Like many of you, I went through school learning history from books written by Anglo men educated in the European tradition. The stories of settling the American West were exciting tales of heroic men fighting Indians, foreigners, and Mother Nature. Subdue and conquer. Since then I’ve learned, as have you, that those history texts told only part of the story. I’ve learned that history belongs to those who write it.
Jennifer Nez Dentdale also figured that out. She is a descendant of Chief Manuelito and his wife Juanita, two well-known Navajo leaders who experienced the Trail of Tears and incarceration at the Bosque Redondo.
Dentdale decided to counter the lopsided history of the American Southwest. She earned her doctorate in history at Northern Arizona University and has combined her academic and tribal backgrounds to present a Navajo perspective.
Her book, Reclaiming Dine History (University of Arizona Press, 2007), is both a historian’s critique of existing portrayals of Navajo history and her own discovery of ancestral stories and traditions.
By looking at the ways in which Chief Manuelito and Juanita confronted the loss of their homeland then helped rebuilt it after their return from the Bosque Redondo, Dentdale highlights the importance of the land, spiritual traditions, and the family.
She observes that the patriarchal nature of Anglo society undermined the leadership role of Navajo women, and reveals the devastating social and religious impact of the livestock reduction program. She also finds strength and connection in the story-telling tradition of Navajo families and clans, from which she learns much about her great great great grandparents and the intervening years of fighting colonial influences.
Dentdale’s book is different because it is not a neat, lineal progression of historic events like the textbooks of my childhood. It is not a book that celebrates famous American soldiers or applauds government policies toward Indians. It does not describe battle strategies or give a token nod to some worthy opponent.
Instead, Dentdale’s writing loops back on itself as often as needed to tie history with the present, to reveal the underlying continuity of tradition, and to encourage and celebrate a new look at Navajo history. It is not revisionist history, but is her contribution to a broader understanding of the American Southwest as a cultural and historic place. I agree with Dentdale that the Navajo voice needs to heard.