for re-
inhabiting Indigenous humanity in the face of imperial violence and its
fragmentation of Indigenous experience. She argues that for Indigenous
peoples and scholars to reassert our humanity, we must “tell our own sto-
ries, write our own versions, in our own ways, for our own purposes.”20
The idea of reinforcing one’s humanity through a subversive employment
of the embodied force of violence clearly assumes that violence vis-­à-­vis
dehumanization is a commonality of—and therefore commonplace in—
Indigenous life.
I find a similar theme regarding the multidimensionality of violence
in Walter Mignolo’s work. In “Epistemic Disobedience, Independent
Thought, and De-­Colonial Freedom,” Mignolo draws implicitly on Stoler’s
critique of biopower to add a colonial optic to biopolitics, arguing that the
“colonial wound” produced by biopolitical histories of elimination creates
“the darker side and the missing half of bio-­politics: body-­politics.”21 Echo-
ing Fanon’s ruminations on embodied violence almost fifty years earlier,
Mignolo argues that politics are enacted by (colonized) bodies who realize
that they are considered less than human; knowledge is produced at the
moment when dehumanized bodies become cognizant of the backward-
ness and perversity that their collective designation for death by biopoliti-
cal regimes signifies. Like the contrary images that Bistui conjures in his
critique of modern power, the body politics of knowledge emerges viscer-
ally within the geopolitical terrains of colonial violence to expose and ex-
cavate the backwardness and perversities of modern power. Such enduring
and multiply situated assumptions about the polymorphory of violence
engendered by colonial power seem strikingly similar to the assumptions
that underwrite the operating definition of power as working on, through,
and around us that I offer above. I share these scholars’ ideas about its
embodied (literally of the body) force to anchor and legitimate my current
Narrating Ordinary Power  • 91

concern with locating an analyticity that helps us envision a critical Diné

studies method that is expansive yet rigorous enough to clarify how mod-
ern power works within Diné livelihoods and what this means in terms
of rendering an everyday politics of Diné experience. Indeed, if we are
to take seriously these insights and warnings regarding power, then it fol-
lows that critical Diné studies must go beyond conventional celebrations
or lamentations of Diné traditions to dig deeper into how ordinary Diné
life confronts, commingles with, and negotiates modern power, producing
polymorphous registers of influence that pressure and haunt us, empower
and invigorate us.22
I want to be clear and state that I am certainly not equating the influ-
ence of Diné teachings with the evasive and perverse inner workings of
biopower that Foucault and Mignolo pinpoint or with the antagonistic
and disgusting inner workings of modern power that Bitsui and Fanon
critique. In fact, a Diné colleague who is much more familiar with Diné
language and philosophy than I am clarified during a recent conversation
about this chapter that there is no equivalent concept, and therefore no
equivalent word, in Diné for “power.” I take his knowledge about such
matters as a cautionary guide for how I am attempting in this chapter to
map an appropriate and encompassing method for what I am calling criti-
cal Diné studies, one that unrelentingly centers the ubiquitous issue of
power while always attending to its epistemological and ontological com-
plexities. I thus proceed with offering such a parallel because I think it
is helpful for grounding this chapter’s suggestive analysis of the role that
multiple forms of power play in Diné life, including those originating in
the cohabitating but often conflicting contexts of ceremony and routine
ritual, obligations and practices of k’éí, political and personal struggle, love
and erotic connection, and ontologies of violence. As a conceptual and
analytical prism, power is useful precisely because it encompasses the con-
flict, cohabitation, and complexity that characterize the (co)construction
of these contexts. Moreover, power seems like a useful conceptual tool for
addressing the realities of colonial violence alongside and in relation to the
realities of hózhó˛ó˛jí in ordinary Diné life without privileging any category
or drawing false boundaries between them. In other words, power might
allow scholars of an emerging critical Diné studies to attend to all of these
factors at the same time and within the same analytical framework.
Without belaboring my point, I add a closing comment regarding
power before turning to the next section of this chapter. It is precisely
because power—whether it is biopower or its handmaiden, colonial vio-
lence—is embodied in that it possesses a concrete force and influence in
92  •  Analyses of Methodologies

our everyday lives that is as familiar and ordinary as the hózhó˛ó˛jí tune-­ups
we receive through ceremony and other private practices of daily well-­
being and prayer. These various forms of power function in similar ways:
they work on, through, and around us. As I argue in the next section, Diné
mutability becomes beneficial for developing a method for critical Navajo
studies when taken up in the praxis of Diné oral traditions that have the
unique ability to narrate processes of power in motion that irrigate, impact,
and impress our lived experiences and historical sensibilities.23 Indeed,
because Diné oral traditions are descriptive in nature, they are compelling
methods for describing the processes through which power comes to bear
on human life. Like power, oral traditions are alive and constantly chang-
ing. As David Cohen observes, because oral traditions are “constantly
voiced, addressed, and invoked all through everyday life,” they constitute
a “remarkable reservoir of evidence” on experience.24 I now turn to the
potential function of oral documentation of experience as a method of
critical Diné studies.

Critical Diné Studies and Oral Documentation

Let me briefly turn again to the insights of queer theory, Native American
Studies, and postmodern feminism to preface my discussion of Diné oral
traditions and their methodological relevance for capturing transmissions
of power. In a recent issue of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies,
Andrea Smith called for Native American Studies to take up queer theo-
ry’s insights regarding “subjectless critique.”25 Although articulated differ-
ently within various approaches in feminist and queer studies, subjectless
critique generally attempts to describe the fundamental role of power in
the constitution of modern subjects. For scholars who advocate subject-
less critique, “power pervades the very conceptual apparatus that seeks to
negotiate its terms” and therefore functions at a metadiscursive level.26
One of the benefits of this view of subjectivity—of how people come into
being and are constituted—is that it allows for the tracking of configura-
tions and constellations of power that work in, through, and around the
makeup of life and experience. This understanding of power implies the
inherent instability of subjectivity, for subjects are formed in and through
discursive maneuvers that are entirely contingent on history, locality, moti-
vation, social location, and forms of difference along racial, sexual, gender,
and other lines.
Narrating Ordinary Power  • 93

In following the logic of contingency that underwrites subjectless cri-

tique, we might see how it opens analytical, methodological, and theoreti-
cal doors for viewing ordinary Diné life in its fullest complexity; it harbors
possibilities to account for the processes and procedures by which power
gains traction in the multiple veins and trajectories of colonial violence,
hózhó˛ó˛jí, kin relationships, etc., that intersect in everyday Diné life. More-
over, in the context of Smith’s call for the relevance of such a critique to
Native American Studies, subjectless critique legitimizes the use of oral
traditions to uncover these forms and influences of power, because oral
traditions potentially describe the complexities inherent to constructions of
knowledge and history.27 This is an important distinction, for it views oral
traditions within the purview of historicities that place contending versions
of truth in conversation with their social circulation. More simply put, sub-
jectless critique helps us determine a method based in Diné oral tradi-
tions that does not take such traditions as evidence of a kind of essential
Diné consciousness—what Smith calls a “quest for full subjecthood” that
“requires Native people to be objects waiting to be discovered” through
ethnographic enterprise.28 Rather, it allows for the historicization of Diné
subject formation in a way that potentially disrupts neat chronologies and
categorizations of the kind readily found in existing academic Diné studies.
The work of Haitian historian Michel-­Rolph Trouillot is useful here for
clarifying what I mean by the possibilities that Diné oral traditions hold for
historicizing Diné subject formation. As Trouillot argues, the production
of historical knowledge is always conditioned by the sociohistorical context
in which it is produced, meaning that all actors who might be involved in
the production of historical knowledge—including average Diné peoples
who continue to narrate a substantial portion of their lives through sto-
ries of various kinds—are themselves historical subjects living in a spe-
cific constellation of time and space. As Trouillot simply states, people
are “both subjects and producers of history.”29 This two-­pronged historicity
accounts for the processes and conditions of narratives while also centering
the forms of power and authority that are invested in their production.30
Similarly, this historicity destabilizes the agency of the narrator, for it situ-
ates the narrator in his or her own historical moment and context.31
Such an approach would complement emerging work in Indigenous
feminism, queer theory, and literary criticism invested in critiquing the
role of heteropatriarchy and racism in modern articulations of sovereignty
and tradition. Notable in this vein is Denetdale’s 2009 article “Securing
Navajo National Boundaries,” in which she historicizes the eagerness of
94  •  Analyses of Methodologies

the Diné government and citizenry to protect Diné tradition through es-
pousing American patriotism. She provides the example of how images
of warriors from Diné creation stories have been interwoven with post–
World War II military service in both political and popular rhetoric.32 As
Denetdale’s work demonstrates, traditional modes of knowing such as oral
transmission do not always involve reification of hózhó˛ó˛jí or simple ca-
pitulation to modern forms of narrating or governance.33 Rather, her work
implies that oral transmission can convey the complexities of power in ev-
eryday Diné life through its metanarration of polymorphous factors such
as tribal politics, military participation, and tradition in the formation of
Diné nationalism.
How do these insights relate to oral traditions, the historicization of
Diné subject formation, and a critical Diné studies method? First, they
imply that research conducted under the guise of critical Diné studies
should contextualize the histories and other narrative accounts relayed
through oral transmission in the historical and material conditions of their
telling. This in turn requires practitioners of critical Diné studies to as-
sume use and analysis of everyday narrations of ordinary power within
their multilayered and geopolitical contexts, including domestic, public,
tribal, national, and transnational. In addition to possessing the skills nec-
essary to communicate appropriately with Diné community members in
order to capture oral stories in the first place, practitioners would also need
to acquire transdisciplinary research skills in order to tackle the multilay-
ered and multipronged nature of power relations that frame and condition
modern Diné life.34
Second, the insights oblige practitioners of critical Diné studies to
take the issues, needs, and interests articulated by average Diné peoples
as their exploratory starting point, implying a foundational commitment
to the “ever-­growing, real-­life issues of concern to the People, no mat-
ter what their focus.”35 Typically called activist research within cultural
anthropology, this kind of lateral knowledge production ensures that re-
search on the multiple optics and trajectories of power in ordinary forms
of Diné subject formation is being conducted out of an explicit commit-
ment to helping Diné peoples grapple with the everyday struggles and
challenges that such theorizations of power imply. In sum, a critical Diné
studies approach writes to a Diné audience precisely because it is derived
from ordinary Diné accounts of ordinary Diné experiences with power.
Third, they expect scholars of Diné experience to move beyond sev-
eral problematic tropes found in and invented by conventional aca-
demic knowledge production. Such tropes (which I list below) have long
Narrating Ordinary Power  • 95

dominated written accounts of Diné life, history, and politics. Moreover,

Diné peoples have naturalized their descriptions, assumptions, and analy-
ses in our own accounts of ourselves. Indeed, if the intent of critical Diné
studies is to capture and understand ordinary forms of power such as vio-
lence and hózhó˛ó˛jí in Diné society, then historiographical tropes—such
as cycles of conquest, cultural adaptation, and cultural accommodation;
ethnographic or aesthetic accounts preoccupied with the recovery or cel-
ebration of songs, ceremonies, or creation stories; and theoretical prescrip-
tives emanating from Native American Studies about what we as Diné
peoples ought to be doing in order to decolonize, practice sovereignty,
walk successfully in two worlds, or live according to tradition—are simply
inadequate to this task.

Critical Diné Studies and Interdisciplinarity

As an alternative to these tropes, critical Diné studies scholars might seek

to draw from interdisciplinary studies on colonialism and histories of mod-
ern power to inform our critiques of colonialism, settler desire, power, and
discourse as these play out in the lives of ordinary Diné peoples. The com-
mon thread of this scholarship has been its attentiveness to the kinds of
“specific colonial histories” that are required to chart the discontinuities,
adjustments, departures, and transmutations that undergird the historical
development and complexification of settler and other colonial societies
(of which the United States is certainly a prime example).36 Such studies
have emphasized the “contingencies and vulnerabilities” of empire and
colonial development, incorporating Foucault’s notions of racial death in
order to unlock the “microsites of governance” through which imperial sys-
tems have known and established truth claims about race and difference.37
As discussed earlier, among those populations marked for racial death are
Indigenous peoples; Diné peoples certainly are not excluded just because
of our large population, sizable trust land, or relatively intact investment
in Diné language and k’éí. What, then, might a microsite analysis of ordi-
nary Diné experiences with colonial anxiety look like? How might it draw
from queer theories or Indigenous feminist critique to interpret such expe-
riences? How might the combination of these disciplinary approaches help
us understand common forms of power in Diné life and history? These are
the kinds of questions that might guide critical Diné studies.
Moreover, attention to mapping the specific temporalities and geopo-
litical coordinates of colonial power also implies a possible shift in focus
96  •  Analyses of Methodologies

from structural analyses of institutional power to the private, intimate,

or domestic realms in which such power often plays out.38 Indeed, the
focus on forms and narrations of ordinary power that stimulates critical
Diné studies, and on common Diné practices of hózhó˛ó˛jí, portends an
emphasis on domestic spaces, such as the relations and contexts that de-
fine k’éí that are often excluded in critiques of colonialism and focus on
institutional and state power. This is particularly germane if critical Diné
studies is to draw from developments within Indigenous feminist critique
that have sought to center gendered and intimate forms of violence in nu-
anced studies of settler colonialism, tribal sovereignty, and decolonization
that echo the concern with embodied violence found in Fanon, Tuhiwai
Smith, Foucault, and Mignolo. While certain scholars such as Andrea
Smith take a structural approach to understanding gendered violence,
arguing that settler colonialism has historically required the regulation,
violation, and perversion of Indigenous women’s bodies in order to ad-
vance the de-­territorialization and settlement of Native American lands,
others have looked to Indigenous women’s autobiography and experience-­
based narratives to uncover the functions of violence and patriarchy in
Indigenous private spheres. Athabascan scholar Dian Million offers felt
theory as a way to access these dynamics, arguing that such works provide
“feelings as theory” and offer “culturally-­mediated knowledges” that speak
to the author’s personal experiences.39 In this regard, felt theory provides
possibilities for gauging the dynamics and impact of ordinary colonialism
and power in Diné life through indexing affective registers and responses
as these are relayed in oral stories, a method that potentially dovetails with
the use of oral tradition that I discuss above. Along with sound historical
research, felt theory may also be useful for describing the micropolitics of
any number of colonial situations in which Diné peoples practice culture,
experience subject formation, and/or feel their way through multiple sites
of power negotiation and brokerage.


As I hope to have demonstrated in this chapter, I believe that the insights

provided by recent scholars of colonialism may be instructive in devel-
oping methods that begin to address the relations of power between and
among Diné life forces and biopolitical ones. I also believe that the privi-
leging of oral traditions to capture the dynamics of these relations may
prove invaluable to studying the intimacies of regimes of racial truth and
Narrating Ordinary Power  • 97

death that underwrite the biopolitical and colonial systems that condition
Diné lives. However, the Bíla Ashdla’ii maintain prudent commitments
to hózhó˛ó˛jí in often indirect but vigorous ways, evidence that Diné senses
of power are keen, sophisticated, and humbled. This fact means that re-
search must pay equal and rigorous attention to these factors as well. Be-
cause of these general premises, I argue that the descriptive nature of Diné
oral transmission animates experience and therefore power in uniquely
dynamic ways.
Moreover, such accounts are imperative in light of the continued drive
on the part of an expansive and cunning global system of power to ac-
complish our elimination, transforming the Bíla Ashdla’ii into literal and
figural nothingness. Within this very real context, the urgency of listening
to what the Bíla Ashdla’ii have to say about our lives and daily histories
becomes a necessary practice in academic research on Diné peoples if we
are to struggle with fleshing out the compound, sedimented realities of
modern power, colonial violence, and historical trauma as these come to
bear on our families, relationships, and self-­fashionings. When combined
with the ordinary influence of Sa’a˛h Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhó˛ó˛n in modern
Diné life, it is apparent that our research has no choice but to rigorously
commit to understanding all these forms of power if we are to in turn
commit ourselves to being responsible members of k’éí, past, present, and


1. Luci Tapahonso, A Radiant Curve (Tuscon: University of Arizona Press,

2008), 64.
2. Ibid., 89.
3. Ibid., 28.
4. Michel Foucault, “We ‘Other Victorians,’ ” in The Foucault Reader, edited by
Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 299.
5. Sherwin Bitsui, “The Scent of Burning Hair,” in Shapeshift (Tucson: University
of Arizona Press, 2003), 39–40.
6. Andrea Smith, “Native American Feminism, Sovereignty and Social Change,”
in Making Space for Indigenous Feminism, edited by Joyce Green (London: Zed,
2007), 103.
7. Anastasia Shkilnyk, quoted in Emma LaRocque, “Metis and Feminist: Ethical
Reflections on Feminism, Human Rights and Decolonization,” in Making Space for
Indigenous Feminism, edited by Joyce Green (London: Zed, 2007), 61.
8. Jennifer Nez Denetdale, Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Chief Manu-
elito and Juanita (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007), 12.
9. Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, An Introduction (New York: Vin-
tage, 1990), 133–59.
98  •  Analyses of Methodologies

10. Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal
of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (2006): 402.
11. Ibid.
12. Ann Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality
and the Colonial Order of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995).
13. Andrea Smith, “Queer Theory and Native Studies: The Heteronormativity of
Settler Colonialism,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16, nos. 1–2 (2010):
14. Scott Lauria Morgensen, “Settler Homonationalism: Theorizing Settler Colo-
nialism within Queer Modernities,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16,
nos. 1–2 (2010): 106. Achille Mbembe created the term “necropolitics” to describe
state sovereignty and its colonial function. Sovereignty, he argues, “means the capacity
to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not.” Mbembe,
“Necropolitics,” Public Culture 15, no. 1 (2003): 11–40. For another excellent review
of literature on the dialectic of modern power and colonial death, see Renisa Mawani,
Colonial Proximities: Crossracial Encounters and Juridical Truths in British Columbia,
1871–1921 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2009), 22–30.
15. For an excellent critique of this kind of “racial death” from a Marxist Indigenous
feminist perspective, see Sandy Grande, Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and
Political Thought (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 123–57.
16. See Tapahonso, A Radiant Curve, 55–64.
17. Frantz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove, 2004), 23.
18. Ibid., 15.
19. Ibid., 21.
20. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous
Peoples (London: Zed, 1999), 28.
21. Walter Mignolo, “Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and De-­
Colonial Freedom,” Theory, Culture and Society 26, nos. 7–8 (2009): 16.
22. Indigenous feminists have begun to interrogate the role of tradition in power
brokerage at the level of tribal nationalism and articulations of sovereignty. See Jenni-
fer Nez Denetdale, “Securing Navajo National Boundaries: War, Patriotism, Tradition
and the Diné Marriage Act of 2005,” Wicazo Sa Review 24, no. 2 (2009): 131–48. See
also Jennifer Nez Denetdale, “Chairmen, Presidents, and Princesses: The Navajo Na-
tion, Gender, and the Politics of Tradition,” Wicazo Sa Review 21, no. 1 (2006): 9–28.
23. For examples of histories and other academic projects that successfully utilize
oral history, see Elizabeth Cook-­Lynn and Mario Gonzales, The Politics of Hallowed
Ground: Wounded Knee and the Struggle for Indian Sovereignty (Urbana and Chicago:
University of Illinois Press, 1999); Waziyatawin Angela Wilson, Remember This! Da-
kotah Decolonization and the Eli Taylor Narratives (Lincoln: University of Nebraska
Press, 2005); Doug Brugge et al., “The Navajo Uranium Miner Oral History and Pho-
tography Project,” Diné Baa Hane Bi Naaltsoos: Collected Papers from the Seventh
through Tenth Navajo Studies Conferences (Window Rock: Navajo Nation Historic
Preservation Department, 1999), 85–95; Peter Iverson, Diné: A History of the Navajo
People (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002); Louise Lamphere et al.,
Weaving Women’s Lives: Three Generations in a Navajo Family (Albuquerque: Univer-
sity of New Mexico Press, 2007).
Narrating Ordinary Power  • 99

24. David Cohen, quoted in Denetdale, Reclaiming Diné History, 37. I also draw
from Scott Richard Lyons, who makes the case for using descriptive understandings
of tradition in Ojibwemowin (the Ojibwe language) equivalents to “doing,” which de-
scribe identity according to certain behaviors, actions, and movements through time
and space much in the same way that I attempt to use Diné oral traditions as a method
for describing everyday forms of power in motion. See Scott Richard Lyons, X-­Marks:
Native Signatures of Assent (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 35–72.
25. Smith, “Queer Theory and Native Studies,” 44.
26. Judith Butler, “Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of ‘Post-
modernism,’ ” in Feminist Contentions: A Philosophic Exchange, edited by Seyla Ben-
habib (New York: Routledge, 1995), 39.
27. This is an important point considering that oral documentation within conven-
tional historiography is seen as lacking authority or verity. For an excellent critique of
this perspective, see Denetdale, Reclaiming Diné History, 34–40.
28. Smith, “Queer Theory and Native Studies,” 42.
29. Michel Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History
(Boston: Beacon, 1995), 24.
30. Ibid., 26.
31. The relationship between discourse and experience in the production of history
and other forms of authoritative knowledge has been closely examined and debated in
postmodern and poststructural feminist theory. For foundational works, see Kathleen
Canning, “Feminist History after the Linguistic Turn: Historicizing Discourse and Ex-
perience,” Signs 19, no. 2 (1994): 368–404; see also Joan W. Scott, “The Evidence of
Experience,” Critical Inquiry 178, no. 3 (1991): 773–97.
32. See Denetdale, “Securing Navajo National Boundaries.”
33. See Denetdale, “Chairmen, Presidents, and Princesses.”
34. Andrea Smith, “Decolonization in Unexpected Places: Native Evangelicalism
and the Rearticulation of Mission,” American Quarterly 62, no. 3 (2010): 570.
35. Importantly, this vision of activist research was articulated by one of the founders
of the Navajo Studies Conference more than twelve years ago to describe the original
intent of Navajo studies. See Charlotte Frisbie and David Brugge, “The First Navajo
Studies Conference: Reflections by its Cofounders,” Diné Baa Hane Bi Naaltsoos:
Collected Papers from the Seventh through Tenth Navajo Studies Conferences (Window
Rock, AZ: Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department, 1999), 3.
36. Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berke-
ley: University of California Press, 2005), 34.
37. Ann Stoler, “Tense and Tender Ties: The Politics of Comparison in North
American History and (Post)Colonial Studies,” Journal of American History 88, no. 3
(2001): 2.
38. Mawani, Colonial Proximities, 15–16.
39. Dian Million, “Felt Theory: An Indigenous Feminist Approach to Affect and
History,” Wicazo Sa Review 24, no. 2 (2009): 61.
The Boy Who Threw
the World Away
Venaya Yazzie

heard the story about

the young i  n  d  i  a  n boy
who ate the world
he spit out
the white man’s
p  o  l  l  u  t  i  o  n
like watermelon seeds
drenched with sweetness.
like watermelon seeds
drenched with sweetness.

in the summer days

of navajo youth
the young
i  n  d  i  a  n
boy, he spit out
white government tales
like sweet watermelon seeds.

he spit out
the hatred and ignorance
that columbus created
that columbus originated

The Boy Who Threw the World Away  • 101

with thick blood and

salt tears that fell on
eastern shore sand.

heard about the

young I  n  d  i  a  n man
who threw the world away.
he threw the world away
in an old silver tin trash can
that belongs
to the holy elements
at the place of emergence.
Glittering Mountain
Venaya Yazzie

Political Challenges
Historic and Demographic
Changes That Impact
the Future of the Diné
and the Development of
Community-­Based Policy
Yolynda Begay

The stories and narratives of the Diné peoples have been told from the
outsider’s point of view, and this often portrays a different perspective. This
research gives me, as a scholar, the opportunity to mesh my professional
training as a community-­based planner and my Diné identity into a chap-
ter that begins to talk about issues that our communities face. More im-
portant, it provides an opportunity to tell our story and how we reflect on
traditional knowledge in the context of the Western world. As Vine Delo-
ria (1999, 143), states, “it is very important for younger Indians to take the
lead in restoring the sense of family, clan, and community responsibility
that undergirds the traditional practices. In doing so the next generation
of Indians will be able to bring order and stability to Indian communities,
not because of their professional expertise but because of their personal
For the Diné peoples, identity goes beyond a Certificate of Degree of
Indian Blood (CDIB)1 and tribal enrollment. Identity is based in kinship,
or k’é. This is how we relate ourselves to one another and our surroundings.
Our clans are the one string that ties all our generations of people together.

106  •  Political Challenges

American Indians and Alaskan Natives are the only racial groups that
have to prove their identity. No other races or ethnicities in the United
States are required to provide policies or definitions on identity. “The defi-
nition of ‘Indian’ in federal and state law has engendered endless contro-
versy since the beginning of Indian policy in America” (Spruhan 2000, 1).
“About two-­thirds of all federally recognized tribes of the coterminous
United States specify a minimum blood quantum in their legal citizenship
criteria, with one-­quarter blood degree being the most frequent minimum
requirement” (Garroutte 2003,15). Blood quantum disregards the pre­
existing cultural knowledge of how tribes identified one another preinva-
sion. Culture, language, and identity were once a determining role of the
Diné peoples.
This chapter evaluates the current and historical Diné population dy-
namics and how these dynamics impact tribal enrollment policy. This
evaluation of the Navajo population is a reaction to the call and under-
standing of the creation of new and unprecedented responses from Native
American communities and academia to assist our Native nations toward
progress. In the context of this analysis, progress is defined as stepping
away from imposed policies and developing policies that are aligned with
Diné cultural values. Dr. Lloyd L. Lee (2006, 79), assistant professor at
the University of New Mexico, states that “We learned that an imposed
enrollment system has impacted Native Nations. . . . We also learned that
Indian identity has continued even with ethnic impersonation and blood-­
quantum bigotry.”
Diné identity can be viewed on a continuum with divergent perspec-
tives on identity, as shown in figure 1. The top arrow in figure 1 depicts the
colonial facade, or political identity, generated from a long history with
the U.S. government. On the other end is the Diné worldview on identity,
which is based on Diné core values. This includes k’é.
The two perspectives are disconnected. The establishment of the blood
quantum policy was engineered to fracture individual identity leading
to fractionized generations. “Through intermarriage and application of
a biological definition of identity Indians would eventually become citi-
zens indistinguishable from all other citizens” (Garroutte 2003, 42). Fig-
ure 1 illustrates two distinct perspectives on identity. In terms of the tribal
membership context, “some see blood quantum as a negative force alleg-
edly imposed by the United States and at odds with traditional forms of
tribal membership. . . . Others see it as a neutral method to define tribal
membership when consistent with the policy goals of a tribe” (Spruhan
2006, 2). Since there is no middle ground between the two perspectives,
Historic and Demographic Changes  • 107

Political Identity
• Imposed by U.S. government by racial
• Based on data and methodology
• Analysis of total population dynamics
• Blood quantum policy – 1/4 blood quantum
• Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood
• Marginalizes individuals
• Fractionation of people and subsequent
Need: Create a • Profound disconnect with the Diné worldview
community-based on identity
policy on Diné • Designed for cultural extinction
identity with
respect to current
changes Diné Worldview on Identity
• Based on the Diné clan system and
establishing relationships
• Diné language emphasized
• Diné worldview
• Reconnects individual to community and
• Established in creation narratives of the Diné
• Cultural and social considerations
• Disconnected with Diné perspective

Figure 1.  Continuum on identity: Political versus Diné worldview

the goal of this chapter is to begin unraveling the population dynamics of

the Diné peoples and to promote discussions on how we can reintegrate
traditional knowledge into policy as it relates to tribal enrollment.


The data used in the study is collected from three sources: the U.S. De-
cennial Census, the Navajo Office of Vital Records (NOVR), and the
108  •  Political Challenges

New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH). The following is a brief

overview of the data.

U.S. Census Bureau Decennial Census

1990 Decennial Census
2000 Decennial Census
2010 Decennial Census

Navajo Office of Vital Records

1938–1998 Blood Quantum, Total Enrollment & Age
1971–1980 Age Group Report, Blood Quantum & Total Population
1981–1990 Age Group Report, Blood Quantum & Total Population
1991–2000 Age Group Report, Blood Quantum & Total Population

New Mexico Department of Health

1990–2003 Births Data2

In addition to the tribal enrollment data, I talked with Leonard Benally,

vital statistics manager at Navajo Nation Vital Statistics office, in February
2008 about the history of tribal enrollment and the overall process. The
discussion included the initial 1928 base roll, the 1940 base roll, compli-
cations on enumerating the tribal rolls, enrollment stories, and nuances in
a virtual base roll.

Demography of Diné

The current demographic trends of our people show that we are redefin-
ing our identity by simply evaluating the births of our children. The inter­
tribal and interracial coupling rates are astonishing when compared to
intra-­Navajo coupling rates (tables 1 and 2). According to the NMDOH
births data from 1990 to 2003, the thirteen-­year average of intertribal and
interracial relationships for Diné males and females is 49.1 percent. The
current demographic trends of the Diné peoples indicate that interracial
and intertribal relationships are occurring at a rate that will require prepa-
ration and planning for a changing Navajo Nation.
There is no doubt that “gathering data on the number of Indians in the
United States has always been an inexact science” (Deloria 1999, 257).
From 1790 to 1850 Native Americans were excluded from the census
count. In 1860 American Indians who were considered assimilated based
Table 1.  Male and female Navajo intertribal and interracial childbearing unions by year (in percent)
Year 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003
Navajo males 2.7 2.8 2.6 2.6 3.6 3.6 3.6 4.1 4.4 4.3 4.4 4.6 5.2 5.0
Navajo females 46.7 45.3 48.8 48.6 50.0 49.5 47.4 47.1 48.3 47.5 45.3 36.0 36.5 37.2
Total 49.4 48.1 51.4 51.2 53.6 53.1 51.0 51.2 52.7 51.8 49.7 40.6 41.7 42.2

Table 2.  Intra-­Navajo childbearing unions (in percent)

Year 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003
childbearing 50.6 51.9 48.6 48.8 46.4 47.0 49.0 48.8 47.3 48.1 50.3 59.4 58.3 57.9
110  •  Political Challenges

on land ownership were officially counted in the census. All other Indian
people were excluded from the census count. In 1890 the Census Bureau
attempted to conduct a full enumeration of the Indian population. “In
1980 the federal census allowed people to identify their racial background
themselves for the first time. . . . The result of the new method was an
increase in the American Indian population beyond anyone’s wildest esti-
mate. In 1960 the census reported 523,591 Indians in the United States.
That figure jumped to 792,730 in 1970, and the last census (1980) showed
a count of 1,418,195 Indians in the United States” (Deloria 1999, 230).
What is speculative of the 1980 figure is the process of self-­identification.
Today, there are 566 federally recognized tribes in the United States.
In a presentation at the University of New Mexico’s “Politics of Iden-
tity” course by Lloyd L. Lee, in the 2000 decennial census there were
more than 281 million people in the United States; of that, the Ameri-
can Indian or Alaskan Native (AIAN) population reflected 1.5 percent
(4.1 million). The states with the highest concentration of AIANs alone
were California (333,346), Oklahoma (273,230), Arizona (255,879), New
Mexico (173,483), and Texas (118,362). In the 2010 decennial census,
5.2 million people in the United States identified as American Indian or
Alaska Native. The states with the highest AIAN populations were Cali-
fornia (362,801), Oklahoma (321,687), Arizona (296,529), New Mexico
(193,222), and Texas (170,972).
The decennial census data in figures 2 and 3 are nationwide data and
are not restricted to just those individuals who reside within tribal bound-
aries. “In the 2000 U.S. Census, 298,197 people identified themselves as
Navajo, of which 269,202 identified as only Navajo and no other racial
group” (Lee 2006, 79–80). In 2010 the total number of individuals who
identified as Navajo increased to 332,129 (see figure 3). Of the 2010 total,
286,731 identified as Navajo (AIAN alone). The Navajo tribe continues to
be the second-­largest tribe in the nation.
From 2000 to the 2010 decennial census, the Cherokee and Navajo
Nations remained the largest tribes across the nation. Both tribes have
an overall increase in total population and a slight decrease in the AIAN
alone category (see figures 2 and 3). This percentage shift demonstrates
the increasing diversification of the total population within those respec-
tive tribes.
The data collected in table 3 reflects the population that is within the
Navajo Reservation boundaries. Overall, the total population increased by
21.5 percent from 1990 to 2000. From 2000 to 2010 the total population
declined by 6 percent, indicating people leaving the Navajo Reservation.
Cherokee 61% 39%
Navajo 10% 90%
Latin American Indian 42% 58%
Choctaw 45% 55%
Sioux 29% 71%
Chippewa 29% 71%
Apache 41% 59%
Blackfeet 68% 32%
Iroquois 44% 56%
Pueblo 20% 80%
0% 20% 40% 60% 80% 100%

AIAN alone or in any combination

AIAN alone

Figure 2.  Percentage distribution of American Indian/Alaskan Native tribal

groupings in 2000

Cherokee 63% 37%
Navajo 11% 89%
Choctaw 44% 56%
Mexican American Indian 30% 70%
Chippewa 32% 68%
Sioux 32% 68%
Apache 38% 62%
Blackfeet 70% 30%
Creek 40% 60%
Iroquois 48% 52%
0% 20% 40% 60% 80% 100%

AIAN alone or in any combination

AIAN alone

Figure 3.  Percentage distribution of American Indian/Alaskan Native tribal

groupings in 2010
112  •  Political Challenges

Table 3.  Total Navajo population in reservation boundary

1990 to 2000 2000 to 2010
Percentage Percentage
1990 2000 2010 Change Change
148,451 180,462 169,888 21.5% −6%
Data sources: U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington, DC, 1990; U.S. Department of
Commerce, Washington, DC, 2000; U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington, DC, 2012.

9.9% 2010
65 and over 2000




Under 18

0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50%

Figure 4.  Age distribution on the Navajo Nation in 2000 and 2010

Figure 4 includes the age and sex composition of the total population
by the 2000 and 2010 decennial year. The figure presents the age group
distributions from the 2000 and 2010 decennial censuses for those living
within the Navajo Nation boundaries.
For the Diné peoples, we consider the 65 and over age group as our ni-
hahastoii and nihizaanii. The Western world refers to this age group as the
elderly. This age group serves as a cultural resource for Diné peoples. The
total population in the 65 and over age group increased from 6.9 percent
in 2000 to 9.9 percent in 2010.
The 45 to 64 age group is our nihimásání and nihicheii, the grandpar-
ents. This segment of the population increased from 16 percent in 2000
to 21.7 percent in 2010. Grandparents raise a number of children in Na-
vajo communities, and this is why this part of the population has been
Historic and Demographic Changes  • 113

segmented from the 65 and over age group. Overall, there was a more than
5 percent increase in the 45 to 64 age group. This is consistent with the
overall increase of the baby boomer population.
The middle segment of the population pyramid contains two age
groups that reflect the nihimá and nihizhé’é of the Navajo Nation. The
35 to 44 age cohort decreased from 13.6 percent in 2000 to 11.8 percent
in 2010, and the 18 to 34 age group increased by 22.5 percent in 2000 to
23.7 percent in 2010. These age groups combined represent the workforce
and the portion of the population that bears children and creates the next
The 18 and under age cohort are known as nihaa’áłchíní, our children.
From 2000 to 2010 there was a significant decline of approximately 8.1
percent in this population age group. This reflects the preceding data on
declining birth rates in the Navajo Nation.
Other noticeable changes in the 2000 census and the 2010 census are
the decline in the 35 to 44 age cohort and in the 18 and under age group.
The 35 to 44 age cohort’s decline could be due to the lack of economic
and educational opportunities on the reservation. A potential decrease in
this age group could mean a decrease in the number of births. This leads
to the next noticeable difference. From 2000 to 2010, the total number of
children decreased from 41 percent to 32.9 percent.
According to the 2010 census, “the Navajo Nation was the American
Indian reservation with the largest total population of 174,000, and the
largest AIAN alone or in combination population of 169,000” (Norris,
Vines, and Hoeffel 2012, 14).
The next set of data reflects tribal enrollment. In 2008, there were
291,238 enrolled tribal members.3 Figure 5 illustrates the overall popu-
lation trend with a focus on blood quantum group changes over the pe-
riod 1938–1998. From 1938 to 1998 there was a dramatic decrease in the
four-­fourths blood quantum group. In 1938 the four-­fourths group was
approximately 98 percent, but by 1998 that amount decreased to approxi-
mately 38 percent. This trend may be due to exogamous relationships or
the fathers’ claims to biological children. This data set reflects actual tribal
enrollment and shows that overall, Diné peoples are changing. Although
the Diné population is increasing over time, there is a parallel trend of
racial diversification.
Figure 6 illustrates the total number of births that occurred from 1990
to 2003. The data show that 1993 (identified as 4 on the x-­axis) had the
highest number of births, 3,366 total births, and that 1996 (identified as
7 on the x-­axis) had the lowest number with 2,635 births. Overall, births
114  •  Political Challenges

Figure 5.  Blood quantum grouping for Navajo tribal enrollment from the
Navajo Office of Vital Records

Figure 6.  Total number of births in intra-­Navajo, intertribal, and interracial

childbearing unions, 1990–2003

decreased over the fourteen-­year period. Unlike other communities that

rely on natural increases (births minus deaths) and net gains in migration/
immigration for population increase, the Diné peoples rely on the total
number of births for increases in the total population enrolled as tribal
The following are my findings based on an analysis of the 1990 and
2000 decennial census, NOVR data, and NMDOH data.
Historic and Demographic Changes  • 115

•• The Navajo Nation is the second-­largest tribe in the country.

•• From 1990 to 2000 the population age groups shifted, with an
increase in total population.
•• The overall birth rate decreased from 13 percent in 1990 to 9.6 per-
cent in 2000.
•• From 2000 to 2010 the total population within the Navajo tribal
boundaries declined by 6 percent.
•• There has been a decrease in the total number of births, supported
by the 1990 and 2000 decennial census and NMDOH births data.
•• Of the births from 1990 to 2003, almost half were intertribal, inter-
racial, or to single-­headed households.
•• From 1938 to 1998 there was an increase in the number of Navajo
tribal members of mixed blood.
•• The 1990 and 2000 decennial census is significantly higher than
NOVR tribal enrollment data.

Sideboards to Analysis

Russell Thornton (1997, 33) suggests that a number of Native Americans

who identify themselves as AIAN on the decennial census do not enroll as
members of a Native American tribe. In essence, there are a large number
of Native Americans who identify themselves as being AIAN on the decen-
nial census but are not affiliated or enrolled as a member of a federally
recognized tribe. Hatcher (2005) states that the estimated net undercount
of the AIAN group was 12.2 percent in 1990 and 4.7 percent in 2000.
The tribal enrollment process requires documentation to prove one’s
identity, and an applicant is required to show his or her birth certificate
and Social Security card. The biggest issue in the birth certificate process
arises in situations where fathers are not listed. Fathers impact their child’s
identity by not claiming their child on a birth certificate. For instance, if
we have two Navajo parents and the father does not claim the child, that
child’s blood quantum would be calculated based on the mother’s current
blood quantum. At best, the child would be considered only one-­half.
Several factors should be considered regarding the decennial census
and NOVR data. First, the U.S. Census Bureau allows respondents to self-­
identify race and ethnicity. Second, the NOVR is based on lineal descent
(a birth certificate is required that proves parentage and is cross-­referenced
for blood quantum and status), which provides constraints to those who
may qualify but have yet to go on with the process of enrolling into the
116  •  Political Challenges

tribe. Finally, the population growth in the NOVR data is based on a

natural increase of tribal members (births minus deaths). For purposes of
political identity, the federal government utilizes tribal enrollment data
to extend the plethora of federal trust responsibilities. You have to be a
member of the Navajo Nation to take advantage of rights associated with
federally recognized tribes.

Diné Political Identity

The NOVR is the tribal agency responsible for enrollment. There are six
satellite offices located throughout the Navajo Nation and one central of-
fice in Window Rock, Arizona.4 The process of enrolling as a tribal mem-
ber begins with an application supplemented with a birth certificate and a
Social Security card to prove the applicant’s identity. The degree of Indian
blood is calculated based on lineal descent. A CDIB is issued once the
application has been verified.
The definition of tribal membership dates back to 1923 and parallels
the development of the Navajo Nation’s natural resources and adoption of
a constitution (Spruhan 2007, 4). The discussion of defining tribal mem-
bership has not been evaluated since the initial enrollment policy in 1953.
In 1940 the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) created a tribal base roll to
confirm enrollment of a Navajo applicant’s ancestors. Figure 7 is a CDIB
that references the 1940 base roll and shows the degree of Navajo blood.
Being of one-­quarter blood quanta was sufficient for establishing tribal
In 1952 the Navajo Nation had a dialogue with the BIA’s central of-
fice and the Commission of Indian Affairs to discuss an approach to tribal
membership requirements. This led to confusion on defining who is a
member of the Navajo Nation. The tribal council was forced to clearly de-
fine tribal membership. Some delegates thought that all Navajos living off
the reservation for three years or more should be purged from the Navajo
Nation. This was stipulated in the provisions of the Treaty of Bosque Re-
dondo (1868). There was also discussion about the patrilineal descent rule
and conditions such as the requirement that a person be born on the reser-
vation. In 1953 the Navajo Nation adopted the one-­quarter blood quanta
enrollment policy through a tribal council resolution. The enrollment
policy was drafted and recommended by the BIA, with sixty-­eight council
members in favor and one opposed. In 1954 the Navajo Nation council
instructed the Advisory Committee of the council to draft a regulation


PART A (To be used if applicant is enrolled)


July 25, 2005


I certify that _________________________________________ is listed on the Navajo Indian Census Roll, dated

January 01, 1940,

____________________ 4/4
Which is an official record of this office as being of ________________ Degree Navajo

Indian blood, with Roll Number_______________ Date of birth __________________________ .

RECORDED: December 10, 1982

Office Asst.





Figure 7.  Navajo Certificate of Indian Blood

118  •  Political Challenges

to process membership applications. By 1955 the Advisory Committee

issued membership regulations. The Enrollment Screening Committee
was created to consider membership applications. Applicants who did not
meet the one-­quarter blood quanta were rejected. Those who met the full-­
blood conditions were automatically approved for tribal enrollment. At
this time, mixed-­bloods had to demonstrate cultural connections, and ad-
ditional nonbiological requirements were created to keep those of mixed
descent out of the tribe. The policy was aimed at those who were Mexican
slaves (Spruhan 2007, 11–13).
In analyzing the history of the Diné peoples, we see how the United
States imposed a new worldview on them. Prior to the Long Walk, the
Diné peoples were never treated as a collective unit. The people were in-
dependent communities and bands living throughout a vast area. Survival
was dependent on working together with fellow community members.
Since 1868 the events that have occurred have changed the Diné percep-
tion of identity.
The history of the Diné peoples puts into perspective the identity, land,
language, and culture that we almost lost through continuous assimilation
efforts. Here we are almost 150 years later, and the Diné peoples have
survived the era of conquest, war, assimilation, termination, and reorgani-
zation. In the book The Navajo Long Walk, Johnson Dennison is quoted
as saying that “the weapon we need to overcome all these problems, we
already have it. All we need is to rediscover who we are” (Cheek 2004, 22).
The “Navajo Nation became an institution and agency many ancestors
never envisioned or contemplated. It became a Westernized political or-
ganization, a three-­branch governmental system that includes 110 chapter
houses designed to be community links to the centralized political struc-
ture” (Lee 2008, 96–97). According to Spruhan (2006, 7), “The Navajo
Nation . . . adopted the one-­quarter blood definition as part of another
proposed constitution in 1953.”
The BIA was taking names and giving numbers. The enrollment coins
in figure 8 belonged to my paternal grandparents. During the first enu-
meration a family’s blood quantum was determined, and a coin was issued
to enrolled individuals. The aluminum coin served as a token of being
enrolled into the Navajo tribe.
Many Diné names were lost in translation and were given translated or
proper English names. My third-­generation paternal grandfather’s name
was Daghaal Chii Biiye’. His name was translated into Douglas Chee
Begay. This process created a myriad of surnames, such as Begay, Benally,
Yazzie, Chee, Claw, and Tso, that are frequently associated with the Diné
Historic and Demographic Changes  • 119

Figure 8.  Tribal enrollment coins distributed in 1940 base roll

peoples. During the enumeration process, tribal enrollment coins were

distributed to every individual. These coins were used to receive rations
and livestock.5 The left coin with the Department of the Interior emblem
bears two markings to represent a distribution.
Another complicated issue for census enumerators was handling mul-
tiple households living under one roof and intergenerational households.
The census takers viewed the practice of having multiple wives as out of
context and completely out of line in terms of Western values. Oftentimes,
this led to many people being counted twice on the base rolls.
Documenting the date of birth is another complicated process. This
was an arbitrary process, since there was very little understanding and
knowledge of the calendar year. Dates were measured and based on the
season and the growth of crops. During the first enumeration in 1928,
people often referenced the Long Walk as an approximate time frame of
when they were born. Many Diné peoples would say “Shiigo Hweeldi dee
nida’askai yee daa shidizhchi” (“The summer after the Long Walk I was
Does the blood quantum policy serve as a systematic pattern to ex-
tinguish Native American nations? A suggested approach to evaluating
tribal enrollment policies is to begin to ask the Diné peoples a question
that is centered on their Indigenous worldview and the adoption of the
120  •  Political Challenges

Fundamental Laws (Diné Bi Beenahaz’áanii).6 That question can be

viewed as follows: How might the current tribal enrollment policy fare
under Diné bi beenahaz’áanii? How did Diné peoples define members
of the community before tribal enrollment? How responsive are the Diné
peoples in light of a changing demography in the modern era?
A critical issue facing Diné peoples relates to single mothers and the
enrollment of their children. Diné mothers who do not disclose the father
of a child or who have no father on a birth certificate bear the brunt of the
enrollment process. The child may legitimately be a full-­blooded Navajo,
but due to the father being absent, the child is considered one-­half or less,
depending on the mother’s blood quantum.
In 2004 Ervin Keeswood, council delegate of Tse’daa’kaan (Hogback,
New Mexico), introduced legislation to lower the one-­quarter blood quan-
tum to one-­eighth. The intent was to increase the size of the tribal popu-
lation for more federal funds. The council voted forty-­four in favor and
eighteen opposed (Spruhan 2007, 18). The legislation proposed by Kees-
wood did not become law.
The 1953 council resolution and the 1955 advisory council regulations
continue to define Diné membership and enrollment. There has been
continuous movement among the Diné peoples to adopt a formal consti-
tution whereby a deep discussion on enrollment policy will have to take

Diné Worldview on Identity

There are many ways of labeling the Diné peoples. Among the Diné tra-
ditionalists, we call ourselves the Nohookáá Diné (Earth-­Surface People)
and Bíla Ashdla’ii (Five-­Fingered Ones) (Denetdale 2007, 10). The most
common interpretation is Diné (The People). The Diné worldview is in-
fluenced by the relationships and connections to our homeland. The geo-
graphic nature of our homeland is encompassed by six sacred mountains:
Dził Sisnaajiní to the east, Dził Tsoodził to the south, Dził Dook’o’oosłííd
to the west, Dził Dibé Nitsaa to the north, and the central mountains
Dził Ná’oodiłii and Dził Ch’óol’í˛ ’í˛ . Dr. Jennifer Nez Denetdale (2007,
10) said that “From the Holy People, the Diné received knowledge, mate-
rial gifts, rituals, and ceremonies for a proper life. The Holy People also
provided knowledge on proper relationships between the world and all
Historic and Demographic Changes  • 121

K’é is Indigenous to the Diné peoples since creation. The k’é concept
is essential to the continuous existence of the Diné. Throughout this chap-
ter, I speak from the voice and worldview of a Diné woman. A Diné world-
view is consistent and parallels with the Indigenous planning paradigm.
Dr. Gregory Cajete (2000) states that origin stories are the philosophi-
cal foundation of worldview. The creation stories reconnect an individu-
al’s identity to his or her ancestors, provide an understanding of the way
of life, and serve as an educational tool. Creation stories also create values
and philosophical ideals within a community. Indigenous peoples often
refer to creation stories in a way that connects individuals to their ancestors
and community in terms of time and space.
The creation stories of the Diné peoples establish the fundamental cul-
tural worldview of the people. The creation stories are what distinguish
Diné peoples from the theories of migration. The emergence stories paral-
lel the Indigenous planning paradigm in that the Diné peoples come from
a central place and emerge through a series of four worlds (figure 9).
The four worlds model a cyclical pattern whereby society is at its high-
est point and in a harmonious state; then deceit or betrayal occurs, which
leads to chaos and forces the Diné peoples to emerge into another world.
Cajete (2000, 16) describes chaos as “the field from which all things come
into being.”

First Second Third Fourth

World World World World

Emergence Diné Worldview, and Pre-Contact

Figure 9.  Diné timeline

122  •  Political Challenges

In the beginning of the fourth world,7 clans were created by a female

deity, ‘Asdza˛a˛ Nádleehé (Changing Woman or White Shell Woman).
First Man and First Woman found Changing Woman as an infant on the
top of Gobernador Knob.8 She reached puberty in four days and would
later have twins for the Sun God. The twins, known as Naayéé’ Neezghání
(Monster Slayer) and Tó Bájísh Chíní (Born for Water), are the twin he-
roes who destroyed the monsters that were ravaging the people (Tohe
2000, 104). Changing Woman created the first four clans of peoples and
set up rules on how the Diné peoples should live. The four clans were
created from various parts of her body. From the skin from her breast she
created people of the Kinyaa’áanii (Towering House) clan, from her back
she created the Honágháahnii (One-­Walk-­Around) clan, from the skin
under her right arm she created the Tódích’íi’nii (Bitter Water) clan, and
from the skin under her left arm she made the Hashtł’ishnii (Mud Clan).9
Today there are a total of nine clan groupings and more than seventy clans
During this period of creation, ceremonies, law, language, and the foun-
dation of the Diné peoples were established. The Diné creation narratives
are passed down from one generation to the next by way of oral knowledge.
“The Diné culture takes identity from the female, not the male, through
clan membership” (Tohe 2000,104). Although some practices have been
forgotten, the stronghold of the Diné peoples remains in the form of lan-
guage, cultural practices, and kinship.
Diné identity, in true form, is centered on the principle of k’é, a system
of clans that establishes kinship. Kinship is based on the bilateral inheri-
tance of maternal and paternal clans and maternal and paternal grandfa-
ther clans. There are a number of unwritten policies with respect to clans.
For example, it is immoral to intermarry within the mother’s and father’s
clans. The typical male and female arrangement involves full disclosure of
both individual’s clans. The maternal and paternal clans set the parameter
on what constitutes an appropriate relationship. If there is no relationship
with respect to the clan system, the relationship is deemed appropriate.
The practice of disclosing clans to potential mates is fairly common for
many Diné men and women.
In addition, the k’é system reinforces community and creates relation-
ships with other Diné peoples. It is fairly common to run into a brother,
sister, uncle, aunt, grandfather, or paternal grandfather on the other side
of the reservation. The k’é system also plays a huge role in ceremonies.
The power of k’é situates an individual in the community with respect
to one’s mother, father, maternal grandfather, and paternal grandfather.
Historic and Demographic Changes  • 123

The legacy of k’é further establishes the matriarch as the pivotal inherent
marker for identity. Although kinship has been communicated as matriar-
chal, fellow Diné scholars have informed me that kinship is bilateral due
to the inheritance of the mother’s and father’s clans.
Over time, the definition of what constitutes an individual as Diné has
changed. The change in identity has been influenced by the historical
trauma that the Diné peoples have faced. Prior to the Long Walk in 1868,
there was no question as to who was or was not Diné. Identity was based on
kinship and language. Clans were created to include people into a com-
munity. The Coyote Pass people, Ma’ii Deeshgiizhnii, originated from
individuals who intermarried with Jemez Pueblo; the Naakaii Diné’e clan
was created for the Mexican people; and my own clan, the Naasht’ézhí
Tába˛a˛há, is translated as the Zuni-­Water Edge People. The creation of
these clans shows that there has been a historical trend of intermarriage
and response to those changes for centuries.

Diné Bi Beenahaaz’áanii and Sovereignty as a Tool

to Empower Traditional Knowledge

“Many people imagine that the American government sets the legal crite-
ria for tribal citizenship. However, tribes have the exclusive right to create
their own legal definitions of identity and to do so in any way they choose”
(Garroutte 2003,15). The U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Santa Clara
v. Martinez upheld this sovereign right in 1978.11 Garroutte says this is the
“fundamental power of an Indian tribe” (39). Utilizing blood quantum as
the standard for tribal enrollment has been the perennial challenge for
tribes throughout the United States.
When we think of Diné worldview on identity, we must focus on the
preinvasion period. There is a moment in Diné history when stories of
origin governed our people. The Diné Nation is showing signs of promise
by incorporating the Fundamental Laws into the judicial branch of the
Navajo Nation.
In 2002 the Navajo Nation Council passed the Fundamental Laws of
the Diné. The basic tenets of the Fundamental Laws include traditional
law, customary law, natural law, and common law. The Navajo Nation
judicial branch applies these laws to its legal analysis. The purpose is to
“uphold the values and principles of the Diné Bi Beenahaaz’áanii in the
practice of peace making, obedience, discipline, punishment, interpreting
laws, and rendering decisions and judgments” (Spruhan 2007, 19–20).
124  •  Political Challenges


Native American communities are survivors of colonization and assimi-

lation. Since the 1800s, the intention of the U.S. government has been
articulated as fixing the Indian “problem.” To this day, those intentions
are demonstrated through public policy, legislation, court decisions, and
programs to assimilate Indians. The notion of assimilation was for Indians
to become indistinguishable from any other American. Native Americans
were to become a part of the American melting pot, with identities lost
and traditions and culture invalidated over time.
In the book Mixed Blood Indians: Racial Construction in the Early
South, Theda Perdue (2005, x) argues that blood quantum policy “drives a
wedge between the members of the Native community by using blood to
privilege some, discredit others, and ultimately racialize Native societies in
ways that are foreign to Native cultural traditions.” She also advocates for
moving beyond histories that rely on blood, stating that “we need to under-
stand more fully the incorporation of non-­Indian into Native societies, the
participation of their descendants as tribal members, and the construction
of the racial category ‘mixed bloods.’ ”
Diné history has been impacted by many federal Indian policies, which
have transformed the mind-­set of many Diné peoples. Garroutte (2003,
42) states that “the ultimate and explicit federal intention was to use the
blood quantum standard as a means to liquidate tribal lands and to elimi-
nate government trust responsibility to tribes, along with entitlement pro-
grams, treaty rights, and reservations.” We, the Diné peoples, have been
resilient and have historically adapted to changes within our communi-
ties. The blood quantum policies are based on the termination of Native
America. Once a person engages in an interracial union resulting in a
child, that child and subsequent generations will never be full-­blooded
Diné history is a story of struggle and demise, and yet the resilience of
the Diné peoples continues to be created of the strongest Indigenous com-
munities with respect to language and culture. Education policies were
initially set forth to assimilate and invalidate language and culture over
time. Today, language and culture hang in the balance. There are many
issues that we face in light of modernity, urbanization, and globalization.
How do we prepare our nations and communities for social, environmen-
tal, governmental, and other unanticipated changes?
In the summer of 1996 Kelsey Begaye, Speaker of the Navajo Nation
Council issued a statement in light of deities visiting the Diné peoples.
Historic and Demographic Changes  • 125

The Dieties communicated an important message to pray and continue

with cultural values. The Dieties asked for offerings and for our people to
reconnect to our way of life. Despite the multiple religions in the Navajo
Nation, people expressed the importance of our clan system that contin-
ues to be an important aspect of the Diné peoples. The following is an
excerpt from Mr. Begaye’s message to the people that appeared in the
Navajo Times on July 25, 1996:

We all live in a time of great challenges. We live in a time of uncertainty

and there are constant changes taking place among us. The majority of
our children are not speaking their Navajo language; they are not being
taught their cultural and traditional values; the foundation of family val-
ues are [sic] not being emphasized to them; and we are straying away
from our spiritual strengths and values. We must begin our journey back
to being a strong Nation. We must start now. . . . In light of these condi-
tions among our people, we had reports of a visitation from our Deities
at Rocky Ridge. A special message was delivered to us. . . . I was asked
by the Navajo people to organize a day of prayer where we could pause
and unite in prayer. . . . Prayers were offered for the Navajo Nation by
a traditional Navajo Medicine man, a Native American Church Road-
man, and [a] Christian Pastor. . . . I believe that by the prayers that were
offered by different religious means, we showed the United States that
the Navajo people are the Diné, and no matter what differences we may
have, we are tied by being Navajo first, and secondly by our unique clan
system. (Schwarz 2001, 98)

Given the continuing trend in the Navajo population, this research sets
the stage for discussion on how the Navajo Nation can start to reformu-
late policies that reflect Indigenous beliefs and values and the changing
population. Rethinking tribal enrollment policy will require a regional
Indigenous community planning initiative. At the center of this issue is
the understanding that “blood quantum is controversial among academ-
ics, policy makers, and affected individuals and outside tribal communi-
ties” (Spruhan 2006, 2).
The issues with utilizing blood quantum are multifaceted. Many peo-
ple have called the methodology “statistical extermination,” others have
referred to blood quantum as “blood pedigree,” and in terms of historical
racism, blood quantum is an off shoot of “racial hierarchy” with superior
and inferior racial categories (Garroutte 2003, 55–59). To further the dis-
cussion, “some allege that the federal government applies blood quantum
126  •  Political Challenges

to eliminate its responsibility to Indian people by legally defining Indians

out of existence” (Spruhan 2006, 2).
Some Native American nations have yet to revisit the tribal enrollment
policy. The ill effects of the termination-­era policies that aimed at assimi-
lating, terminating, and exploiting Indian communities still linger in the
minds of Native American people. The following is an excerpt from the
book Blood Struggle by Charles Wilkinson on tribes that were terminated
by the federal government:

The tribes that had actually been terminated had to endure what the
Colville, Flathead, and a few other candidates for liquidation man-
aged to stave off. There were no success stories among the terminated
tribes. With their reservations liquidated, members fled to the cities or
remained near their former homeland, the sense of community shat-
tered and their economic status diminished even more. (Wilkinson
2005, 182)

Today, many tribal communities are educating professionals to evaluate

policies that impact our Native American communities. The initial intent
of tribal enrollment policy was to dilute Indians out of existence through
the process of intermarriage. Essentially, tribes would extinguish them-
selves through the practice of exogamy. Furthermore, the blood quantum
policy has created this sort of Indian pedigree that has racialized and frag-
mented our Indian communities.
As Diné peoples, we have the opportunity to define who we are by exer-
cising our sovereign right to self-­govern our people in a direction that cor-
responds with the Fundamental Laws. How we choose to tackle this issue
is a big question. The current legal definition of a tribal member has no
historical or cultural context to the Diné tribe. If the policy has no connec-
tion to the cultural values of k’é, then why do we continue to use the im-
posed policies? Does the policy follow the Sa’a˛h Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhó˛ó˛n
paradigm that has historically and traditionally governed our people? At
some point in the near future, we as a community need to engage in a
proactive planning approach by evaluating how the Diné peoples have
incorporated traditional knowledge into policy. Our perennial challenge
is how we as a nation can collectively process this type of analysis and use
it for the purposes of generating policy that sustains our children, grand-
children, and subsequent generations.
It is my hope that our younger generation and the generations to come
continue to practice our Diné culture and language. The oral tradition
Historic and Demographic Changes  • 127

surrounding k’é was established prior to documented history and serves as

the strength for our communities.

1. The CDIB is also known as the Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood. CDIBs
are documents acknowledging that the individual meets the criteria for tribal enroll-
2. The New Mexico births data for 1990–2003 was evaluated and processed by
four variables: race of child, race of mother, race of father, and child’s birth year. From
this data, I queried the American Indian or Alaskan Native births and isolated Navajo
3. Leonard Benally, personal conversation, February 13, 2008.
4. The NOVR satellite offices are located in Tohajillee, New Mexico; Crown-
point, New Mexico; Shiprock, New Mexico; Chinle, Arizona; Fort Defiance, Arizona;
and Tuba City, Arizona.
5. Leonard Benally, personal conversation, February 13, 2008.
6. The Fundamental Laws are in the Navajo Nation Code and include Diné tra-
ditional law, Diné customary law, Diné natural law, and Diné common law.
7. There are several iterations of the Navajo creation stories. Some Diné peoples
believe in the fifth world theory as opposed to the fourth world theory, which is refer-
enced in this section.
8. Gobernador Knob is located in the ancestral lands of the Navajo people known
as Dinétah, which is just east of Farmington, New Mexico. The boundaries of Diné-
tah geographically encompass a large part of northwestern New Mexico, southwestern
Colorado, southeastern Utah, and northeastern Arizona.
9. Mary Tso, personal conversation, December 23, 2008.
10. The nine clan groupings were derived from
11. In the case of Santa Clara v. Martinez, Mr. Montoya lived at Santa Clara Pueblo
in his mother’s home. He raised four children at the pueblo and now has grandchil-
dren there. However, Mr. Montoya cannot be enrolled in Santa Clara because since
1939 the pueblo has operated by a tribal law that allows for enrollment only on the
basis of paternal descent. Mr. Montoya’s father was not from Santa Clara and instead
was from the nearby Isleta Pueblo.


Cajete, Gregory. 2000. Native Science: Natural Law of Interdependence. Santa Fe,
NM: Clear Light.
Cheek, Lawrence W. 2004. The Navajo Long Walk. Tucson, AZ: Rio Nuevo.
Deloria, Vine, Jr. 1999. Spirit and Reason. Edited by Barbara Deloria, Kristen Foehner,
and Sam Scinta. Golden, CO: Fulcrum.
Denetdale, Jennifer Nez. 2007. Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief
Manuelito and Juanita. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Garroutte, Eva Marie. 2003. Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
128  •  Political Challenges

Hatcher, William Wayne, Jr. 2005. “Conducting the Decennial Census on the Na-
vajo Indian Reservation 1990 and 2000.” Report, Joint Statistical Meetings, Section
on Government Statistics, U.S. Bureau of the Census, Denver Regional Office,
Lee, Lloyd L. 2006. “Navajo Cultural Identity: What Can the Navajo Nation Bring
to the American Indian Identity Discussion Table?” Wicazo Sa Review 21, no. 2:
———. 2008. “Reclaiming Indigenous Intellectual, Political, and Geographic Space: A
Path for Navajo Nationhood.” American Indian Quarterly 32, no. 1: 96–110.
Norris, Tina, Paula L. Vines, and Elizabeth M. Hoeffel. 2012. “The American Indian
and Alaska Native Population: 2010 Census Briefs.” U.S. Department of Com-
merce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau, January.
Perdue, Theda. 2005. Mixed Blood Indians: Racial Construction in the Early South.
Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Schwarz, Maureen Trudelle. 2001. Navajo Lifeways: Contemporary Issues, Ancient
Knowledge. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Spruhan, Paul. 2000. “Indian Law and the Rhetoric of Race: Issues of Blood Quan-
tum to Reorganization.” Student paper, University of New Mexico, http://repository
———. 2006. “A Legal History of Blood Quantum in Federal Indian Law to 1935.”
South Dakota Law Review 51: 1–50.
———. 2007. “The Origins, Current Status, and Future Prospects of Blood Quantum
as the Definition of Membership in the Navajo Nation.” Tribal Law Journal 8, no.
1: 26.
Thornton, Russell. 1997. “Tribal Membership Requirements and the Demography
of ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Native Americans.” Population Research and Policy Review 16:
Tohe, Laura. 2000. “There Is No Word for Feminism in My Language.” Wicazo Sa
Review 15, no. 2: 103–10.
Wilkinson, Charles. 2005. Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations. New
York: Norton.
The Origin of Legibility
Rethinking Colonialism and Resistance
among the Navajo People, 1868–1937

Andrew Curley


Rethinking colonization and resistance, in the context of this chapter, re-

fers to historically analyzing the formation of the legal-­political category
“Navajo” and suggests contemporary implications for how we think about
it and the people called Diné today.1 In other words, the story of the Nava-
jos as a tribe is in part the story of Navajo legibility—that is, the process of
making an Indigenous group in the American Southwest into a standard-
ized and simplified ethnic group within the United States. It is also a story
of state formation, decades in the making, that sought to turn the people
who collectively refer to themselves as Diné into a decipherable popula-
tion subject to the control and sometimes manipulation of a colonial au-
thority. Once existing on the periphery of the expanding U.S. empire, the
Diné people would eventually be organized into a federally recognized
Indian tribe called the “Navajo Tribe of Indians.” As a tribe within the
United States, we became members of our conquering population. When
trying to understand Navajo thought in an era of colonialism, we must also
examine how we became the Navajo Tribe in the first place. The creation
of a tribe in lieu of the people called Diné was primarily about establish-
ing limitations on the people. The notion of Navajo nationalism, which
serves as a premise to this volume in some ways, is about challenging these

130  •  Political Challenges

This chapter is an effort to reconsider the early history of the Navajo

tribe as a tribe,2 or a category of people and its concomitant tribal govern-
ment that the United States created in order to ensure settlement into
what are now the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Here I exam-
ine how the U.S. government created the Navajo tribe and its system of
government in order to accomplish this effort. I specifically focus on the
period between 1868 and 1937, or between the signing of the Treaty of
Bosque Redondo (1868) and the establishment of the second Navajo Na-
tion tribal government at the end of the New Deal. This is the crucial time
when the category of “tribe” was created for the Navajo people and given
legal and political weight.
I also focus on the understated ways in which Navajo people resisted
these forms of colonialism. My argument is twofold. First, the U.S. govern-
ment created the Navajo tribe and the Navajo tribal government in order
to make the Navajo people into what James C. Scott (1998) has described
as a “legible” population subject to the simplification and manipulation
of “the state,” or powerful interests within the U.S. federal government.
Second, the Navajo people resisted these efforts in both overt and subtle
ways because they interfered with their own senses of personal autonomy,
livelihood, and collective independence. In other words, this process of
legibility established new limitations around the Diné people, and they
Conclusively, I suggest that the importance in understanding the his-
tory of Navajo people in this way is to highlight how in fact we did resist
the establishment of these boundaries and categories and how we con-
tinue to resist settler colonialism in unobvious ways. In this sense, resis-
tance defines the contours of our colonial experience. As a member of the
Navajo Nation, I hope that this chapter contributes to the development
of a new understanding of our recent history with greater emphasis on
how we came to look the way we do in the eyes of the federal govern-
ment—namely, though the establishment of political institutions around
new forms of political leadership.
What I sketch out here is part of a larger picture of what David E.
Wilkins (2003) has called “the Navajo political experience,” as indicated
in the title of his authoritative history of the Navajo tribal political system.
There are many loose ends and threads that need to be followed. But this
chapter is meant to establish the basic pillars of a framing, as crude as it
might be, for future work in redefining the political history of the Navajo
The Origin of Legibility  • 131

The People as a Tribe

Legibility: The Process of Simplification

and Classification
Legibility is an act of simplification and schematic classification. It is the
action of taking complex things and rendering them simple (Scott 1998).
In today’s modern state, built on bureaucratic logic, simplification is al-
most requisite for administration on a national scale and carrying out large
programs. Of course, this authority is subdivided into regionalized units
down the chain of command. Within these political structures, called “the
state,” people and things are made into observable units upon which ac-
tors with authoritative roles might exercise some influence. For Scott, the
act of simplification created the potential to transform the thing under
investigation into something readable and subject to “a high degree of
schematic knowledge, control and manipulation” (11). In this process of
making people and objects into units, the observer transforms what he or
she is seeing into things that can be controlled, restricted, and manipu-
lated. Examples of this for the Navajo people have been the creation of
formal political boundaries, race-­based forms of tribal membership, and
the regulation of livestock and other animals. Once this information is
collected, a population becomes actionable, and “one might say that the
greater the manipulation envisaged, the greater the legibility required to
affect it” (11).
Throughout the nineteenth century and continuing to the present
day, the United States has sought to make American Indians legible
along these lines. When we have resisted or questioned this process, the
federal government has enforced its boundaries through violence, force-
ful displacement, the denial of basic rights, and, more recently, attenu-
ation of existing rights through U.S. Supreme Court decisions—again,
acts designed to impose limitations. For the Diné peoples, this process of
legibility was most significantly advanced with the signing of the Treaty
of Bosque Redondo in what is today eastern New Mexico. It was at this
time and through this particular federal action that a category of peo-
ple called “the Navajo” was given legal and political weight in the eyes
of U.S. governing officials. Enforced with violence, this legal-­political
category determined in effect the living conditions and possibilities for
Navajo people under U.S. occupation after their experience at Bosque
132  •  Political Challenges

Treaty Making: The Origin of Legibility

Prior to the signing of the Treaty of Bosque Redondo, the Diné were an
illegible people. For the U.S. cartographer, they lived somewhere on the
Colorado plateau in the recently conquered New Mexico Territory with
no fixed boundaries or permanent place of residence. But the policy of the
U.S. government at the time was to turn the Indigenous peoples living in
this territory into manageable populations. With the conquest of the New
Mexico Territory from Mexico in 1848, the Navajo people became a focus
of this policy (Iverson 2002, 37).3 For years, Diné people evaded Span-
ish and Mexican authorities. But now with the United States assuming
control over the territory, new Anglo colonists promised older Hispanic
communities that the recalcitrant tribes they had long feared, such as the
Navajos, would be brought under control.
The principal way through which the U.S. government converted sto-
chastic patterns of living among Indigenous people into accountable and
manageable populations was through treaties. Treaties were used to con-
vince Indigenous people to agree collectively to terms of peace and control
that the U.S. government set. Usually these would be enforced under the
guise of some sort of tribal leadership, such as a chief or a council. These
agreements placed tribes under the direct control of the U.S. government
and its military. Not only did treaties grant the federal government author-
ity over Indian affairs but they also guaranteed certain provisions for these
tribes in exchange for alleged peace and much of their former territories
(Wilkins 2002, 106–7).
These were the ostensible terms of most treaties anyway. But in reality,
Indigenous peoples surrendered much of their autonomy and former ways
of life when they agreed to the provisions included in these contracts.4
They also did not realize that the U.S. government did not take very seri-
ously its own guarantees. In many ways, treaties served only as a form of
subterfuge designed to buy time for increased westward expansion until
the ability to completely overwhelm Indigenous peoples with material and
population had been achieved.
In the context of the U.S. westward expansion, treaties became a prin-
cipal method for creating tribes. Tribes were created from treaties. Trea-
ties introduced tribes and turned ambiguous ethnic and racial references,
such as the early Spanish reference for the Diné people as “Apache de
Navajo,”5 into bounded categories of people, attaching legal and political
weight to these categories and creating hard borders between tribes and
races. In other words, when treaties referred to a certain tribe and granted
The Origin of Legibility  • 133

provisions to that tribe, in the abstract this referred to a clear category of

people that was based on racial or ethnic identity. Eventually, race and
ethnicity were defined and understood through blood quantum. Such a
requirement determined who could or could not be a member of the le-
gally defined ethnic group “Navajo Tribe of Indians.” It was through trea-
ties that the U.S. government was able to create categories that defined our
territory and membership. This was the first and perhaps most important
step in making us legible.
The people who would become the Navajos entered into treaty nego-
tiations in the summer of 1868 after a devastating tenure at a place called
Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico (Wilkins 2003, 75).6 The Nava-
jos who were imprisoned there had a difficult time eking out a living in
this harsh environment. The place was meant to serve as a training ground
for agriculture, but attempts at farming failed due to the poor soil and
crowded conditions within this reservation. Federal officials soon realized
the futility of their efforts. They also realized the tremendous expense that
Navajo internment cost. By the late 1860s U.S. officials understood that
the forceful imprisonment of nearly eight thousand Navajos7 could not
last much longer. The choice for the federal government was to either let
them starve and die at a tremendous expense to U.S. taxpayers or move the
Navajo people even farther east to Oklahoma, where other tribes had also
been relocated. It was the Navajo people themselves who voiced opposi-
tion to these plans and pleaded with U.S. authorities to let them go back
to their original homeland on the Colorado plateau. The U.S. government
eventually relented and decided to allow the Navajo people to return to
their homes (Iverson 2002, 63–65). This was the biggest accomplishment
for those headmen who were negotiating on behalf of the Navajos, per-
haps the most significant diplomatic event in Navajo history.8
But first, the Navajos as a tribe would be made to sign a treaty. This was
the first significant advancement in making the Navajo people into a leg-
ible population. Through treaty negotiations, the Navajo Tribe of Indians
gained legal rights to lands in present-­day eastern Arizona and western
New Mexico. The tribe also gained a guaranteed distribution of basic food
staples such as flour, sheep, and goats in exchange for peace with set-
tlers, the U.S. government, and the railroad as it made its way through the
The Navajo chiefs—or headmen—who signed the treaty had little
choice but to agree to these provisions. As is evidenced in what is claimed
to be the testimony of a man named Barboncito, one of the Navajo lead-
ers who were part of the treaty negotiation, the Navajos simply wanted to
134  •  Political Challenges

return home—all other provisions included in the treaty were conditions

through which the U.S. government would allow the Navajo people at
Bosque Redondo to return home. These were not fairly negotiated pro-
visions between two equal parties. The U.S. government used coercive
force and threats to make an interned, half-­starved population select lead-
ers who acted as legal agents on behalf of the entire tribe. These leaders
simply endorsed actions that the U.S. government had already determined
it was going to take, regardless of what the Navajo people did there. All that
the Navajo people at Bosque Redondo could do was agree to this treaty.
The basic point here is that the Treaty of Bosque Redondo created the
Navajo Tribe of Indians. The treaty implied a sense of political authority
for headmen who were put in charge of the collective conduct of the Na-
vajo people. For the U.S. officials negotiating the treaty, the Navajo Tribe
of Indians was treated as a collective category of people.

The Changing Nature of Political Leadership

among the Navajos
An important dynamic of this collective category called the Navajo Tribe
of Indians was the notion of leadership and political authority for the Na-
vajo people. From the beginning, U.S. officials attempted to create some-
thing like chiefs who would manage the Navajo people and in turn would
become subject to control. This new form of political authority, with Na-
vajo leaders acting under the direct control and supervision of Anglo bu-
reaucrats within U.S. federalism, was what we will refer to as the headman
The Treaty of Bosque Redondo is the origin of this headman system
that existed within the Navajo Reservation from 1868 until the 1930s. This
headmen system lasted until the establishment of the tribal council in the
late 1930s (Kelly 1968, 49; Wilkins 2003, 79–80). When negotiating the
terms of the treaty, the U.S. government only negotiated with men whom
the government believed maintained some sort of prestige and (in the
minds of U.S. officials) some sort of governing authority over the Navajos
as a whole.9 In 1868 General William T. Sherman, infamous for his role
in the American Civil War, was selected to conclude a treaty with the
Navajo people and solve what many in the U.S. government recognized
as the failure of the Bosque Redondo reservation for the Navajo people.
Sherman and other government agents concluded the terms of the treaty
between the U.S. government and the Navajo people (Iverson 2002).
The Origin of Legibility  • 135

Today Sherman’s image at the time of this treaty is captured in a mural

that adorns the interior walls of the Navajo Council Chambers.
According to written records of the proceeding, General Sherman spe-
cifically outlined the new leadership roles for these Navajo headmen who
would assume governing authority on behalf of the United States. He is
quoted as saying:

We will now consider these ten men [the headmen referenced above]
your principal men and we want them to select a chief, the remaining to
compose his Council for we cannot talk to all the Navajos. Barboncito
was unanimously elected Chief—now for this time out you must do as
Barboncito tells you, with him we will deal and do all for your good.
When we leave here [and you] go to your own country you must obey
him or he will punish you, if he has not the power to do so he will call
on the soldiers and they will do it. (Correll 1979, 135)

This was a formula that British colonial officials in Africa called indirect
rule—an arrangement in which a seemingly legitimate authority figure
among a colonized people enacted colonial policies on behalf of the colo-
nists in order to imbue these policies with an air of local acceptance and
legitimacy (Davidson 1993). This is not to say that Barboncito or any of
the other headmen selected to sign this treaty fulfilled this role outlined
for them. The point is that the U.S. government, at the time of dictating
the terms of the treaty to the Navajo people interned at Bosque Redondo,
intended for these headmen whom they selected to fulfill the role of ul-
timate political authority over the Navajo people and with the backing of
the violent and coercive powers of the U.S. military. This is not an un-
familiar arrangement confined to discourses in nineteenth-­century west-
ward expansion. It is also living U.S. colonial policy in places such as Iraq
and Afghanistan today. One can easily recognize analogous relationships
between the U.S. military, concomitant bureaucratic officials, and presi-
dents and parliaments in these occupied countries.
Between 1868 and 1937 10 this form of indirect rule over the Navajo
people was solidified. Official headmen in the eyes of the U.S. govern-
ment spoke on behalf of the Navajo people to government officials and
Euro-­American visitors as chiefs and conceptually, at least within the
minds of these people, were treated as chiefs even though no such au-
thority had existed in Navajo society before. As Kluckhohn and Leighton
(1998 [1946], 122) wrote, “Previous to 1868, the largest unit of effective
136  •  Political Challenges

social cooperation seems to have been a band of Indians who occupied a

defined territory and acknowledged the leadership of a single headman.”
However, a survey of early literature that Anglo visitors produced during
the nascent years of reservation life suggests that the headman system was
in full place by this time.
For example, in a report for the Indian Rights Association published in
1885, Herbert Welsh wrote about his impressions during a visit to the Na-
vajo Reservation in May of that year. In this report, he referred to Manu-
elito, a popular figure within Navajo history and one of the first headmen
the U.S. government recognized, as “one of the leading chiefs among the
Navajos” (Welsh 1885; for more on Manuelito, see Denetdale 2007). As
Welsh reported, Manuelito showed much enthusiasm and support for gov-
ernment programs. The programs that Welsh was referring to were ones
designed to modernize Navajo lands for purposes of industrial agriculture.
For Welsh, the error of the “government” was its lack of aid for the Navajo
people in achieving this goal. The logic was simple for Welsh; if the Na-
vajo proved self-­reliant in the barren desert of the reservation without the
tools of “civilization,” imagine how much more “prosperous” they could
be with increased financial support from the federal government (Welsh
1885, 43–44).11 He reasoned that with these headmen firmly established,
government programs could be effectively implemented.
Similarly, Soil Conservation Service anthropologist Solon Kimball, in
a 1936 report documenting a chronology of Navajo relations with the U.S.
government, reported that average Navajos would sporadically resist fed-
eral policies during these important times. They did this in reaction to
an encroaching Anglo legal-­political regime that solidified boundaries for
white settlers against historic Diné territory. According to Kimball, these
were rebellions against this form of colonialism, and headmen were used
to quell these uprisings and kill or detain resisters. The report lists a series
of incidents over time in which Navajo people retaliated against white
ranchers, traders, and government officials. In one such incident in 1893,
Chief Manuelito was asked to convince a group of recalcitrant Navajos
near Shiprock, in the northeastern corner of the reservation, to surrender a
Navajo who was accused of killing a white trader there (Kimball 1902–81,
Box 24, Folder 237). Kimball wrote:

[By this time] the power of government backed headmen was firmly
established. These killings were the final event in the pacification and
establishment of government authority over the Navajo. Later conflicts
arose from internal disturbances. . . .
The Origin of Legibility  • 137

The introduction of external relationships between the Navajo and

the government did two things. The negotiations between the army
and later civil employees was conducted largely through these politi-
cal headmen. The mere fact that the government recognized certain
men as adequate to represent their people and conducted negotiations
through them solidified and increased the prestige which these men
already held. (Kimball 1902–81, Box 24, Folder 237)


The recognition by the government of this leadership was also condu-

cive to the destruction of [more traditional forms of] leadership. Agents
who found their relations with particular individuals unsatisfactory
would arbitrarily appoint a more tractable individual and ignore the re-
calcitrant headman. When the system of local political leaders or head-
men became unsatisfactory to the interests of the agents, they began to
ignore them entirely and so by 1910 the numbers and prestige of head-
men began to decline. The agents found that they could deal directly
with individuals without the necessity of being obligated to one man, or
the possibility of resistance on the part of this man and the obstruction
of a particular policy or objective which the agent wished to achieve.
(Kimball 1902–81, Box 25, Folder 239)

The perception from one of the best-­trained social scientists operating

within the Navajo Reservation during the 1930s was that the Navajo people
had been made to accept a government-­backed form of leadership (i.e., a
regime of indirect rule), rendering the older form of leadership obsolete.
By the time anthropologists Richard Van Valkenburgh (1941) and Clyde
Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton (1998 [1946]) wrote about traditional
forms of Navajo leadership a few years later, they discussed these forms of
authority as a historical memory rather than a living reality.
As an example let us consider the naachid, which is thought among
many Navajos today to be an original form of government. Political
scholar David E. Wilkins (2003, 39) has defined naachid as a “periodic
tribal assembly of clan leaders . . . who would periodically meet to discuss
issues of importance to Navajo people.” Wilkins gets his understanding of
the Navajo naachid from oral Navajo history. He wrote that oral testimony
has provided evidence for a regionally based and periodic Navajo assembly
of “Peace and War leaders,” called naat’áanii, who would meet to discuss
important issues facing the Navajo people as a whole (70–71).
138  •  Political Challenges

However, anthropologists Kluckhohn and Leighton arrived at the op-

posite conclusion when writing about this same thing fifty years earlier.
Finding it difficult to document the naachid, they reasoned in the mid-­
1940s that this ceremony was an act of “retrospective falsification” rather
than an actual event that had ever taken place:

At times in the last century there tended to be a major headman for the
northern, eastern, southern, and western Navahos respectively—though
such a simple schematization is misleading. “Twelve peace chiefs” or
“the twelve peace chiefs and twelve war chiefs” are mentioned in old
descriptions of the Navahos, but it seems likely that these are ideal pat-
terns with a strong element of retrospective falsification. Whether they
have ever existed of not, it has not been established that there ever was
a “Navaho Tribe” in the sense of an organized, centralized, “political”
entity. (Kluckhohn and Leighton 1998 [1946], 122)

Nevertheless, there was recognition at this time among Navajo people that
their methods of political leadership had changed. To reference the naa-
chid in the 1940s as some more historic form of Navajo government that
existed prior to the Bosque Redondo experience was to acknowledge in
fact that notions of political leadership had changed between the 1850s to
the 1940s. The naachid served as a form of nostalgia in reference to past
forms of political authority. The nostalgia helped legitimize contemporary
arrangements in political authority.
This contributes to Kimball’s (1902–81, Box 24, Folder 237) point that
older forms of political leadership had indeed changed by the time of his
writing in the 1930s and 1940s and that in fact the U.S. government had
created what now exists as political leadership among the Navajo people.
Kimball’s interpretation was that through a selective recognition of certain
headman over others, the U.S. government curbed resistance to its pro-
grams from uncooperative leaders and legitimized cooperative ones. This
in effect created a form of indirect rule over the Navajo people. In other
words, this system of selective recognition was an act of rendering Navajo
forms of leadership legible in a way that would make them subject to gov-
ernment intervention. Selective recognition empowered U.S. administra-
tors and disempowered traditional forms of authority.12
But the naachid example also serves as an epistemological lesson.
Not only does the idea of the naachid confirm the existence of changed
forms of political leadership among the Navajos, it also demonstrates how
The Origin of Legibility  • 139

historical interpretation changes when political circumstances change.

For the Navajo people, this imposition of outside political authority felt
uncomfortable. In order to overcome the dissonance between previous
forms of political leadership and existing practices (either in the early
headman phase of governing authority or later in the era of the tribal coun-
cil), Navajo oral history also had to change. It had to accommodate new
conditions. As James Scott (2009, 226) noted, such oral traditions have
their political advantages, and oral culture has the benefit of “flexibility
and adaptation,” which the “written tradition” does not have.
The flexibility of the Navajo narrative to imagine historic forms of
Navajo political authority as something akin but different from contem­
porary forms of governance has had the advantage of rendering con­
temporary forms of leadership as either legitimate or illegitimate in the
eyes of the Navajo people, based on collectively held perceptions of tradi-
tion. In this way, the storyteller gains political leverage. The oral histo-
rian compares contemporary social, political, and cultural arrangements
against the backdrop of tradition and justifies the rightness or wrongness
of modern practices this way.
This explains the presence of what Kluckhohn and Leighton (1998
[1946], 122) called “retrospective falsification.” As Denetdale writes in the
chapter titled “The Value of Oral History on the Path to Diné/Navajo
Sovereignty” in this volume, “oral histories have proven crucial in projects
to decolonize the Navajo Nation and our communities.” This is in some
ways the point I am trying to make here. Oral culture among the Navajo
people has had the benefit of transmogrifying colonial imposition into cul-
tural attributes, which Scott (2009) argued has political advantages.
Returning to the original point, an important dynamic of this collective
category called the Navajo Tribe of Indians was the notion of leadership
and political authority. From the time the U.S. government negotiated the
Treaty of Bosque Redondo with the Navajo people until the establishment
of the Navajo Tribal Council in the 1930s, government officials have at-
tempted to create something like chiefs who would manage the Navajo
people and in turn become subject to management.
It was through the creation of a regime of chiefs or headmen that U.S.
governing officials made Navajo political authority legible. Through a
process of selective recognition, these same governing officials made Na-
vajo political authority into something that could be externally controlled.
Kimball (1902–81, Box 25, Folder 239) suggests that the U.S. selectively
recognized certain people within the tribe who would not object to its
140  •  Political Challenges

policies and would assist the government in carrying them out. Navajo
oral history responded. It noted changed forms of political leadership and
projected them backward into the history of the tribe.
This oral strategy is evidenced in the evocation of the idea of the naa-
chid. Retrospective falsification positioned the idea of this ancient form
of government strategically between notions of complicity and resistance
and likened the naachid with contemporary forms of leadership in order
to legitimize them. This was done strategically and perhaps in order to re-
sist a narrative of defeat and subjection. Accommodation accompanied by
a qualitative change in the tribe’s historical narrative is a form of colonial
resistance. But this is not the end of the story. In fact, the Navajo people
resisted the external imposition of political authority and control in both
overt and subtle ways, as the next section will demonstrate.

Navajo Resistance toward Legibility

and State Formation

From the beginning, the people called Navajos resisted these new forms
of colonialism. As is evidenced in the testimony of Barboncito, one of the
elected headmen who signed the Treaty of Bosque Redondo on behalf
of the Navajo Tribe of Indians, dramatic and sudden changes in politi-
cal authority could not instantaneously gain universal acceptance among
the Navajo people. Barboncito mentioned a Navajo family he called “the
Cibolletas” who lived among “the Mexicans” at Bosque Redondo and
whose “intentions” he did not know. He suspected that they would not
join the Navajos under his authority. As Barboncito said, “if they remain
with the Mexicans I cannot be held responsible for their conduct” (Cor-
rell 1979, 136).13 Even before the treaty was signed, discord and unruli-
ness were anticipated.

Types of Resistance
Simply put, Navajos ignored many of the carefully established provisions
found in the Treaty of Bosque Redondo. They refused these new modes
of order and regimentation. Between 1868 and 1937 there were scat-
tered reports of Navajos not holding themselves to the terms of this treaty.
They did this by living beyond reservation lines, openly defying tribal and
federal authority, and using ceremonial knowledge, or what some have
dubbed “witchcraft,” against government officials.14 From the historical
The Origin of Legibility  • 141

records that I have reviewed, these three basic types of opposition are evi-
dent. There may be more, but from the sources used in this chapter, these
three types emerged.

Living beyond Reservation Lines

Article II of the Treaty of Bosque Redondo first established the size and
location of the Navajo Reservation. But only those who maintained an
abstract understanding of a collective entity called the Navajo Tribe of In-
dians and their territory understood where these boundaries were and how
they functioned. Everyone else simply returned to their homes unaware
of these new borders. Almost every comprehensive account of the Navajo
people at this time mentions something about them living beyond official
reservation boundaries. For example, one of the first Indian agents who ad-
ministered the Navajo territory, a fellow named D. M. Riordon, informed
the commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1883 that Navajos were found “far
into the adjoining lands” from the official reservation boundaries:

These Indians range over not only the country embraced within the lim-
its of the reservation as defined on the maps, but far into the adjoining
lands. They are found to the south of Zuni, as far east as the Rio Grande,
on the north in Colorado and Utah, and to the west as far as the Little
Colorado. Many disputes have arisen between them and the surround-
ing whites. Many are rankling today. (Riordon 1883)

As is illustrated in this description, the Navajo people failed to adhere

to Article II of the treaty. They simply ignored their own incorporation
into a tribal category that contained physical borders within which they
were meant to live. Navajos resisted these absolute territorial claims, asso-
ciated with modern states, and maintained their early logic of land use and
senses of boundaries. They kept unofficial borders, or known grazing areas
that neighboring Navajos and other Indigenous peoples tacitly recognized
(Weisiger 2009). Longitude and latitude did not register for them at this
time. They followed the needs of their sheep and their families—not prop-
erty lines and the needs of nineteenth-­century capitalism as it expanded
across the New Mexico Territory. As Riordon observed, “The reservation
lines have never been surveyed” and thus had never been established on
the ground. “This caused difficulty knowing where the reservation was” for
the people who were supposed to live between its lines (Riordon 1883).
Nearly ten years later, in 1892, General Alex McCook, head of the Navajo
142  •  Political Challenges

Agency, reported that at least 9,000 Navajos lived outside of the reservation
(McCook 1892). Father Anselm Weber (1914, 5), who had lived within
the Navajo Reservation for more than fifteen years, wrote in 1914 that the
“Navajos living on the very border of the reservation naturally graze their
flocks on and off the reservation” and that “the reservation line is, as a rule,
not known to them.” Weber also quoted former commissioner of Indian
Affairs J. T. Morgan, who wrote:

The relations between the Navajo Indians of New Mexico, Arizona and
Utah and their white neighbors have been much strained for some time.
The Navajos, on account of lack of water and grass on the reservation,
located in the Territories named, have been forced to go beyond its
boundaries to sustain their flocks and herds. (Weber 1914, 6)

What is evidenced in Morgan’s statement is the fact that Navajos wan-

dered beyond the reservation borders based on a logic different from what
was imposed on them. They had no knowledge of or use for formal res-
ervation boundaries. They resisted these boundaries by ignoring them.
Navajos simply sustained themselves where they could as they had for
generations prior to the signing of the Treaty of Bosque Redondo.

Defiance and Threats of Violence

Following the Bosque Redondo experience, Navajos faced a difficult
choice. They could either comply with the Treaty of Bosque Redondo,
accepting in effect U.S. legal and political authority over their affairs, or
they could resist this authority and face collective reprisal from the U.S.
military and federal government. Foreign domination often leads to this
difficult choice, a situation in which competing factions of the same colo-
nized group work against one another, some in the act of resisting while
others buttress the colonial regime. The Navajos who resisted endangered
the collective welfare of all Navajo people, but those who complied com-
promised in fundamental ways the autonomy of the Navajo people and
their way of life. Summarizing this period in 1941, Soil Conservation Ser-
vice anthropologist Solon Kimball wrote:

The three years immediately following the return from Fort Sumner
were relatively quiet, except for raids on the Mormons from the northern
part of the Navajo country. Raids on Mormons and Mexicans became
more frequent until the Navajo headmen became fearful of a repetition
The Origin of Legibility  • 143

of Fort Sumner. With the tacit approval of the agent, the Navajo head-
men began killing “landrones” in 1878. This action really ended the era
of organized raids on alien peoples although the killings of Navajos be-
came a witch hunt and continued for several years. (Kimball 1902–81,
Box 25, Folder 239)

General Sherman’s earlier statement showed that the U.S. government

was interested in enforcing legal authority over the conduct of the Navajo
people. This is part of the process of legibility. Sherman claimed that the
U.S. government would give full support to the chief headman, Barbon-
cito. Sherman also claimed that those who resisted would be punished and
brought to justice with coercive authority. In fact, the governing officials
at Bosque Redondo made this arrangement the first of the thirteen articles
comprising the Treaty of Bosque Redondo. In this first article, the United
States outlined law enforcement procedures between the Navajo people
and the U.S. government. This issue of policing the Navajo people under
a regime of laws was of critical importance for these Indian agents. As Ar-
ticle I of the treaty reads:

If bad men among the Indians shall commit a wrong or depredation

upon the person or property of any one, white, black, or Indian, subject
to the authority of the United States and at peace therewith, the Navajo
tribe agree that they will, on proof made to their agent, and on notice
by him, deliver up the wrongdoer to the United States, to be tried and
punished according to its laws; in case they wilfully refuse so to do, the
person injured shall be reimbursed for his loss from the annuities or
other moneys due or to become due them under this treaty, or any oth-
ers that may be made with the United States.

This text is evidence of the governing officials’ desires to bring the Na-
vajo people under some sort of legal jurisdiction at the time.15 These “bad
men” or renegade landrones were a common feature on the Navajo land-
scape between 1868 and 1937. They occupied a corner of the colonial-
ists’ conscience and were the source of their vitriolic denunciations. In
a chronology of Navajo–U.S. government crises, Kimball (1902–81, Box
239, Folder 239) indicated that from 1871 to 1878 there were increas-
ing numbers of Navajo “raids” onto encroaching Anglo settlements. He
showed in this chronology that Navajos killed traders and settlers and were
subsequently attacked but also threatened agents of the federal govern-
ment. Kimball also noted that the U.S. government relied on headmen to
144  •  Political Challenges

respond to these attacks and bring these landrones under control. Eventu-
ally the headmen quelled most of these overt forms of resistance through
the use of coercion and threats of violence. However, the authority of these
headmen was undermined with the establishment of a centralized Navajo
tribal government in 1937, which set into motion a whole new species of
resistance to this form of political authority that is beyond the scope of this

Ceremonial Knowledge and Resistance to Governance

When examining the historical record on Navajo resistance to these new
forms of colonialism, an interesting phenomenon appears. Reported cases
of Navajo “witchcraft” increased after the Navajo people returned from
Bosque Redondo. As Solon Kimball (1902–81, Box 25, Folder 239) noted
in his chronology of Navajo government relations, during the time when
headmen were stamping out the activities of unruly landrones, these head-
men were also involved in protracted campaigns against suspected witches
and forms of witchcraft. According to Kimball, “with the government’s
permission,” Navajo headman Ganado Mucho killed up to forty suspected
witches throughout the 1870s until Indian agent Captain Frank T. Ben-
nett forced him to stop.
One does not usually associate Navajo witchcraft and/or ceremonial
knowledge with struggles against government authority, but there is evi-
dence in the archival record that suggests that these practices were used
as a form of resistance against government policy and new forms of live-
stock regulation in the 1930s and into the 1940s. One instance I found
in the Kimball (1902–81, Box 26, Folder 250) papers demonstrates this
In January and February 1940, at the height of the U.S. government’s
infamous attempt to reduce Navajo livestock numbers, reports of witch-
craft emerged from the small community of Piñon, Arizona, located on
the west-­central area of the reservation. Several suspected witches were
captured and interrogated. In this example, one suspect, a man called
Hasteen Gonni, eventually confessed to evoking harm through ceremony
on a white land management supervisor named Ben Wetherill (probably
the son of John Wetherill, the well-­known trader from Kayenta) and a
few other Navajos who assisted him with horse-­branding work. As witness
testimony later revealed, Gonni directed ill will against not only Weth-
erill but also “anyone connected with the government.” According to
Kimball, Gonni cursed Wetherill because Wetherill was associated with
The Origin of Legibility  • 145

livestock regulation, and regulation at this time was a policy to reduce

overall livestock numbers. This policy was deeply unpopular with the Na-
vajo people, and opposition to it was widespread (Kimball 1902–81, Box
26, Folder 250).
But the burgeoning apparatus of a Navajo state quickly responded. Na-
vajo police arrested Gonni (who allegedly physically resisted capture), and
he was taken to the Office of Indian Affairs headquarters in Fort Defiance,
Arizona, where he was detained. There he was made to confess to his
crimes in front of tribal officials. But it was reported that instead he took
dirt and coal ashes into his cell and, through prayer, tried to bring harm
onto “all present in the room.” After some persuasion, Gonni eventually
complied with officials and confessed to his crimes. He admitted that he
had cast ill will toward Wetherill and his compatriots in order to protect
his horses from branding and enforced livestock management. Gonni said
that he simply took the protection ceremony a step beyond its normal
practice and directed violence against Wetherill—condemning his body
and soul to death. Gonni was then tried in public. His trial was an attempt
not only to inform the community about his crimes but also to make an ex-
ample of him. The emerging Navajo state showed itself in full force when
it tried Gonni. The local judge, a man named Tommy Claw, administered
the hearings, and police and federal officials were also present. In front
of symbols of state power and community members, Gonni was made to
retract what he did and renounce his “evil act” (Kimball 1902–81, Box 26,
Folder 250).
I have since heard from folks from Piñon that Gonni eventually became
a respected medicine man in the area and died in the 1970s. He is said to
have known how to perform protection ceremonies in ways that are differ-
ent from how traditional practitioners conduct them today. But at the time
of livestock reduction, he is alleged to have used this knowledge to bring
harm to those who were solidifying the political authority of the tribal gov-
ernment and U.S. range management policies on the Navajo people.
The point of this example is to show how regulation of livestock became
deeply contested, even to the point that some folks felt the need to use cer-
emonial knowledge to bring harm to others. In this sense, Navajos resisted
state formation and its legal-­political form of colonization in ways that
were familiar to them, including the use of ceremony. According to Kim-
ball (1902–81, Box 26, Folder 250), Gonni revealed that it was his father
who taught him the prayers he used against Wetherill and other officials.
But community members claimed that those practices were supposed to
be used only against enemies outside of Diné Bikéyah (Diné Land). In an
146  •  Political Challenges

era of colonialism, Diné adversaries were found inside Navajo land, caus-
ing some confusion about the proper application of traditional knowledge
in this new geopolitical context. Navajo thought was indeed changing.


As is shown in the above examples, Navajo people resisted colonialism

through different tactics. Some of these were overt. Attacks against the
Office of Indian Affairs agents and Euro-­American settlers were public
displays of dissatisfaction against a new colonial authority. But Navajos
also resisted subtly, as in the case of the use of ceremonial knowledge or
by simply ignoring reservation boundaries. In these subtle forms of resis-
tance, the Navajos’ objective was to remain undetected. Because of the
surreptitious nature of their activities, it is hard to notice them in historical
accounts. As Scott (2009) wrote, resistance that is recorded is usually re-
sistance that has failed. The example of Hasteen Gonni demonstrates this.
We knew about what he did only after he was caught.
Logically, we would suggest that there are perhaps countless examples
of these subtle forms of resistance that did work and helped to thwart or di-
vert colonialism in significant ways. Perhaps this is why the Navajo people
have such a large land base today or why they were able to get anything out
of what is called the Navajo-­Hopi land dispute. Because we simply put our
feet on the ground and claimed it, on more than one occasion we gained
possession of our lands—and this has been our most significant achieve-
ment throughout nearly 150 years of colonialism.
As I have tried to argue here, the story of the Navajos as a tribe is a
story of Navajo legibility and, in effect, malleability. It is also a story of
state formation and resistance. We have explored how the Navajo people
have been made a population subject to simplification, manipulation, and
control, especially between 1868 and 1937. Originating in the Treaty of
Bosque Redondo, a category called “Navajo: with hard boundaries” (e.g.,
membership criteria, land base, rights vis-­à-­vis federal and state govern-
ments) became the official concept through which the U.S. government
interacted with the people who continue to refer to themselves as Diné.
With the category “Navajo” came chiefs or headmen whom U.S. govern-
ment officials recognized and legitimized. This process of recognition was
also a politics of recognition in which only cooperative leaders could actu-
ally become leaders in the eyes of U.S. Army officials and bureaucrats. As
was argued in the case of the naachid, by the 1940s traditional forms of
The Origin of Legibility  • 147

leadership had become delegitimized and made into a historic memory

subject to dispute and reinterpretation.
But this process of simplification and categorization has not been
wholly successful. A major emphasis of this chapter has been the examina-
tion of Navajo forms of resistance against these new forms of colonialism.
Between 1868 and 1900, Navajos openly rebelled against government and
colonial encroachments on their lands. By the 1930s and 1940s, during
the period of livestock reduction, antigovernment sentiment was so strong
that some Navajos used their ceremonial knowledge in an attempt to stop
it. In the example of Gonni, he directed ill will at an Anglo government
official and Navajos associated with the government. His story tells us how
unpopular these new forms of colonial authority had become seventy years
after the signing of the Treaty of Bosque Redondo (Weisiger 2007, 2009).
Ultimately, many of the problems and forms of resistance against the
imposition of government authority over the lives and daily conduct of
Navajo people have not gone away. The origin of legibility not only re-
mains as a question for historical inquiry but also maintains contempo-
rary importance. It is a question about the root of Navajo dissatisfaction
toward our tribal government and from where our broad sense of cynicism
concerning it originates. It is remarkable, in fact, that so much scholar-
ship exists about political sovereignty that does not address these issues.
The undertones of resistance toward U.S. authority, though manifesting in
“weak” or subtle forms (Scott 1985), survives not only in memory but also
in day-­to-­day government practices throughout the Navajo Reservation in
the present. Understanding government opposition in its historic forms
allows us to better appreciate it in its contemporary manifestations.


1. I use “Navajo Tribe of Indians” to refer to the political identity for the Diné peo-
ple that the U.S. government created in 1868 with the signing of the Treaty of Bosque
Redondo. Navajo people are the members of this “tribe,” with its racialized criteria for
membership. “Diné” refers to the people who called themselves by this name before
they were interned and allowed to return to the Colorado plateau after the signing of
the 1868 treaty.
2. Morton H. Fried referred to this process as the creation of “secondary tribes.” He
wrote that “states with somewhat greater sophistication may create tribes as a means
of ordering the areas immediately beyond the territories being directly ruled” (Fried
1975, 101).
3. Iverson (2002, 37) writes that “Even before the war with Mexico had ended with
the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the United States had moved
abruptly to assert its authority over the Diné and their lands.”
148  •  Political Challenges

4. Wilkins (2002, 106) writes that “within the first decade of the federal govern-
ment’s existence the fledging democracy’s inexorable need to expand led to increased
conflict between Indigenous and nonindigenous peoples.” This set into motion the
need to sign “treaties” between the U.S. government and Indian “tribes.” Wilkins also
states that “this expansion was overseen by a Congress and president intent on exerting
their authority in Indian affairs by following certain policies: the promotion of civiliza-
tion and education of Indians, the regulation of trade and commerce with tribes, the
establishment of territorial boundaries between the two peoples, the use of treaties to
maintain peace with tribes and to purchase Indian lands.”
5. “Apache de Navajo” is the term that the Spanish originally used to identify the
people who would eventually become the Navajos. These people are often referred
to as Apachean peoples who migrated south from present-­day British Columbia. The
ancestors of the Navajos are said to have left what is today Canada around 900 CE,
heading southward and westward and ending up at some point on the Great Basin in
Utah, where they were encountered by the Spanish in 1540 as “Querchos,” a Plains-­
adapted group of Athapaskan people who would eventually become the Navajos and
Western Apaches (Carter 2009). But there is still considerable debate and ambiguity
about how and when the ancestors of the Navajos arrived on the Colorado plateau. We
know, however, that by the time the Spanish settled New Mexico in the late sixteenth
and early seventeenth centuries, Navajos were reported on the edge of the Colorado
plateau as a sedentary Apachean people living near Pueblo villages (Schaafsma 2002).
In fact, the names “Apache” and “Navajo” are not Athapaskan in origin; they originate
from the Tewan and Zuni words “Apachu,” which means “stranger” or “enemy,” and
“Nabaaju,” which means “planted fields.” In other words, the Zuni and Tewan term
for “Navajo” at this time, “Navajo-­Apache” in the Spanish translation, referred to non-­
Puebloan people who planted fields for subsistence.
6. I use the Treaty of Bosque Redondo of 1868 as the origin of Navajo legibility
because it is the direct antecedent to the tribal government that is the central political
authority for the Navajo people today. All previous attempts at making the Navajos leg-
ible had failed, including treaties signed in the 1840s and 1850s and negotiations with
Spanish authorities even earlier.
7. This does not refer to the Diné people who were not captured or forced to sur-
render to the U.S. Army and who still lived throughout the Colorado plateau.
8. It is important to note that many Diné people never surrendered to the U.S.
military, did not leave their homes on the Colorado plateau for Bosque Redondo, and
continued to live uninterrupted on the ancestral lands.
9. For example, consider the following passage by Diné historian Jennifer Nez
Denetdale about one of the most famous headmen during this time, Manuelito:
“With the Navajos’ return to their homeland in 1868, Manuelito remained an in-
fluential leader, which Indian agents recognized. . . . By the 1880s, Indian agents
reported that Manuelito was an alcoholic; his death in 1894 was related to his al-
coholism, complicated by diseases such as pneumonia and chicken pox. American
officials named Chee Dodge as Manuelito’s successor, the next leader of the Navajos”
(Denetdale 2007, 52).
10. The Navajo Nation Council was established in 1937. Although there were ear-
lier attempts at making a tribal council for the Diné peoples, it was the 1937 council
that eventually solidified into the tribal government that exists today.
The Origin of Legibility  • 149

11. Interestingly, a perception of penury among nonnatives, whether a reflection of

real conditions or a product of hyperbole, was taking root among those who advocated
for reform in federal Indian policy. Citing the need to bring Indigenous people out of
poverty, philanthropists were calling for more government authority over the affairs of
Native Americans.
12. David E. Wilkins documented a similar process. He wrote that “besides the
Head Chiefs, regional Naat’áanii, also selected by the [Office of Indian Affairs] agent,
continued to guide their communities.” Wilkins quotes Van Valkenburgh, who wrote
in 1945 that these “agents deliberately smashed all Native power, and those naat’aanih
who refused to ‘play ball,’ lost government recognition and, without that, soon lost
influence over the people in the region” (Wilkins 2003, 80).
13. In J. Lee Correll’s account, the “Cibollettas” were called “Sariettas” and later
earned the designation “Ani’i Diné,” or “Enemy Navajo.” It is interesting to consider
the implications of this. Perhaps the Navajo group not incorporated under the leader-
ship of the official ten headmen selected to negotiate the treaty quickly earned the
designation “enemy” of the Navajo people. This would suggest that those who did not
submit their authority to these headmen were considered enemies, a very clear dem-
onstration of how hard Navajo conceptual boundaries had become as a result of this
14. This approach borrows in spirit James C. Scott’s account of “weak forms of resis-
tance” or “everyday forms of peasant resistance” such as “foot dragging, dissimulation,
desertion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and
so on” (1985, xvi).
15. Officials working on behalf of the U.S. government and non-­Navajos living in
the area commonly associated the wandering of Navajos off the formal boundaries of
the Navajo Reservation as an unlawful activity. They needed Navajos to stay within
their reservation boundaries not because there was an immediate threat that they posed
but because it was a necessity in the process of making a people legible. The second
article of the Treaty of Bosque Redondo outlines the boundaries of the Navajo Reserva-
tion (which would eventually expand). A good follow-­up investigation to this chapter
would be to consider the attitude of government officials in trying to enforce reserva-
tion boundaries in the immediate years after 1868.


Carter, William B. 2009. Indian Alliances and the Spanish in the Southwest, 750–
1750. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Correll, J. Lee. 1979. Through White Men’s Eyes: A Contribution to Navajo History,
Vol. 6. Window Rock, AZ: Navajo Heritage Center.
Davidson, Basil. 1993. The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-­
State. New York: Three Rivers.
Denetdale, Jennifer Nez. 2007. Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief
Manuelito and Juanita. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Fried, Morton. 1975. The Notion of Tribe. Reading, MA: Cummings.
Iverson, Peter. 2002. Diné: A History of the Navajos. Albuquerque: University of New
Mexico Press.
150  •  Political Challenges

Kelly, Lawrence. 1968. The Navajo Indians and Federal Indian Policy, 1900–1935.
Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Kimball, Solon Toothaker. 1902–81. Solon Toothaker Kimball Papers. Manuscript.
1936–1949, Boxes 24–27; 1935–1952, Box 28; 1931–1968, Box 29. Newberry Li-
brary Archive, Chicago.
Kluckhohn, Clyde, and Dorothea Leighton. 1998 [1946]. The Navajo. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press.
McCook, Alexander McD. 1892. Christopher C. Augur Papers, 1780–1911 (bulk
1846–1885). Letter from Alexander McCook to Christopher Augur about the situa-
tion of the Navajos dated 1892. Ayer Collection, VAULT Ayer MS 3008. Newberry
Library Archive, Chicago.
Riordon, D. M. [Dennis Mathew]. 1883. Report [Manuscript]: Navajo Agency, Ft.
Defiance, Ariz., 1883 Aug. 14. Ayer Collection, Ayer MS 768. Newberry Library
Archive, Chicago.
Schaafsma, Curtis F. 2002. Apaches de Navajo: Seventeenth-­Century Navajos in the
Chama Valley of New Mexico. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
Scott, James C. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance.
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
———. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condi-
tion Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
———. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast
Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Van Valkenburgh, Richard F. 1941. “Traditional and Historical Implications of Navajo
Political Mechanics.” Unpublished manuscript. Solon Kimball Papers, Box 25,
Folder 240. Newberry Library Archive, Chicago.
Weber, Father Anselm. 1914. “The Navajo Indians: A Statement of Facts.” St. Mi-
chaels, AZ. Ayer Collection, Ayer 251 N4165 W3 1914. Newberry Library Archive,
Weisiger, Marsha. 2007. “Gendered Injustice: Navajo Livestock Reduction in the New
Deal Era.” Western Historical Quarterly 38, no. 4: 437–55.
———. 2009. Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country. Seattle: University of Washington
Welsh, Herbert. 1885. Report of a Visit to the Navajos, Pueblo, and Hualapais Indians
of New Mexico and Arizona. Philadelphia: Indian Rights Association. Ayer Collec-
tion, Ayer 2 .I3 A25 W4 1885. Newberry Library Archive, Chicago.
Wilkins, David E. 2002. American Indian Politics and the American Political System.
New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
———. 2003. The Navajo Political Experience. Revised ed. New York: Rowman &
Venaya Yazzie

Dinétah earth

in loud creases
of urban lingo,
sounds like Navajo some days,
but like English on Sundays.

Dinétah earth sand

on ancestral memory
bedtime stories,
at Louise and Jim’s home,
of long summer nights—
when we slept good ’neath
roaring orange blue flames
nestle in black stove.

Dinétah earth moves

in swirling blue flow
deep sacred motion—

152  •  Political Challenges

like the Rio Puerco of

Shi k’e be’keyah.

Dinétah earth

upon crunchy
parched cottonwood leaves
on the rim of soft lips.

Paths for the Future

Sustaining a Diné Way of Life
Kim Baca

They wear tennis shoes, T-­shirts, and jeans. They listen to popular music
like other teens. They are also Navajos, citizens of the largest American
Indian tribe in the United States. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, Nava-
jos make up a significant part of the Native American population in this
southwestern city, which is surrounded by several reservation lands. Many
Navajo teens can be seen shopping, playing sports, and doing similar typi-
cal activities of youths their age. But life for at least two Navajo teens is a
bit different. Shania Lee and Phillip “Nez” Evans are students at a Native
American public charter school, where they are learning their language
and culture yet struggling with knowing and maintaining a Navajo way
of life.
The concept of Sa’a˛h Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhó˛ó˛n is not foreign to them.
Twice a week students sixteen and seventeen years of age at the charter
school who attend a Navajo-­language class, where they are taught the
meaning of clanship and the importance of carrying on the culture. The
students also go on field trips to enhance their learning, such as to Diné
College, where they can learn more about Navajo ways.
“I don’t want my Native language to die,” says Shania, who is glad that
such a class is offered at her school. She eventually wants to teach the lan-
guage to her children. “I want them to know who they are and where they
come from and their background.”
Shania’s mother and grandmother are fluent Navajo speakers, and
Shania spent her early years in the Navajo community of Torreon, New
Mexico, where she heard the language spoken at home constantly. She
says that she spoke a few words until she moved to the city to live with her

156  •  Paths for the Future

parents. Her mother speaks to her in Navajo daily, and Shania says that she
wants to learn so she can figure out what her mother and grandmother are
talking about “instead of just sitting there trying to figure out what they are
saying. I also know they are sometimes talking about me and I say, ‘Mom,
I know what you are talking about.’ She says, ‘Oh, I guess I can’t do that
anymore.’ ”
But learning the language has greater meaning for Shania. “I wish I
could speak it,” she says. “I wish I knew my language and culture. I wish
I knew what my grandparents were saying in ceremony—having it trans-
lated by my mom is disappointing to me. I want to know which ceremo-
nies are for protection or keeping yourself healthy.”
Both Shania and Phillip have attended public school in Albuquerque
since they were in elementary school. Phillip, a junior who prefers to be
called Nez because “it’s shorter” and “it doesn’t sound funky or typical,”
is also part Yuchi and Chippewa. His father is a full-­blooded Navajo but
does not speak the language. Although Nez is not a fluent speaker, he also
hopes that he will be someday for his children.
“I want them to definitely know the language, the core concepts on how
to live, the thought process, and anything I can remember. If I wasn’t to
teach my children it would kind of be lost by me,” Nez says. “To have that
culture be lost, the Navajo Nation would lose their uniqueness, and that’s
happening throughout the Navajo tribe because parents aren’t teaching
their children the language or culture. Once that uniqueness is lost, that
would just make them a group of Indian people.”
While Nez is yearning to be connected, he also senses how his life is
unlike that of teens growing up on the reservation.
“Sometimes I feel like I had a different upbringing,” Nez says, adding
that he did not get much traditional teaching, which he defines as going to
ceremonies, fluently speaking the language, and being a part of the tribal
community. While many young people learn traditions from family or
community members, Nez does not ask his grandmother, who is a social
worker, any questions about culture. He also does not ask his father, who
nonetheless tells Nez “what I need to know. He likes to get up at dawn and
pray. He also tries to convey what he can in English. He also says to live a
pure, clean life and believe in what you do. He tells me how you should
do it and how it doesn’t have any negative aspects to it. It’s simple.”
Still, Nez thinks that there is a difference between urban life and the
reservation. “Sometimes it feels like there is something missing, like a cul-
tural piece, when you’re living in the city,” Nez adds. “You kind of become
detached. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not a good thing. There
Sustaining a Diné Way of Life  • 157

are different people who live in the city, and not all of them are Navajo or
Native. It makes it a touchy subject.”
“I guess as with all Natives, the Navajo tribe is split down the middle,”
Nez says. “Some Navajos live in the city, and some live on the reservation.
They may not see eye-­to-­eye. Some are traditional, and some are more
rural Natives who might focus on sticking to the old ways of thinking and
living. And the urban Natives, they probably don’t completely disregard
or forget the traditional life, but they probably wouldn’t make it a primary
concern. They would focus more on the modern problems of the tribe,
like the economy.”
And Shania agrees that life for her as a young Navajo is different in
Albuquerque. “It’s hard growing up in the city,” she says. While Nez and
Shania may live in an urban area, like many Navajo teens everywhere they
are yearning to speak Navajo and to know more about a Navajo way of life.
“If I Could Speak Navajo,
I’d Definitely Speak It 24/7”
Diné Youth Language Consciousness,
Activism, and Reclamation of
Diné Identity

Tiffany S. Lee “If I Could Speak Navajo . . .”

In the world of language education, the Navajo Nation is well known

for its schools, such as Rough Rock Demonstration School, Rock Point
Community School, and Tséhootsooí Diné Bi’ólta’ (a Navajo immer-
sion school in Fort Defiance, Arizona). The Rough Rock Demonstration
School was the first American Indian community-­controlled school.1 Rock
Point Community School was known for its Diné-­language curriculum
and bilingual approach.2 Tséhootsooí Diné Bi’ólta’ is known for its suc-
cess at producing academically prepared Diné speakers among formerly
English-­dominant Diné children through its immersion methods and lan-
guage rich environment.3
So why are these schools not widely emulated across the Navajo Na-
tion today? Why is Diné-­language education not at the center of most
schools’ efforts within the Navajo Nation? The answers to these questions
can bring to mind highly complex reasoning with references to the effects
of boarding schools, school funding sources, jobs that require English,
standardized testing, misunderstood youth, and a changing Diné society.
However, I believe the basis from which to create language revitalization
among Diné peoples is established first by creating critical language con-
sciousness. Critical language consciousness is more than an awareness of

“If I Could Speak Navajo . . .”  • 159

language shift from Diné to English among Diné children.4 It also in-
volves individual and community awareness of the problems and condi-
tions within Diné society that affect Diné-­language loss and requires a
comprehensive communal approach and effort to address. Schools cannot
do it alone, nor can youth or Diné families. We need a collaborative and
committed effort that does not focus solely on teaching the mechanics of
our language but also includes teaching the values of our language, the
connections to Diné cultural identity, and the commitment to both learn-
ing and teaching our language. Those efforts should create contemporary
contexts for all of us, but especially our youths, to use our language on a
day-­to-­day basis.

What Is Critical Language Consciousness?

Richard Littlebear, Cheyenne-­language educator, once stated that we just

need to speak our language in order to save it.5 The simplicity of that state-
ment is powerful. What makes it so hard for us to just speak our language?
Why do many Diné speakers prefer to use English in some settings? Do
we notice when we use more English than Diné? Where are the public
messages about the importance of our language? The Navajo Times news-
paper devotes a full page to Diné literacy by including puzzles, games, and
other simple activities that readers can use to learn and practice their Diné
reading and writing skills. This sends the public the message that our Diné
language is important. Yet sometimes those messages are conflicting. In
the March 10, 2011, issue of the Navajo Times, there was a story about our
recently elected Navajo Nation vice president, Rex Lee Jim. The article
highlighted his degree from Princeton University, and it said he is the
first vice president with an Ivy League degree. What it does not mention
is that Jim went to Rock Point Community School in his elementary and
junior high school years and learned to read and write in Diné. He is also
a published author of poetry and creative writing, all written in Diné. His
education at Rock Point supported his home language and his cultural
identity and foundation and is one important influence in his life that has
led him to the vice presidency.
The story in the Navajo Times offers a good example of how our language
is sometimes overlooked or dismissed with respect to the contemporary
issues of our society. A community with critical language consciousness
is cognizant about placing Diné language and culture alongside, if not
ahead of, other accomplishments or concerns. For a community with
160  •  Paths for the Future

critical language consciousness, the passing on of our language and its

associated worldview will be the first and foremost priority.
Critical language consciousness is a specific form of critical conscious-
ness or critical awareness. Critical consciousness is an individual’s aware-
ness of how the current social, economic, and political situations in her
or his community have been affected, if not created, by historically op-
pressive conditions and policies.6 It is the realization that oneself and
one’s family and community are not solely to blame for factors such as
poverty, poor health, joblessness, and other deficient socioeconomic and
sociocultural conditions. This realization and awareness provides the mo-
tivation for gaining control and inspiration in one’s life and education.
I have observed Native American students gaining critical consciousness
and have seen how it motivates them to want to contribute to the positive
transformation of their communities.7 Native students hear messages from
their families and communities about giving back and contributing to the
betterment of their people. Yet they also receive messages about Ameri-
can values of accumulating wealth and pursuing capitalistic goals. These
messages conflict with one another. However, when students gain critical
consciousness, they are well informed of the injustice and oppression that
their people and Indigenous people across the world have suffered, and
they desire to make a difference. Critical consciousness provides the link
and inspiration for students to find direct and indirect ways to serve their
Critical language consciousness focuses that motivation and commit-
ment toward transforming communities through language revitalization.
Once youth and adults understand how the influences on language loss
are multiple and complex and have often been beyond family and com-
munity control, their blame of individuals for not teaching or not learn-
ing their language is removed. Instead, individuals with critical language
consciousness become proactive toward addressing how to maintain and/
or revitalize Diné language amid the penetrating influence of English.
Having critical consciousness and critical language consciousness leads
one to acknowledge, respect, and embrace his or her role in contributing
to language renewal and maintenance and frees one from the conflicting
dominant society’s influences and pressures to assimilate to American val-
ues of accumulation of individual wealth and English-­only values. Critical
language consciousness helps one not only to realize and express the value
of our language but also to take action by committing to its maintenance
and revitalization and confronting those influences that marginalize, stig-
matize, and diminish the importance of our language.
“If I Could Speak Navajo . . .”  • 161

Diné Youth and Diné Language

Understanding the need for critical language consciousness begins with

an awareness and acceptance of Diné-­language change and shift. It has
been argued that Diné society has ideologically accepted English as a re-
sult of external forces and pressures to abandon Diné language as our lan-
guage for the future and as our language of progress and advancement.8
The most recent studies on Diné language show a dramatic shift from
Diné to English among Diné families.9 I also noticed this shift as a high
school teacher in the Navajo Nation among my students and their fami-
lies. When I was in high school, many if not most of my peers could un-
derstand or speak Navajo. When I became a high school teacher about ten
or fifteen years later, most of my students were strongly English dominant
by choice or necessity. The change was noticeable in this short time. It
is not too late to reverse this trend or at least improve upon it so that we
produce more Diné speakers who are committed to passing on and living
through the Diné language. This is where the focus on youth becomes so
In my own observations and research, I have noticed an interesting
dichotomy between Diné teenagers who express proud and strong Diné
cultural identities and those who express potent anti-­Diné identities. This
range of teenagers’ sense of self and all those in between are not well un-
derstood. There is a whole segment of youth whose voices we have not
heard. There are those who feel uncomfortable speaking their Native lan-
guage in school but do so freely and willingly at home and among family.
There are those who strongly desire to speak their language, such as the
young woman quoted in the title of this chapter who said that “If I could
speak Navajo, I’d definitely speak it 24/7.” For the most part, the youth I
have encountered express pride and respect for their language and heri-
tage. So what do these scenarios tell us?
For one, language attitudes among youth are diverse, may change over
time, and do not necessarily connect to language use and thus may not
help us when it comes to language revitalization. Positive attitudes about
the language do not always imply or lead to more language use.
However, once youth understand the socially, politically, and histori-
cally oppressive conditions and policies that began with colonization and
enabled language shift and language loss, once they realize the breadth of
language shift and language loss across Indigenous families and communi-
ties worldwide, and once they realize how our own people and families are
contributing to language shift and language loss and what that means for
162  •  Paths for the Future

destabilizing our cultural sustainability, they become critically conscious

of the nature of language shift and language loss. They begin to move
away from blaming their own families and communities and move toward
transforming their families and communities to contribute to language re-
vitalization. I am learning that igniting a critical language consciousness
among youth can help to link their positive, respectful language attitudes
with actual language revitalization and language use. A critical language
consciousness can help those youth with confused feelings and those who
express disassociation with their heritage to realize the significance of lan-
guage loss for their own people and those they love.
Those youth who have developed a critical language consciousness
have something to say about their heritage. They are speaking up to re-
claim their identities and acting on those beliefs and values. To portray
the diversity of youth who share their critical language consciousness and
those with more ambivalence about their language, I will provide some
examples and quotes based on my research with Native American students
who express these varied sentiments. They express the strength of their
identity but also their contrasting beliefs and behavior. I aim to demon-
strate the range of students’ feelings in order to bring their voices to the
forefront so we can understand them in an honest and nonjudgmental
way. I end with a discussion of how many youth and young adults have
taken up the charge of language revitalization and reveal the power of
their critical language consciousness.

Summary of the Research

I teach a course in Native American Studies at the University of New

Mexico called “Language Recovery, Revitalization, and Community Re-
newal.” The majority of the students are Native American, mostly Diné,
Pueblo, and Apache. They are young adults and a source of constant in-
spiration. I have compiled much of their self-­reflective narrative writing
about language issues, such as language shift, loss, and revitalization, as it
pertains to their own experiences. This research brings awareness to their
perspectives by sharing their views and experiences in academic publica-
tions and presentations.
I have also collected Native American youth perspectives from a study
I conducted with several other colleagues called the “State of American
Indian Education in New Mexico, 2025.” One key area we explored was
“If I Could Speak Navajo . . .”  • 163

language. We interviewed youth on their ideas about the best practices in

their schools for teaching and learning their Native languages.
Finally, I draw upon my earlier dissertation research with more than
two hundred Diné teenagers across five schools throughout the Navajo
Nation. Students completed a questionnaire about their attitudes and use
of the Diné language. I also interviewed about twenty of these students.

States of Confusion, Marginalization,

and Stigmatization

I have found through these research projects that many youth sometimes
express confusion or disrespect toward their heritage and language. How-
ever, it is important to really listen to their feelings without automatic judg-
ment in order to avoid making incorrect assumptions about Diné youth
and their motivations and to learn from their perspectives.
For example, in one school in the Navajo Nation during a feedback
session for the New Mexico Indian education study, I met with about
twenty-­five high school students. The question came up about why some
students choose to take Diné-­language courses and why some do not in
high school. The students said of those who do not take Diné-­language
courses that many are embarrassed or ashamed because they are influ-
enced by their peer groups, who seem to value things other than language,
things more related to popular culture and mainstream society (e.g., one
student referred to this as running with gangs). Other students said that
many students can already speak Diné but choose not to while in school
for some of those same reasons. They fear judgment by peers. I also found
this to be highly prevalent in my dissertation research. Students fear being
teased for speaking Diné in school or scolded for speaking incorrect Diné
with family.
Another student during that session said that some students do not care
about being Diné. She went on to say that “I really don’t care about being
Navajo.” I became concerned for her and disturbed at how she was will-
ing to forsake her heritage. I was uneasy about how this might affect her
later in life. But I also understand that her attitude is likely to change over
time because feelings about identity change for youth and young adults
as they mature. Recent research with Indigenous youth has shown that
their ambivalent feelings toward their language and cultural identity be-
came more positive as they became adults. Reasons for ambivalent or even
164  •  Paths for the Future

antagonistic feelings toward one’s Diné heritage are complex but can in
part be attributed to a history of devaluation and racism in the larger soci-
ety. Jacqueline H. Messing argues that for Indigenous youth, particularly
semispeakers, it is common to feel insecure in one’s linguistic identity in
the Native language and that the desire to associate and identify with com-
munities outside one’s heritage is heavily influenced by media messages of
the dominant society and racism.10
Interestingly, immediately after this young woman’s statement about
not caring about her heritage, another student responded by saying that
being Diné is something all students should care about not only because
our ancestors went through so many hardships but also because of all the
knowledge that they had that is lost if our language is lost. When con-
fronted, this student stood up for her language and heritage.
Embedded in these students’ views about why students do not take
Diné-­language courses were states of confusion, marginalization, apa-
thy, and stigmatization toward the language. But there were still points
of agency and intervention in their responses and in their actions, such
as with the student who spoke up about why students should care about
their language. The next section will highlight some examples of youth
language activism and end with a statement on how critical language con-
sciousness can stimulate youths’ commitment to learning and using their

Diné Youth Language Activism

Youth language activism can take subtle forms. During the feedback ses-
sion I described in the previous section and shortly after the conversation
that I highlighted, the principal of the school was in the room and shared
a comment with everyone. His insight was that the students at his school
really were not interested in learning their language and that the Diné-­
language class was never full to maximum enrollment each semester. I
heard this type of comment from many school administrators on the res-
ervation when I conducted my dissertation research. So, I immediately
asked the students in the room if they felt that this was true. They re-
mained quiet, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, perhaps not to disrespect
their principal. I then asked how many students in the room had taken or
were currently taking the Diné-­language course. All but one or two stu-
dents raised their hands.
“If I Could Speak Navajo . . .”  • 165

Regardless of whether the classes were full each semester, the students
were clearly taking the courses. If they were falsely claiming to take the
courses, this still offers their subtle form of resistance to the assumptions
made by their principal. Students actually have very high expectations of
the Diné-­language courses in their schools, because for many it is their
only form of access to learning their language.
In another feedback session at another school for the New Mexico In-
dian education study, I came across one student who was very passionate
about how she best learns her language. While many students in the entire
study felt that there should be more emphasis on oral language skills so
that they can improve their face-­to-­face communication with their fam-
ily, this student disagreed. She felt that the reading and writing skills she
learned in her Diné courses (levels 1 and 2) in her high school helped her
to lay the foundation for speaking now. I was intrigued by this response
and asked her to explain more. She said that her teacher uses written Diné
in combination with oral teaching methods, so this student is able to use
written Diné to help herself decipher the subtle oral differences between
words in Diné. She said that this is important because the Diné language
has many words that are similar in sound yet completely different in mean-
ing. She wanted to be able to pronounce words absolutely correctly. For
this student this type of teaching method worked, and two other students
in the session agreed with her. They held very high expectations of their
teacher to teach effectively so they could learn to understand, speak, read,
and write Diné. More striking, however, was the student’s tremendous mo-
tivation to speak Diné. She said that this was important because “I really
want to learn Navajo and speak it fluently.”
Her comments demonstrate the importance of effective teaching meth-
ods for language revitalization and how different methods can vary in their
effectiveness for students. But it is this student’s goal for speaking Diné
correctly and fluently that is most inspiring. She is conscious of the impor-
tance of language to her identity and to her culture.
Many of the critiques of Diné-­language classes by youth in these stud-
ies pertained to the methods of teaching Diné, specifically how they are
treated in the class and the expectations of them to learn. For example,
youth often discussed a lack of patience and clear communication about
what is expected of them in the classes and a focus on worksheets but not
on oral communication. One student discussed the disconnect between
the teacher and the students when she said, “Well, for me, I think my
Navajo class, she doesn’t teach that much. That’s just my opinion. I mean
166  •  Paths for the Future

like someone who doesn’t understand Navajo at all, she’ll be talking to

them in Navajo and it seems like they’re not understanding it at all, and
like she’s not teaching enough for them to be able to understand.” They
also expressed a lack of understanding by the teacher about their desire to
learn and instead felt that their teachers became frustrated with them and
blamed them. Despite these critiques, Diné-­language courses are among
the most popular, according to the students. This is an example of their
commitment and motivation to learning their language.
Those teachers who were praised by students and who connected to the
students in meaningful ways related to the students as family, cared about
them, and consistently reaffirmed their identity. The youth recognized the
conflict of learning language and culture in school and not at home, but
they are thankful for the opportunity to learn in school because their lan-
guage and culture are valuable to them.
Additionally, speaking the language improves their family relationships
by increasing their ability to communicate with their parents and grand-
parents even in the slightest ways through simple phrases. Using the lan-
guage makes their parents proud. As one student said about learning and
using Diné with her dad, “I learn more words, then I try to use it at home
to talk to my parents. Even though it’s just like one word, I’m like—I told
my dad one time that I had no gas and I needed money [in Diné], and
then he gave it. They like it when I talk to them in Navajo. . . . I’m not as
fluent, but I’m trying to make myself learn. . . . I think it helps me com-
municate with my dad more.”
Several of the students in my courses have been very active as change
agents in instigating language revitalization efforts in their families and
communities. As I mentioned earlier, I have included students’ reflection
narratives in my research to share their perspectives. One objective of the
language-­issues course that I teach is to stimulate critical language con-
sciousness within the students to activate their motivations to contribute to
language revitalization. One student, Nora, took it upon herself to teach
her younger cousins Diné for one hour a day. Her cousins live within the
Navajo Nation, so while she was in school in Albuquerque, she would
use Skype (a video calling service) to engage with and teach her younger
relatives. She would also use the telephone or meet them in person when
possible. Her critical language consciousness and motivation to contribute
to her family’s language revitalization inspired her tremendous dedication
and creative lesson planning to teach Diné.
Even in the face of adversity and racism, students assert their iden-
tity and pride in their heritage and actively confront these obstacles. For
“If I Could Speak Navajo . . .”  • 167

example, one student, Tina, described her experience at her workplace,

where she was told not to speak Diné. This event sparked her motivation
to keep learning and reinforcing the Diné language among her own fam-
ily. She said:

Now as I continue my life journey I have found that not everyone appre-
ciates and respects another’s culture or language. I was told not to speak
my language at work and have once again been threatened. I have been
through a lot of stress and realize that there will always be battles with
those whom disrespect [Diné language and people]. My children are
currently learning Navajo, and we continue to make it fun. My eldest
son has enrolled in Navajo classes and has learned so much. We know
whom we are and will never generate shame as to our identity.


The youth and young adults in the studies are helping me to understand
the changes and similarities about perspectives and experiences of lan-
guage shift, language loss, and language revitalization over time. But the
largest unifying element that is growing and becoming more vocal and
visible is our youths’ language consciousness and their reclamation of
their heritage and identity. I see this vocalized more by youth in my cur-
rent studies, and it is apparent in what other scholars are finding in their
Diné youth and young adults recognize the limitations in their homes
to learn their language and its associated cultural knowledge because of
parental financial and job responsibilities and other family and societal
life changes and challenges. For example, parents of these youth grew up
in the 1980s, a time when language shift was becoming more widespread.
Thus, language use in their homes likely included a mix of both English
and Diné. Consequently, the youths value the Diné-­language courses
in high schools and college settings because they offer one of the only
places to learn their history, knowledge systems, family and clan rela-
tionships, and community values. The youth and young adults recognize
that language is connected to their culture, worldview, and homeland
in integral ways. While the students acknowledged their personal con-
flict with learning language in school instead of at home, Native Ameri-
can language courses offer a space to receive a socioculturally relevant
168  •  Paths for the Future

Our challenge now is among those youth and young adults who feel
disconnected or even apathetic toward their language. We cannot dismiss
them. Diné families, communities, and society can aid in positively steer-
ing these youth toward strengthening their cultural identity through lan-
guage. Although Diné identity for youth today is complex and layered with
multiple levels of cultural access, participation, and knowledge (some-
times with and many times without the language), it is inspiring that many
youth express their passion for their heritage and can find places to actively
contribute to language revitalization for their communities’ cultural con-
tinuity. As Diné peoples, we can channel those instincts and motivations
toward language revitalization and language use. We can positively model
and reinforce Diné-­language learning in our homes and among our fami-
lies. In schools, teaching methods can be coupled with developing or rein-
forcing critical language consciousness, which will promote language use.
As adults and youth become critically language conscious, we will begin
to see how it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the Diné language
continues on. We will see how it is the responsibility of Diné speakers to
speak the language to youth, and Diné-­language learners will see how it is
their responsibility to learn and use the language.


1. Teresa McCarty, A Place to Be Navajo: Rough Rock and the Struggle for Self-­
determination in Indigenous Schooling (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002);
Robert Roessal, Navajo Education in Action: The Rough Rock Demonstration School
(Chinle, AZ: Navajo Curriculum Center, 1977).
2. Daniel McClaughlin, When Literacy Empowers: Navajo Language in Print (Al-
buquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992).
3. Marie Arviso and Wayne Holm, “Tséhootsooídi Ólta’gi Diné Bizaad Bíhoo’aah:
A Navajo Immersion Program at Fort Defiance, Arizona,” in The Green Book of Lan-
guage Revitalization in Practice, edited by L. Hinton and K. Hale, 203–15 (San Diego:
Academic Press, 2001).
4. Language shift refers to a generational change when the first language of the
children of an ethnic group shifts from the heritage language to a dominant or colonial
language. In this case, most Diné children today learn English instead of Diné as their
first and primary language. For more on language shift, see Joshua Fishman, Reversing
Language Shift: Theoretical and Empirical Foundations of Assistance to Threatened
Languages (Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, 1991).
5. Richard Littlebear, “Just Speak Your Language: Hena’haanehe,” in Native
American Voices: A Reader, edited by S. Lobo, S. Talbot, and T. Morris, 90–92 (Upper
Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2010).
6. Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition (New York:
Continuum, 1993).
“If I Could Speak Navajo . . .”  • 169

7. Tiffany S. Lee, “‘I Came Here to Learn How to Be a Leader’: An Intersection of

Critical Pedagogy and Indigenous Education,” InterActions: UCLA Journal of Educa-
tion and Information Studies 2, no. 1 (2006),
tions/v012/iss1/art3; Tiffany S. Lee, “Connecting Academics, Indigenous Knowledge,
and Commitment to Community: High School Students’ Perceptions of a Community
Based Education Model,” Canadian Journal of Native Education 30, no. 2 (2007):
196–216; Tiffany S. Lee, “Language, Identity, and Power: Navajo and Pueblo Young
Adults’ Perspectives and Experiences with Competing Language Ideologies,” Journal
of Language, Identity, and Education 8, no. 5 (2009): 307–20.
8. Bernard Spolsky, “Prospects for the Survival of the Navajo Language: A Recon-
sideration,” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 33, no. 2 (2002): 139–62.
9. AnCita Benally and Dennis Viri, “Diné Bizaad [Navajo Language] at a Cross-
roads: Extinction or Renewal?,” Bilingual Research Journal 29, no. 1 (2005): 85–108;
Deborah House, Language Shift among the Navajos: Identity Politics and Cultural
Continuity (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002); Bernard Spolsky, “Prospects
for the Survival of the Navajo Language: A Reconsideration,” Anthropology and Edu-
cation Quarterly 33, no. 2 (2002): 139–62.
10. Jacqueline H. Messing, “Ambivalence and Ideology among Mexicano Youth
in Tlaxcala, Mexico,” Journal of Language, Identity, and Education 8, no. 5, (2009):
11. Teresa McCarty and Leisy Wyman, eds., Indigenous Youth and Bilingualism,
special issue of Journal of Language, Identity, and Education 8 (2009).
The Navajo Nation and the
Declaration on the Rights
of Indigenous Peoples
Lloyd L. Lee

Today, by adopting the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

we are making further progress to improve the situation of Indigenous
peoples around the world. We are also taking another major step forward
towards the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental
freedoms for all.
—Haya Al Khalifa, United Nations General Assembly,
September 13, 2007

On September 13, 2007, by a vote of 143 to 4 with 11 abstentions, the

United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights
of Indigenous Peoples. It was a thirty-­year process. Numerous individuals
and representatives worked tirelessly to ensure its reality. The declaration
is designed to help sustain and protect the fundamental rights of Indig-
enous peoples. It includes the rights of Indigenous peoples to their original
lands and resources; their rights to give their free, prior, and informed
consent before nation-­states take actions negatively affecting them; their
right to be free from genocide and forced relocation; and their rights to
their languages, cultures, and spiritual beliefs. The declaration addresses
both individual and collective rights; cultural rights and identity; rights to
education, health, employment, and language; and other critical issues for
Indigenous peoples.
The four nation-­states to initially oppose the declaration were the United
States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. All four have reversed their

Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples   • 171

votes. While these four and many other nation-­states support the declara-
tion, the work begins in making sure nation-­states acknowledge and allow
Indigenous peoples the right to be distinct. Indigenous peoples also need
to make sure that their own tribal governments and organizations listen
and follow all of the people’s needs, not the needs of a few.
The Navajo Nation was much involved in the discussion and drafting
of the declaration. The Navajo Nation believes that it is implementing
several other articles and wanting to hold the United States accountable.
However, an analysis of how the Navajo Nation is implementing these ar-
ticles is warranted, since many Diné peoples continue to suffer the conse-
quences of settler colonialism. The following paragraphs examine how the
Navajo Nation has implemented several of the declaration’s articles and
offers a discussion on how Diné individuals and communities can hold the
tribal government and the United States accountable.

Declaration Articles

Article 3
Indigenous peoples have the right to self-­determination. By virtue of
that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue
their economic, social and cultural development.

The Navajo Nation has exercised self-­determination since time immemo-

rial. While challenges to the nation’s self-­determination have occurred
throughout its history, the nation in the twenty-­first century operates its
own government, has its own rules and regulations, has developed its own
enterprises, and has created a distinct nationhood. The Navajo Nation is
imperfect, but its growth and maturity continue.
Article 3 acknowledges the Navajo Nation’s power to sustain and pro-
tect a Diné way of life. One action that the nation has taken to demon-
strate its political power has been to develop various enterprises. One of
the most recent enterprise developments has been the Navajo Nation
Gaming Enterprise, which was established in 2006. The enterprise is au-
thorized by the Navajo Nation government to develop and operate casinos
in accordance with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. The enter-
prise negotiates compact agreements with the Arizona and New Mexico
state governments. The nation wants to operate five or six gaming facilities
by the end of 2014. Currently, the nation has four gaming facilities in
172  •  Paths for the Future

operation: Fire Rock Casino near Gallup, New Mexico, opened in No-
vember 2008; Flowing Water Casino near Shiprock, New Mexico, opened
in October 2010; Northern Edge Navajo Casino near Farmington, New
Mexico, opened on January 16, 2012; and Twin Arrows Navajo Casino
Resort near Flagstaff, Arizona, opened on May 24, 2013. The nation is
in negotiations with the State of New Mexico for a new compact. The
current compact expires in 2015. The Navajo Nation wants to have the
flexibility to operate five casinos in New Mexico in the new compact with
an expiration date of 2037.
In November 2008 the Navajo Nation opened its first class III–type
casino near Gallup, New Mexico. Fire Rock Casino has been in operation
for five years and is doing well, although the majority of the customers are
Diné peoples. The agreement that the Navajo Nation has with the State
of New Mexico for Fire Rock Casino is similar to other Native American
nations in the state, including the section on revenue sharing. The Navajo
Nation pays the State of New Mexico a percentage of its net win, deter-
mined by the annual net win. For instance, if a Native American nation
makes an annual net profit of between $15 million and $50 million, the
Native American nation pays the state 3 percent on the first $5 million
and 9.25 percent on the rest until the year 2015. Between 2015 and 2030,
Native American nations will pay the state 3 percent on the first $5 million
and 9.50 percent on the rest.1 Future compact agreements will change the
While Fire Rock Casino has been monetarily successful, Diné peoples
are concerned about the negative impacts on families. Presently, no study
on the social and psychological impact is available; however, Diné peo-
ples hear stories of parents leaving their children in the car to go inside
the casino, parents and grandparents spending hours at the casino, and
people using their general assistance funds, particularly on the first of each
month. One only needs to drive through the casino’s parking lots for an
In 2005 then president Joe Shirley Jr. signed into law the Diné Natural
Resources Protection Act, banning all future uranium mining and milling
on Diné Bikéyah (Diné Land). This was a collaborative effort by activists,
government officials, and state officials. Two grassroots environmental or-
ganizations, Diné CARE and Dooda Desert Rock, are using the natural
law provision of the Fundamental Laws of the Diné to protest the Desert
Rock Energy Project and to draft an economic and energy alternative to a
proposed coal-­fired power plant, proposed by the Navajo Nation and the
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples   • 173

tribal enterprise Diné Power Authority. President Ben Shelly and former
president Shirley are committed to the Desert Rock Energy Project be-
cause of the need for economic opportunity and job creation. The U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency revoked Desert Rock’s permit in Octo-
ber 2009. The Navajo Nation government and its corporate partner, Sithe
Global, continue to work for approval, but at this point the project has be-
come stagnant. The Navajo Nation and Sithe Global proposed the Desert
Rock Energy Project, a 1,500-­megawatt coal-­fired power plant southwest
of Farmington, New Mexico, on reservation land in 2005.
Overall, Diné peoples have been instrumental in determining how they
want their nation to govern and develop. The nation has had some suc-
cesses and also failures. Diné peoples will need to communicate with and
work to ensure that the tribal government focuses on all of the peoples’
needs, not their own individual wants. They will also need to observe the
U.S. government to ensure that it abides by Article 3.

Article 12
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practice, develop and
teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremo-
nies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to
their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of
their ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of their
human remains.
2. States shall seek to enable the access and/or repatriation of ceremo-
nial objects and human remains in their possession through fair,
transparent and effective mechanisms developed in conjunction
with Indigenous peoples concerned.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Indigenous peoples were for-

bidden to practice their ceremonies, customs, and traditions. The Sun
Dance and the Ghost Dance were outlawed, and prayer was disallowed.
In 1923 Charles H. Burke, the commissioner of Indian Affairs, wrote a let-
ter to the Indigenous peoples of the United States requesting that they stop
their religious traditions, customs, and ceremonies:

Now, what I want you to think about very seriously is that you must
first of all try to make your own living, which you cannot do unless you
work faithfully and take care of what comes from your labor, and go to
174  •  Paths for the Future

dances or other meetings only when your home work will not suffer by
it. I do not want to deprive you of decent amusements or occasional
feast days, but you should not do evil or foolish things or take so much
time for these occasions. No good comes from your “give-­away” custom
at dances and it should be stopped. It is not right to torture your bodies
or to handle poisonous snakes in your ceremonies. All such extreme
things are wrong and should be put aside and forgotten. You do your-
selves and your families great injustice when at dances you give away
money or other property, perhaps clothing, a cow, a horse, or a team
and wagon, and then after an absence of several days go home to find
everything going to waste and yourselves with less to work with than you
had before.2

Even though this letter was written during the Federal Indian Policy era of
allotment and assimilation, Indigenous peoples in the United States have
had a difficult time protecting religious expressions and practices. In 1978
Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) to
acknowledge the right of Indigenous peoples to practice their spirituality.
It was a first step in protecting Indigenous spiritual and religious ways.
In 1993 and 1994 Congress passed American Indian Religious Free-
dom Restoration Act and amended the AIRFA. The 1994 amendments
were designed to protect Native American Church members’ peyote
use. However, the Supreme Court declared the American Indian Reli-
gious Freedom Restoration Act unconstitutional but did uphold the 1994
AIRFA amendments. Protecting sacred sites and lands from business de-
velopment has been challenging for the Navajo Nation and all Native
American nations. The AIRFA and its amendments have not been a suc-
cessful strategy for Indigenous peoples in the U.S. court system.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAG-
PRA) was signed into law in 1990. The law orders museums and other
institutions that receive federal funding to return human remains, cultural
patrimony, and funerary objects to Indigenous peoples. The Navajo Na-
tion has received Yei Bei Chei ceremonial masks, and other Native Ameri-
can nations have also received funerary objects and human remains.
The AIRFA and the NAGPRA are U.S. federal laws that are designed
to help Indigenous peoples protect their spiritual traditions and ways and
have done so to some degree, but attempts to change these laws are under
way. These laws might be different in five to ten years, and Article 12
will be needed to protect Indigenous peoples’ spirituality and religious
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples   • 175

Article 14

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their edu-
cational systems and institutions providing education in their own
languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of
teaching and learning.
2. Indigenous individuals, particularly children, have the right to all
levels and forms of education of the State without discrimination.
3. States shall, in conjunction with Indigenous peoples, take effective
measures, in order for Indigenous individuals, particularly children,
including those living outside their communities, to have access,
when possible, to an education in their own culture and provided in
their own language.

In 2005 the Navajo Nation Council passed the Diné Sovereignty in Edu-
cation Act. The act began the step toward achieving more control and
authority over the education of Diné children. The act has had very little
impact or influence to date, primarily due to the continued budgetary con-
trol by the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah over public schools
in the Navajo Nation. The primary goal of the act is to gain budgetary
control over public schools on the reservation.
Article 14 is exactly what the Navajo Nation wants to accomplish with
the act. Public schools serving Diné children in Arizona, New Mexico,
and Utah vary regarding the teaching of the Diné language, history, and
culture. Not all public schools teach these courses, and in many cases
these courses are electives and not core requirements, as are math, writing,
social studies, and science. Students who want to learn to speak Diné or
learn the history of their ancestors have to want to take an elective course;
otherwise, many students will not be able to take these types of classes.
Many Diné students want to take language and history classes, but many
cannot because they need to fulfill core requirements.
Several public elementary schools on the reservation, such as the Fort
Defiance elementary school, have implemented language-­immersion pro-
grams. In 1984 the Navajo tribal council passed a resolution advocating
the teaching of the Diné language.
The Diné language is an essential element of the life, culture, and
identity of the Diné people. The Navajo Nation recognizes the impor-
tance of preserving and perpetuating that language to the survival of the
nation. Instruction in the Navajo language shall be made available for all
grade levels in all schools serving the Navajo Nation. Navajo-­language
176  •  Paths for the Future

instruction shall include to the greatest extent practicable: thinking, speak-

ing, comprehension, reading and writing skills, and study of the formal
grammar of the language.3
The Fort Defiance elementary school implemented its language-­
immersion program in 1986 and has been effective in teaching the
language to young children. In 1995 a Headstart Navajo-­language cur-
riculum was developed and implemented in Chinle as a pilot project. The
children learned stories, songs, plants, and animals by the seasons. They
used concrete objects and their five senses to learn from the world around
them. The curriculum incorporated the wisdom of historical teachings
and learning for young children. It also consisted of situational Diné and
a focus on Diné culture. Later, research-­based studies were implemented
into the curriculum. While curricula can change, many Diné peoples
want the language to be taught to the young.
The Navajo Nation has already implemented Headstart and language-­
immersion programs. The nation needs to maintain and expand these
programs to secondary and higher education so that the momentum of
language maintenance and revitalization is not impeded. The States of
Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah will need to recognize the importance
of language revitalization for the Navajo Nation. The Navajo government
and the Diné peoples need to continue to remind the states of how impor-
tant the Diné language is for the Navajo Nation.

Article 20
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and develop their po-
litical, economic and social systems or institutions, to be secure in
the enjoyment of their own means of subsistence and development,
and to engage freely in all their traditional and other economic
2. Indigenous peoples deprived of their means of subsistence and de-
velopment are entitled to just and fair redress.

In December 2009 Diné peoples passed an initiative to reduce the council

from eighty-­eight to twenty-­four delegates and to grant the president line-­
item veto power on council legislation. In November 2010 the people
elected a new president and twenty-­four council delegates. In January
2011 the new president and the new council took office. Council standing
committees were reorganized.
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples   • 177

In 1989 the Navajo Nation Council amended the tribal government

system. Part of the amendments included developing the Navajo Gov-
ernment Development Office and commission. The office was created
to assist the council in instituting reform to develop an accountable and
responsible government that included long-­range comprehensive plan-
ning. The Navajo Government Development Office was instrumental in
developing the Navajo Nation Local Governance Act in 1998. The act is
designed to allow chapters to make decisions over local matters and ac-
knowledges that local officials have the power to develop long-­range com-
prehensive planning for the community. The act also outlines the roles
and responsibilities of chapter officials, chapter ordinances, chapter con-
tract requirements, finances, zoning, and eminent domain requirements.
In the zoning section of the act, community-­based land-­use planning is
critical to the Navajo Nation’s sustainability:

The Chapter, at a meeting duly-­called chapter meeting, shall by reso-

lution, vote to implement a community based land use plan, after the
Community Land Use Planning Committee has educated the commu-
nity on the concepts, needs, and process for planning and implement-
ing a community based land use plan. The community based land use
plan shall project future community land needs, shown by location and
extent, of areas identified for residential, commercial, industrial, and
public purposes. The land use plan shall be based upon the guiding
principles and vision as articulated by the community; along with infor-
mation revealed in inventories and assessments of the natural, cultural,
human resources, and community infrastructure; and, finally with con-
sideration for the land-­carrying capacity. Such a plan may also include,
the following:

1. An open space plan which preserves for the people certain areas
to be retained in their natural state or developed for recreational
2. A thoroughfare plan which provides information about the exist-
ing and proposed road network in relation to the land use of the
surrounding area.
3. A community facilities plan which shows the location, type, ca-
pacity, and area served, of present and projected or required com-
munity facilities including, but not limited to, recreation areas,
schools, libraries, and other public buildings. It will also show
178  •  Paths for the Future

related public utilities and services and indicate how these ser-
vices are associated with future land use.4

The Local Governance Act was supposed to acknowledge and respect

local control and power over a community’s wants and needs. However,
very few chapters have taken this route.
Article 20 can help local chapters on the reservation move in the direc-
tion of certification under the Local Governance Act. The article recog-
nizes the ability of Indigenous peoples to develop their political, economic,
and social systems. The act is a contemporary reflection of how Diné an-
cestors functioned in their extended family networks and communities.
Under the act, Navajo chapters are capable of working for a community’s
well-­being and sustainability.

Article 25
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their dis-
tinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise
occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other
resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in
this regard.

In the Navajo Nation’s Division of Natural Resources is the Land Depart-

ment. The department’s vision is to administer, acquire, record, regulate,
value, and preserve Diné Bikéyah. One of the services that the department
provides is homesite leasing. Numerous Diné individuals and families
have applied for a homesite lease, but the waiting list is long, and it takes
quite some time to gain approval. The homesite policy and procedure was
adopted in the early 1990s, and amendments have been proposed, but the
Navajo Nation Council has not approved any at this time. The depart-
ment does not advocate a spiritual relationship with the land, although it
does respect the distinct relationship that Diné peoples have to the land.
Beginning with the Treaty of Bosque Redondo of 1868 and continuing
until 1934, the Navajo Reservation increased based on presidential execu-
tive orders and congressional action. While many Native American lands
decreased and were taken during this time, Diné Bikéyah for the most part
was maintained and expanded. The primary reason that land increased for
the people was their ability to persuade the U.S. government for the need
for more grazing land. Henry Chee Dodge constantly discussed with fed-
eral agents and representatives the need for more grazing land. The federal
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples   • 179

government added land to the original reservation of 1868 in 1878, 1880,

1884, 1886, 1900, 1901, 1905, 1907, 1913, 1918, 1930, and 1934. This land
increased the total reservation to more than 27,000 square miles. New Mex-
ico senator Dennis Chavez and other representatives opposed the attempt
to add more land to the eastern part of the reservation located in New Mex-
ico, and they succeeded. Most of the land increase occurred in Arizona.
Diné Bikéyah is tied to Diné identity and way of life. The creation
scripture and journey narratives detail many vital mountains, rivers, lakes,
and other natural land markers. For example, four sacred mountains re-
flect the boundaries of Diné Bikéyah: Sis Naajiní (Mount Blanca in Colo-
rado), Tsoodził (Mount Taylor in New Mexico), Dook’o’oosłííd (the San
Francisco Peaks in Arizona), and Dibé Nitsáá (Mount Hersperus in Colo-
rado). These four mountains are the cornerstones for Diné peoples.
In 2002 Arizona Snowbowl, a ski resort company located on San Fran-
cisco Peaks, proposed a plan to expand the ski resort and to begin mak-
ing snow using reclaimed water from treated sewage. The Navajo Nation
along with twelve other Native American nations and a couple of environ-
mental groups sued the Coconino National Forest, which leases the land
to the ski resort, in an attempt to block the proposal. Indigenous cultural
practitioners including Diné medicine peoples cited public health risks,
environmental concerns, and serious impacts to spiritual and religious
ways. The case went to U.S. federal court in 2006. The federal court sided
with the National Park Service and Arizona Snowbowl. The Native Ameri-
can nations involved in the case appealed to the U.S. Federal Court of Ap-
peals and lost. In 2009 they appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the
Supreme Court refused to hear the case. In 2011 construction began on
the wastewater pipeline to the San Francisco Peaks. In response, numer-
ous individuals began ongoing protest actions, including demonstrations,
encampments, and lockdowns.
In the autumn of 2011 the Hopi tribe sued the city of Flagstaff, stating
that the city’s contract to sell more than one million gallons of reclaimed
wastewater per day to Snowbowl is illegal because it violates several Ari-
zona laws governing the proper use of reclaimed wastewater. The case is
ongoing, but the pipeline is scheduled to be completed and in use by 2014.
Diné Bikéyah is of upmost importance to the people. The people’s
identity and way of life are interwoven with the land. In the past, the Na-
vajo government was able to acquire more land. Diné peoples will need to
hold the tribal government accountable to protect the land and resources,
but they will also need to communicate with the federal government on
the importance of their lands to their identity and way of life.
180  •  Paths for the Future

Article 31

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and

develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional
cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences,
technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources,
seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral
traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual
and performing arts. They also have the right to maintain, control,
protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural
heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions.
2. In conjunction with Indigenous peoples, States shall take effective
measures to recognize and protect the exercise of these rights.

In October 2011 the American company Urban Outfitters came under

fire for selling panties, a patterned liquor flask, and around twenty other
clothing and accessories labeled as “Navajo.” The attorney general of the
Navajo Nation sent a cease and desist letter to the company’s chief execu-
tive officer/president stating that the company was in violation of trade-
marks that the nation holds over use of the term “Navajo”:

Your corporation’s use of Navajo will cause confusion in the market and
society concerning the source or origin of your corporation’s products.
Consumers will incorrectly believe that the Nation has licensed, ap-
proved, or authorized your corporation’s use of the Navajo name and
trademarks for its products—when the Nation has not—or that your
corporation’s use of Navajo is an extension of the Nation’s family of
trademarks—which it is not. This is bound to cause confusion, mistake,
or deception with respect to the source or origin of your goods. This
undermines the character and uniqueness of the Nation’s long-­standing
distinctive Navajo name and trademarks, which—because of its false
connection with the Nation—dilutes and tarnishes the name and trade-
marks. Accordingly, please immediately cease and desist using the Na-
vajo name and trademark with your products.
As a Nation with a distinguished legacy and unmistakable contem-
porary presence, the Nation is committed to retaining this distinction
and preventing inaccuracy and confusion in society and the market.
The Nation must maintain distinctiveness and clarity of valid associa-
tion with its government, its institutions, its entities, its people, and their
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples   • 181

products in commerce. When an entity attempts to falsely associate its

products with the Nation and its products, the Nation does not regard
this as benign or trivial. The Nation remains firmly committed to the
cancellation of all marks that attempt to falsely associate with the insti-
tution, its entities, its people or its products. Accordingly, immediately
cease and desist using Navajo with your products.5

Urban Outfitters originally had no plans to remove the name from its
clothing line. On February 28, 2012, the Navajo Nation filed a suit in
the U.S. district court in New Mexico alleging trademark violations and
violations of the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act. The Navajo Nation
holds roughly ten to twelve trademarks on clothing, footwear, household
products, and textiles under the “Navajo” name.6
The Navajo Nation is also one of the few Native American nations in
the United States to have its own human subjects research review board,
which it took over from the U.S. Indian Health Service in 1996. The writ-
ten regulations are similar to other institutional review boards at colleges,
universities, and hospitals across the country.
The Navajo Nation’s research review board has developed a process to
protect Diné intellectual property. The nation has put together a research
protocol application process that applicants will need to follow to gain ap-
proval of any research project done on the Navajo Nation.7 The Navajo
Nation’s Human Subjects Research Review Board allows less flexibility,
does not allow expedited review, and requires prepublication review of
all manuscripts. The board requires the principal researcher to show how
community people will be involved in the planning and implementation
of the research project. The researcher must also describe how he or she
plans to report back to interested parties. The board works to reclaim and
protect intellectual property rights of the Diné peoples. While the board
still has issues to work out, such as a more efficient process system, none-
theless it is in place to maintain, develop, control, and protect Diné intel-
lectual property.

Article 33
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to determine their own identity or
membership in accordance with their customs and traditions. This
does not impair the right of Indigenous individuals to obtain citizen-
ship of the States in which they live.
182  •  Paths for the Future

2. Indigenous peoples have the right to determine the structures and to

select the membership of their institutions in accordance with their
own procedures.

On July 20, 1953, the Navajo Nation Council adopted formal enrollment
requirements for the Navajo Nation. The requirements consist of the

Section 1. The membership of the Navajo Tribe shall consist of the fol-
lowing persons: (a) All persons of Navajo blood whose names appear
on the official roll of the Navajo Tribe maintained by the Bureau of
Indian Affairs. (b) Any person who is at least ¼ degree Navajo blood,
but who has not previously been enrolled as a member of the Tribe,
is eligible for tribal membership and enrollment. (c) Children born
to any enrolled member of the Navajo Tribe shall automatically be-
come members of the Navajo Tribe and shall be enrolled, provided
they are at least ¼ degree Navajo blood.
Section 2. Any enrolled member of the Navajo Tribe may renounce
such membership by petitioning the Chairman of the Navajo Tribe
in writing that his name be stricken from the tribal roll. Such person
may be reinstated in the Navajo Tribe only by the vote of a majority
of the Navajo Tribal Council.
Section 3. No person, otherwise eligible for membership in the Navajo
Tribe, may enroll as a member of said Tribe who, at the same time,
is on the roll of any other tribe of Indians.8

For sixty years the Navajo Nation has not altered or amended its en-
rollment requirements. As of summer 2011, more than 300,000 individu-
als are enrolled in the Navajo Nation.9 In November 2011 the Navajo
government began the process of distributing identification cards to en-
rolled individuals. The Navajo Nation’s enrollment process is very similar
to many other Native American nations in the United States that follow
a blood quantum and/or lineal descent system. In 2004 former council
delegate Ervin Keeswood sponsored legislation to lower the one-­quarter
blood quantum requirement to one-­eighth.10 The legislation was rejected.
It has not returned to the council since, but the issue of enrollment will
continue to be a part of the Diné landscape.
Diné cultural identity is based on multiple markers, such as land, par-
ticipation, relationship, language, philosophy, and love. An integral sys-
tem designed to understand the relationship that Diné peoples have to
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples   • 183

one another and all living things on Earth and in the universe are in the
concepts of k’é and k’éí. K’é is a relationship system designed for people to
understand their connection to all living things, such as animals, plants,
birds, land, water, wind, Earth, and the universe. This understanding of
connection demonstrates to Diné peoples their interrelatedness with all
things. K’éí is a clanship system to understand their relationship with each
other and non-­Diné peoples. Currently more than seventy clans exist, and
each Diné consists of four clans. The first clan represents who he or she is
as a Diné, and every Diné individual receives the first clan from his or her
mother. The Diné is born for his or her father’s clan. Each Diné is also a
part of his or her maternal and paternal grandfathers’ clans. These clans
reflect on the families that an individual is a part of and that he or she is
never alone in life.
The current enrollment structure appears to be effective, but future Na-
vajo generations will need to seriously consider how they can develop an
enrollment system reflective of their ancestors and cultural identity with-
out being exclusive. At this point in time, the current structure is exclusive
and reflects a race-­based approach to defining citizenry. One idea might
be to utilize k’éí as the main requirement for enrollment. For instance,
a Diné can enroll through a clanship structure reinforced by a lineal de-
scent system rather than meeting blood quantum.


Diné peoples can freely determine their political institutions and the way
they govern. They can decolonize, rebuild, and sustain their government
structures. This starts with a critical consciousness individual who identi-
fies oppressive elements in Diné communities and works to change it. He
or she learns about decolonization from various Indigenous perspectives
in both North America and other parts of the world. One individual who
advocates the importance of learning how to think critically and to exercise
one’s brain on how to recognize oppressive elements is Michael Yellow
Bird, a professor at Humboldt State University. Yellow Bird proposed that
Indigenous communities should set up critical thinking centers. These
centers are designed to transform the educational system in the commu-
nity whereby the main goal is to develop a person’s critical consciousness.
Along with decolonizing and rebuilding the government structure,
Diné peoples can write a constitution. The Navajo Nation does not
have a written constitution, only a code describing governance rules and
184  •  Paths for the Future

legislation. While the code works as a constitution, it began with the Bu-
reau of Indian Affairs, which the Navajo Nation has readily adopted as its
own. Diné peoples have never formally sanctioned the code through a
vote, a referendum, or any other electoral means. While the council has
considered and written constitutions throughout the past ninety years, a
ratified constitution has never come to fruition.
One approach on how to write a constitution is to follow the Funda-
mental Laws of the Diné. For instance, in traditional law, Diné peoples
have the right and freedom to choose their own leaders. How they choose
their leaders is up to the people, so it can be by vote or by other means that
the community follows. The other three areas of the Fundamental Laws
(customary law, natural law, and common law) detail how the people can
govern. The natural law section states the following:

The right and freedoms of the people to the use of the sacred elements
of life as mentioned above and to the use of the land, natural resources,
sacred sites and other living beings must be accomplished through the
proper protocol of respect and offering and these practices must be pro-
tected and preserved for they are the foundation of our spiritual ceremo-
nies and the Diné life way; and it is the duty and responsibility of the
Diné to protect and preserve the beauty of the natural world for future

Diné peoples have used the Fundamental Laws historically, even though
the council and the court system continuously state that the laws are
meant only for Navajo government usage and not the citizenry. The laws
are meant to help Diné peoples live in this world and can set a foundation
for Diné peoples to create a constitution if they choose to do so.
One of the most pressing issues facing the Navajo Nation is the ed-
ucation of its children. While the language is being maintained at the
moment, the vitality of it is in question. Several language-­immersion pro-
grams and schools on the Navajo Reservation are teaching the children
the language, culture, and history, yet much more can be done. Individu-
als can take it upon themselves to teach the language, culture, and history.
Schools can supplement the process.
Diné individuals can use technology available through computers,
notebook tablets, and other multimedia tools. While multimedia tools
should not be the only means to teach Diné children, they will enhance
and supplement the learning process. One-­on-­one approaches will still be
the cornerstone to educating Diné children. Challenges will exist, such
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples   • 185

as apathy, ignorance, and disbelief, but individuals can look to the jour-
ney narratives and other cultural narratives on how to persevere and suc-
ceed in life. Stories have always been a part of the Diné way of life and
will continue to be so. Besides utilizing stories as a way to help overcome
challenges, Diné peoples can consult other Indigenous peoples on how
they overcame some of their challenges. By analyzing other Indigenous
peoples and how they deal with their own challenges, the Navajo Nation
can shape what works for Diné peoples.


The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a vehicle for mak-

ing sure that the Navajo Nation and the United States are accountable to
Diné peoples and all Indigenous peoples. The declaration helps Indig-
enous peoples continue their distinct identities and ways of life. The decla-
ration’s interpretation and meaning will change over time, but the essence
and foundation will remain the same as long as Indigenous peoples con-
tinue to stress its importance to nation-­states. The Navajo Nation worked
on the creation of the declaration. The tribal government and the people
will continue to work so that the United States can never misinterpret or
ignore it. It will be up to the Diné peoples to monitor and encourage the
tribal government to follow the essence of the declaration and to transform
communities for the better.


The quotation in the epigraph is from “A Victory for Indigenous Rights,” Cultural
Survival, September 13, 2007.
1. “Tribal Compacts,” State of New Mexico Gaming Control Board, http://www
2. Charles H. Burke, “A Message to All Indians,” February 24, 1923, Reel 38, In-
dian Rights Association papers.
3. Navajo Tribe Division of Diné Education, Navajo Nation Education Policies
(Window Rock, AZ: Division of Diné Education, 1984).
4. Navajo Nation Code, Title 26, Navajo Nation Local Governance Act.
5. “Urban Outfitters Is Obsessed with Navajo,” Native Appropriations, September
23, 2011,­outfitters-­is-­obsessed
6. Ibid.
7. Navajo Division of Health, Navajo Human Research Review Board, “Proce-
dural Guidelines for Principal Investigators,” 2007.
186  •  Paths for the Future

8. Norman M. Littell and Charles J. Alexander, comp., Navajo Tribal Council

Resolutions, 1953, Vol. 4, Resolution No. CJ-­50-­53.
9. Bill Donovan, “Census: Navajo Enrollment Tops 300,000,” Navajo Times, July 7,
10. “Bid to Lower Navajo Blood Quantum Rejected,”, April 23, 2004,
11. Diné Bi Beenahaz’áanii (1 N.N.C. ∫∫201–206),
Venaya Yazzie

above—white, indigo, gray gravity pulls out sinewy elements

horizontal rain vertical wind diagonal freeze desert brown snow

Ozone fell in love—with smooth hills of Earth. Woman. Nahasaan.


soft breeze   gentle river mist   fragrant valley eve

Twilight place of prayer—sunlight hits dry dirt shatters belief in

blue    clear rain    and longs for soft misty desert monsoon.

Her Name Is Resistance—The Earth is Her Mother
Venaya Yazzie

Kim Baca (Diné/Santa Clara Pueblo) is a marketing and communications

consultant living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is Kinyaa’áanii (Tow-
ering House) born for Santa Clara Pueblo. She has been a newspaper and
wire service reporter for media in the Southwest, including the Associated
Press, the Santa Fe New Mexican, and El Paso Times. She has also been
the marketing director of Native American Public Telecommunications
(NAPT) and served two years as interim executive director of the Native
American Journalists Association (NAJA) before the organization moved
to Oklahoma. With her executive experience, she is astute in fund-­raising
for nonprofit organizations. She has also done public relations and leg-
islative work for former New Mexico House Speaker Ben Lujan; at the
National American Indian Housing Council in Washington, D.C.; and at
the former New Mexico Office of Indian Affairs in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Yolynda Begay calls Cahone Mesa, Utah, her home place. She is from
the Naasht’ézhi Tá’baahí (Zuni-­Water Edge) clan and born for the Tó’dí-
ch’íi’nii (Bitter Water) clan. Her maternal grandpa is from the Kinłichíi’nii
(Red House) clan, and her paternal grandpa is from the Tł’ááshchí’í (Red
Bottom) clan. She currently resides in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, and is
employed as an assistant regional social scientist with the U.S. Depart-
ment of Agriculture. Begay received her master’s degree in community
and regional planning from the University of New Mexico in May 2011.
Her thesis is titled “Historic and Demographic Changes That Impact the
Future of the Diné and Developing Community-­Based Policy.”

Esther Belin is a Diné scholar, artist, and poet who was born in Gal-
lup, New Mexico, and raised in the Los Angeles area of southern Cali-
fornia. She received her formal training at UC Berkeley, the Institute of
American Indian Arts, and Antioch University. Belin is a regular guest
lecturer at a variety of institutions, and her writing has been published in

190  • Contributors

numerous anthologies and journals. In 2000 she won the American Book
Award for her poetry book, From the Belly of My Beauty. Belin is part of a
four-­corners art collective that collaborates with other entities to increase
cultural competency through art and writing.

Gregory Cajete is a Native American educator whose work is dedicated

to honoring the foundations of Indigenous knowledge in education. He is
a Tewa Indian from Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico. Cajete has served
as a New Mexico humanities scholar in the ethnobotany of northern New
Mexico and as a member of the New Mexico Arts Commission. In ad-
dition, he has lectured at colleges and universities in the United States,
Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Italy, Japan, and Russia.
Currently, Cajete is the director of Native American Studies and an as-
sociate professor in the Division of Language, Literacy, and Sociocultural
Studies in the College of Education at the University of New Mexico. He
earned his bachelor of arts degree from New Mexico Highlands Univer-
sity with majors in both biology and sociology and a minor in secondary
education. Cajete received his master of arts degree from the University
of New Mexico in adult and secondary education. He received his PhD
from the International College–Los Angeles New Philosophy Program in
Social Science Education with an emphasis in Native American Studies.
Greg Cajete has authored five books: Look to the Mountain: An Ecol-
ogy of Indigenous Education (Kivaki Press, 1994), Ignite the Sparkle: An
Indigenous Science Education Curriculum Model (Kivaki Press, 1999),
Spirit of the Game: Indigenous Wellsprings (Kivaki Press, 2004), A People’s
Ecology: Explorations in Sustainable Living (Clearlight Publishers, 1999),
and Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence (Clearlight Publish-
ers, 2000). He has also coauthored a book with Don Jacobs (Four Arrows)
and Jong Min Lee titled Neurophilosophy and Indigenous Wisdom (Sense
Publications, Netherlands, 2009).

Andrew Curley is a member of the Navajo Nation (Bilagáanaa nishli,

Honágháahnii ba’shashchiin, Bilagáanaa dashicheii, Kinyaa’áanii dashi-
nali). He was born in Gallup, New Mexico, in 1982. Curley graduated
from Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts, with a BA in sociology
in 2007. The next year he worked at the Diné Policy Institute at Diné
College in Tsaile, Arizona. There he contributed to a government re-
form study for the Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council. In 2008 Curley
started an MS/PhD program in the Department of Development Sociol-
ogy at Cornell University. In 2010 he completed his master’s thesis on
Contributors  • 191

the role of environmental justice organizations in facilitating new forms

of development across the Navajo Nation. Today, as a PhD candidate, he
studies coal, development, and the moral economy of land and natural
resource use within the Navajo Nation. He also serves as the graduate
student representative on the Commission on Navajo Government Devel-
opment and currently resides in Kayenta, Arizona.

Jennifer Nez Denetdale is a citizen of the Navajo Nation and is originally

from Tohatchi, New Mexico. An associate professor of American studies
at the University of New Mexico, she teaches courses in Native American
Studies, Indigenous feminism, tribal nation building, and colonialism and
decolonization. Professor Denetdale is the author of Reclaiming Diné His-
tory: The Legacies of Chief Manuelito and Juanita (University of Arizona
Press, 2007), two Navajo histories for young adults, and numerous articles
and essays. In several of her articles and ongoing research, she explores
the intersections of the Navajo Nation and gender. She is working on a
number of projects, including a manuscript that examines the Navajo Na-
tion, gender, and the politics of tradition and an oral history of the Navajo
Scouts. She was awarded the University of New Mexico faculty of color
award for her teaching, research, and service in the academy. She sits on
the board of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission.

Larry W. Emerson is Tsénahabiłnii, Tó’aheidlííní. His paternal grandpar-

ents are Hoghanłání, and his maternal grandparents are Kiiyaa’áanii. He
is a community activist, farmer, artist, and scholar living in Tsédaak’áán,
Diné Nation, east of Shiprock, New Mexico. His 2003 PhD is from the
Joint Doctoral Program of San Diego State University and Claremont
Graduate University in California. His dissertation was titled “Hozhona-
hazdlii: Towards a Practice of Diné Decolonization.” His interests are in
Indigenous studies and scholarship, social justice, decolonizing research
methodologies, Diné peacemaking, education, and health.

Lloyd L. Lee is a citizen of the Navajo Nation and of the Kinyaa’áanii

(Towering House) clan, born for the Tł’ááschíí (Red Bottom) clan. His
maternal grandfather clan is Áshi˛˛ihí (Salt), and his paternal grandfather
clan is Tába˛a˛há (Water’s Edge). Originally from Albuquerque, New
Mexico, Lee earned his doctorate in American studies from the Univer-
sity of New Mexico in 2004. He is currently an assistant professor in the
Native American Studies Department at the University of New Mexico.
His research areas include Indigenous and Diné identity, Indigenous and
192  • Contributors

Diné masculinities, Diné transformative research, Indigenous leadership

development, Indigenous matrices, and Indigenous community building.
He is the author of Diné Masculinities: Conceptualizations and Reflec-
tions (2013). Lee has published articles in the American Indian Quarterly,
Wicazo Sa Review, AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous
Peoples, the International Journal of the Sociology of Language, and the
Indigenous Policy Journal.

Tiffany S. Lee is Dibé Łizhiní (Blacksheep) and Naałaní (Oglala Lakota)

from Crystal, New Mexico, and Pine Ridge, South Dakota. She is an asso-
ciate professor in Native American Studies at the University of New Mex-
ico. Her latest publications include “Critical Language Awareness among
Native Youth in New Mexico” in Beyond Endangerment: Language in
the Lives of Indigenous Youth (New York: Routledge, in press) and “‘You
Should Learn Who You Are through Your Culture’: Transformative Edu-
cational Possibilities for Native American Youth in New Mexico” (with
N. Lopez) in Cultural Transformations: Youth and Pedagogies of Possibility
(Boston: Harvard Education Press, in press).

Shawn L. Secatero (Canoncito Band of Navajo) is from the Tohajiilee

community in New Mexico and is Water’s Edge clan and born for the
Mexican clan. He earned a doctorate in language, literacy, and sociocul-
tural studies from the University of New Mexico’s College of Education
in 2009. Secatero has directed various educational programs, including
the Canoncito School to Work and Youth Opportunity Grant Program
and the Tohajiilee Community School Bilingual Education Program,
and worked as the coordinator of student services at the American Indian
Graduate Center’s Gates Millennium Scholars Program. He is the direc-
tor of the Native American Program at the New Mexico State University
Grants Campus. Secatero has taught language arts, bilingual education,
and career development for ten years in the Albuquerque public school
system and the Tohajiilee community school. He has also worked as a
postdoctoral scholar at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New
Jersey, and has taught college courses at the University of New Mexico
and Central New Mexico Community College.
Secatero’s educational background at the University of New Mexico
includes an educational specialist certificate in educational leadership;
teaching endorsements in language arts, bilingual education, and teaching
English to speakers of other languages; a master’s degree in secondary edu-
cation; and a bachelor’s degree in journalism and English. His dissertation
Contributors  • 193

study, “Beneath Our Sacred Minds, Hands, and Hearts: Stories of Persis-
tence and Success,” received distinction at the University of New Mexico
in 2009. Secatero has presented his Indigenous-­based well-­being model at
many universities and conferences across the United States, Australia, and
New Zealand. His articles have appeared in New Mexico Magazine, the
journal People before Columbus, and Winds of Change.
Secatero serves on various committees, including the Canoncito Band
of Navajo 12 Member Traditional Council, the NMSU Grants Retention
& Success Committee Campus Council, and the Native American Serv-
ing Non-­Tribal Institutions Grant Leadership Council. In addition, he
serves as the founder of the Striking Eagle Well-­Being Education Circle
and director of the New Mexico American Indian Basketball Classic and
Education Fair.

Vincent Werito is an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico.

For twelve years, Dr. Werito worked with rural and urban American In-
dian (Indigenous) students at the elementary and secondary levels. He has
been a Navajo language teacher and a Native American Studies teacher,
and he developed curricula for Navajo language and Native American
Studies before becoming a faculty member in the College of Education’s
Language, Literacy, and Sociocultural Studies Department at the Univer-
sity of New Mexico. Currently, he teaches graduate-­level courses in Amer-
ican Indian education, working primarily with teachers of Indigenous
youths and doing research in Indigenous education. His maternal clan
is T’aneeszahnii, and his paternal clan is Naakai Dine’é. His maternal
grandparents are Kinłichiinii, and his paternal grandparents are Tódichi-
iníí. Dr. Werito is originally from Na’neelzhiin (Torreon, New Mexico).
He lives and resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Melanie K. Yazzie is bilagáanaa (Scotch-­Irish) born for Ma˛’iideeshgíízhinii.

Her chei is bilagáanaa (Scottish/English), and her nalí is Tótsóhnii. She is
a doctoral candidate in American studies at the University of New Mexico.
Yazzie holds an MA in American studies from Yale University (2009) and a
BA in political science from Grinnell College (2004). She is currently de-
veloping her dissertation, which is a historical and ethnographic study of
post-­1930s Diné subjection from the heuristic vantage point of violence.
The dissertation draws from Indigenous feminisms, theories of affect, the
anthropology of violence, and variously situated critiques of liberal settler
colonialism to foreground the violence that frames the modernization of
Diné life, which originated in the establishment of a centralized tribal
194  • Contributors

government through the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. Specifically,

Yazzie seeks to understand how intimate relations of violence within fami-
lies correspond with discursive systems of violence within national and
tribal arenas to condition key factors of modern Diné subjection such as
Christianity, U.S. militarism, Sa’a˛h Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhó˛ó˛n, heteronor-
mativity, capitalism, k’éí, normative notions of tradition, and American
pop culture. Preliminary sites of analysis include youth suicide and family
or domestic violence. The project’s overall goal is to encourage an hon-
est discussion about the prevalence of violence in modern Diné history,
a discussion that is necessary for envisioning and implementing Diné-­led
solutions for healing. Yazzie also researches Navajo water politics, the poli-
tics of Navajo economic development, and the politics of Navajo art. She
recently published a single-­authored article on the politics of Diné water
rights in the Wicazo Sa Review and has an upcoming coauthored article
on pedagogies of decolonization appearing in Social Text. Yazzie has also
published book reviews in American Indian Quarterly.

Venaya Yazzie is a Diné (Navajo) and Hopi woman from the San Juan Val-
ley in northwestern New Mexico. Her heritage is rooted in the Huerfano
and Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, region of the eastern Navajo Nation.
Yazzie graduated from the University of New Mexico with an MA in
education and Indian education. She is also an alumnus of Fort Lewis
College in Durango, Colorado, and the Institute of American Indian and
Alaska Native Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Yazzie is a member of the
Northwest New Mexico Arts Council and is an artist-­in-­residence of the
Bisti Writing Project in the Four Corners area of the Southwest.

Aikido, 33 Dibé Nitsáá, 6, 179, 39, 43

American Indian Religious Freedom Diné Bi Beenahaaz’áanii, 123
Act, 174 Diné Bikéyah, 55, 74, 77, 78, 84, 145,
American Indian Scholars, 14–15 172, 178, 179
Arizona Snowbowl, 179 Diné critical theory, 26
‘Asdza˛a˛ Nádleehé (Changing Diné identity, 106
Woman), 121 Diné language courses, 163–67
Diné Sovereignty in Education Act, 175
Baca, Kim, 12 Dinétah, 151–52
Begay, Yolynda, 11 Diné thought, xiii–xiv; Iiná, 6, 27,
Belin, Esther, 10 37; matrix, 4; Nahat’á, 6, 27, 37;
Bitsui, Sherwin, 85–86 Nitsáhákees, 6, 27, 37, 40; Siihasin, 6,
Burke, Charles, 173 27, 37; traditional knowledge, 51, 64
Diyin Dine’é, 5, 89,
Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood Dodge, Henry Chee, 178
(CDIB), 105 Dook’o’oosłííd, 6, 179
colonialism, 50, 53–56; critiques of, Double consciousness, 30
95–96; settler, 88–91 Dziłnaadiłthle, 44–45
conscientization, 29–30
consciousness raising, 26 Emerson, Larry W., 10
corn model, 21–23
critical language consciousness, 158–62, Fort Defiance elementary school,
166, 168 174–75
critical thinking centers, 183 Freire, Paulo, 30
Curley, Andrew, 11
Hataałiis, 7
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous historic intergenerational trauma, 56–57
Peoples, 66, 170; article 3, 171; article Hopi tribe, 179
12, 173; article 14, 175; article 20, 176; Hózh ó˛, 26, 27–32, 34, 36, 62, 77, 84–86
article 25, 178; article 31, 180; article Hózhó˛ó˛jí, 26–27, 28–29, 33, 83, 84, 85,
33, 181–82 86, 87, 94, 95, 96, 97
decolonization, 57–62, 72–79
Demography of Diné, 108 identity, 39
Denetdale, Jennifer Nez, 10 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, 171
Desert Rock Energy Project, 172–73 indigenization, 62–63

196  • Index

Indigenous human rights, 66 political identity, 116–20

intergenerational historic trauma, 56 power, 85–92

K’é, 77, 84, 105, 106, 120, 122, 126, 183 queer theory, 88–89, 92
Keeswood, Ervin, 182
K’éí, 91, 95, 183 relocation, 40–41

language, 175–76, 184 Sa’a˛h Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhó˛ó˛n (SNBH),

language shift, 159, 161–62, 167 ix–xi, 3–10, 12, 26, 27, 32–33, 35, 40,
language revitalization, 158, 160–62, 80, 83, 126
166, 167 Secatero, Shawn L., 9
Lee, Tiffany S., 12 Shícheii, 45
Shimasani, 45
Naachid, 137, Sis Naajiní, 6, 179
Naashá naashá, 44–45 sovereignty, 70; cultural, 71
Naat’áanii, 137, subjectivity/subject formation, 92–93
Naayee’jí, 26–7, 28–29, 33, 63
Nahasaan Shimá, 187 T’áá hó’ajít’éego t’éiyá, 27
Native American Graves Protection and T’áá Shá Bik’ehgo na’nitin, 29
Repatriation Act, 174 termination, 40–41
Navajo Nation, 180–81; blood quantum, Treaty of 1868, 132–34, 140, 142–43, 178
182–83; enrollment requirements, tribal dialect, 42
182; Fire Rock Navajo Casino, 172; tribal enrollment, 107; membership, 116
Flowing Water Navajo Casino, 172; Tsoodził, 6, 179
Fundamental Laws of the Diné,
123, 184; Human Subjects Research Urban Outfitters, 180–81
Review Board, 181; Local Governance
Act, 177–78; Navajo Gaming violence, 87–92
Enterprise, 171; Navajo Government
Development Office, 177; Northern Werito, Vincent, 10
Edge Navajo Casino, 172; Twin worldview, 40
Arrows Navajo Casino Resort, 172
Ni’hookáá’ Diyiin Dine’é (Diné peoples), Yazzie, Melanie K., 11
26, 120 Yazzie, Venaya, 9–12
Yei Bei Chei ceremonial masks, 174
oral documentation/method, 92–95 youth, 155–57, 158–62, 164–67