► “Reclaiming Dine History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita,” by Jennifer Nez Denetdale

Reviewed by Karyn Denny

Jennifer Nez Denetdale’s book, “Dine History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita,” examines the history of her great-great-great grandmother Juanita, who was the wife of Navajo leader (or chieftain in western terms) Manuelito.  She also shows how her perspective as a Navajo researcher and ancestor of Chief Manuelito and Juanita is different compared to the dominant western perspectives.  Denetdale’s book consists of seven chapters and in her first chapter Denetdale introduces her research goals, her family history and relations to Chief Manuelito and his wife Juanita.  She briefly discusses the culture and history of the Navajo people and their current issues pertaining to their struggle to maintain their culture and language.  Denetdale also uses this introduction to share important insights to the remaining chapters of her book.

In Chapter two of her book, Denetdale states that western frameworks of Navajo studies are distorted and do not accurately portray the lives, culture, and history of the Dine (19).  Denetdale uses several sources to discredit dominant western beliefs that Navajos were migrated into the Southwest region during 900-1500AD and that they had no cultural material or ceremonial knowledge, but were cultural borrowers (20).  In defense, Denetdale privileges the work of various scholars such as Dakota scholar Angela Wilson’s argument that historians should portray a truthful assessment about state and federal governments and U.S. citizens who have engaged in the “extermination, cultural eradication, and assaults on Native American lands and resources” (29-30).  Denetdale asserts that under the umbrella of native peoples or Indian nations, oral traditions from an indigenous perspective or more aptly (in Denetdale’s case) a “Navajo-centered history” is built around their “social, political, and economic norms.” (34-35).  Denetdale stated that a “Native people’s perspective of the past should be understood within the history of conquest” (37).

Denetdale’s third chapter is a historical overview of recorded accounts (from Western and Indigenous perspectives) of Navajo encounters, warfare, the Navajo Long Walk of the 1864 (also called Hwéeldi), and the whereabouts of Chief Manuelito and other Navajo leaders, healers, and warriors.  Denetdale provides insight of how Navajo Dine’ storytellers and artists today have utilized the Navajo Long Walk of 1864 as discourse in reminding people of the “dispossession, injustice, and violence that the Navajo Dine’ suffered under colonialism” (73).

In the remaining chapters, Denetdale discusses the portraits taken of Juanita by photographers such as George Wharton James who pursued her with and without her permission and used her portraits for monetary gain and notoriety.  Ultimately, stereotyping Juanita as a “living exhibit” (99). Denetdale also recounts stories about Juanita and Manuelito on when they returned home after their imprisonment at Bosque Redondo and about their deaths.  Denetdale faced some road blocks when she interviewed her relatives and therefore didn’t have sufficient information about Juanita’s life before the Long Walk of 1864 and her life after the death of her husband Chief Manuelito was evident and shared.  Whether or not privy was a cultural tendency, Denetdale reveals that her relatives regrettably admitted that they did not listen and/or remember much about Juanita and her family.

In the finals the chapters, Denetdale utilizes the knowledge of other scholars to help support her beliefs that Navajo people are very much tied to the land and that plays a significant part in their cultural ties and kinship.  Denetdale also recounts family stories of imprisonment, relocation, boarding school, and how Juanita, Chief Manuelito, and their children ultimately died from diseases brought on by the brutal force of U.S. colonization.

Denetdale’s book successfully addresses the need to incorporate an indigenous perspective in order to quash the deeply rooted negative stereotypes of the Navajo Dine people.  However, the problem with this book is the lack of information about the author’s family history.  However, Denetdale defends this by privileging other indigenous sources and uses her matriarchal lineage to connect who’s related to who, in which I think is clever.  The hardest part was trying to understand Juanita (who she was and where she came from) and Denetdale utilizes the Navajo Dine’ origin story to connect a difficult story like Juanita (who was possibly a child slave) in order to present Hozhoo’ (Beauty Way).  This is something a Navajo Dine’ person can only understand and appreciate.  This may come off as presumptuous to non-native readers, but it is culturally acceptable and essential to Navajo cultural beliefs.  Denetdale is simply privileging Navajo oral tradition.

Denetdale does share the difficulties in gathering oral stories and her great-great-great grandparents are a significant part of Navajo history.  I appreciate her work because she is passing on Navajo oral knowledge that cements Navajo culture and survival and that’s a legacy that needs to be passed on.

Bibliography:

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

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