Jennifer Nez Denetdale

Katrin H. Lamon Resident Scholar


A Study of the Navajo Past: Reclaiming Chief Manuelito and Juanita, 1868 to the Present

"When we talk about history, we are also talking about the power to produce and disseminate knowledge," says historian Jennifer Nez Denetdale. "It still is the case that non-Navajo scholars publish Navajo history and although they consult Navajos and consider Navajo perspectives, only certain kinds of histories and stories are told and retold and conveyed to our children and into popular culture."

Denetdale's comparative study of Navajo history focuses on her great-great-great grandmother Juanita and her husband Manuelito, the 19th century Navajo leader, and examines how they are represented in American historical accounts and Navajo oral tradition. The only biographies of Manuelito, Denetdale notes, are articles that rely on military and Indian agent reports. "Given the sources, we can only understand Manuelito in relation to American expansion. Further, these short biographies reflect assumptions about American Indian leaders including ideas about 'noble and debauched savages,' the inevitable decline of native societies, and agreement to assimilation," she says. Denetdale contends that such accounts reveal more about the beliefs of the dominant society than the reality of Manuelito's life or Navajo history.

In her examination of how Navajo women are represented, Denetdale traces the story of Juanita through historical photographs and sparse documents. Her use of oral tradition sheds light on Juanita's life. "Although Juanita, like many Navajo women, held a significant amount of authority in her society, almost nothing is known about her life experiences," Denetdale explains. By placing the stories conveyed through oral tradition in a historical framework, Denetdale's research offers "rich insight into Navajo perspectives on the past and especially on the authoritative roles of women in Navajo society, past and present."

Her examination of the interrelationships between oral traditions and history "belies the distinctions conventionally drawn to divide them," Denetdale says. "Story and history cannot be separated because storytelling is a valid form of historical production."

Affiliation at time of award:
Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of New Mexico

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