The Legendary Mother of the Navajo Nation
(Designated by Navajo Council in 1984)
Annie Dodge was born in a traditional hogan on the Navajo Reservation on April 11, 1910. She was a member of the Tsénijíkiní (House Beneath Cliff People) Clan of the Navajo Tribe through her mother Keehanabah, also known as Mary Shirley Begaye, and the Coyote Pass People through her father, Henry Chee Dodge. (Note: English spelling of Navajo words varies.) Annie was born into a prominent family.
Her father, who went by Chee Dodge, was a successful rancher and businessman and served as the chief of the Navajo police, often interpreting and mediating issues to reduce conflict. He was elected by the Tribe as the first Chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council and successfully negotiated a royalty to be paid to the Tribe from oil drilled from under reservation land. Annie spent her early childhood in her father’s home with her stepmother and 3 stepsiblings near Crystal, New Mexico, where she learned skills of livestock herding.
Growing into a leader
When she was 8 years old, Annie Dodge was sent away to boarding school in Fort Defiance, Arizona. That year the 1918 flu epidemic struck the school and many students died. Annie, experiencing a mild case, helped to nurse her classmates. She never forgot the suffering of those sick with the flu and would work to eradicate illnesses for the rest of her life. Each year in the early spring she would leave school to help with the lambing at home, returning shortly before the end of the term. For grades 5 through 11 she attended the Albuquerque Indian School operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. For the first time, she learned that there were other tribes of Native Americans besides the Navajo. Many of the students spoke their tribal language and could not understand each other until they learned English.
Eighteen-year-old Annie returned home and announced to her family that she was going to marry a fellow student, George Wauneka. Between 1929 and 1950, the couple would have 9 children, some suffering long-term disabilities due to difficult births and poor health services in their remote area. In that era, many Navajos disapproved of families who had mentally disabled children, believing that they were a result of the mother having broken a taboo. Consequently, Wauneka did not often talk about her disabled children. The couple cared for their children at home. George took on most of the responsibilities of running the household, caring for the children, and managing the family’s large herd of sheep, despite the difficulty of doing so with no modern conveniences.
Annie Wauneka earned a BA in Public Health from the University of Arizona and later was awarded two honorary degrees from the U of A. Annie often accompanied her father, the revered and charismatic Chee Dodge, to council meetings and community visits. Watching her father, she learned the skills of public service and politics on the reservation. Across the reservation she saw poverty, lack of access to electricity and clean running water, and vulnerabilities to illness. Being bilingual in Navajo and English and having learned about the way of life off the reservation, she saw herself as a bridge between the Navajo community and the culture outside the Navajo Nation.
Chee Dodge died in 1947. Annie Dodge Wauneka, following her role model, was elected to the Navajo Tribal Council in 1951. She was the second woman in tribal history to be elected to the Tribal Council.
Wauneka was best known for her work to promote public health. She chaired the Health and Welfare Committee of the Tribal Council and joined the U.S. Advisory Committee on Indian Health. She served on the advisory boards of the U.S. Surgeon General and the U.S. Public Health Service.
Wauneka focused much of her work on combating tuberculosis. Before it was discovered in the 1950s that tuberculosis could be treated with antibiotics, it was the leading cause of death in Western countries. On the Navajo reservation, the infection rate was more than nine times the level of infection of the general American population. Wauneka first went to the U.S. Public Service laboratories to study the disease. Her goal to eradicate tuberculosis among Navajos faced multiple hurdles. She understood that Navajos value self-determination and do not wish to coerce the behavior of others, but she also knew that it is a fundamental value of Navajo culture to provide help to others when they need it. Accordingly, she realized that the best approach was to educate people regarding the disease and the availability of effective treatment. It was difficult to convince Navajos sick with tuberculosis to go to a hospital operated by medical doctors and to stay there until they were cured. Many Navajos did not speak English and were unfamiliar with the treatment. They did not want to be far from home and were concerned about who would care for their animals. Those who left the hospital early risked reinfection with a resistant strain of the disease and exposing others. Wauneka worked hard to convey the value of medical treatment to her community. Wauneka visited and talked to as many patients as she could. Sometimes a tribal member would insist on taking a traditional herbal remedy, and Wauneka would convince them to take the herbal remedy with the antibiotics.
Wauneka respected traditional Navajo healers and consulted them on spiritual matters. She was a practicing Catholic but also started each day with the Navajo ritual of prayer and a sprinkling of corn pollen. She taught tribal medicine men about the medicines and methods used by medical professionals off the reservation. She also explained to medical professionals the importance of medicine men in Navajo culture to help them when treating Navajo patients. She devised a medical dictionary to translate English medical terms into Navajo. Creating a medical dictionary was a daunting challenge, since some medical terms had no comparable word in Navajo. In those instances, the dictionary was needed to translate entire concepts.
Thanks in large part to the work of Wauneka, tuberculosis infections fell 35% by 1970. She saved the lives of at least 2000 tuberculosis patients and convinced 20,000 Navajos to be screened.
Wauneka worked on other health issues also. She hosted a weekly radio show on health and sanitation. She used her radio show to explain the connections between poverty, heavy drinking, and automobile accidents on the reservation and its borders. Knowing that her community loved movies, she recruited tribal members to star in the Navajo-language video productions, which included information on tuberculosis, childhood diarrhea, polio, alcoholism, and nutrition. She explained the importance of eye and ear examinations and maternal and child health. She helped to improve housing, access to clean water, and sanitation. She became a well-known leader on the reservation. The Navajo Times paid tribute to her in the September 1960 issue.
Issues faced by the Tribal Council
In Navajo culture, the Diné (Navajo word for The People) are caretakers of their sheep, goats, cattle, and horses. The size of a family’s herd was a symbol of their wealth. The herds were used for transportation, food, fiber, and ceremonies. Overgrazing had been an issue on the reservation for decades, exacerbated by larger herds, drought, and a growing population. The federal government required a permit for grazing and enforced livestock reductions, killing large numbers of animals.
Reductions in the size of their herd caused a hardship for families who lost a major source of food, income, and status. In some instances, animals were killed in inhumane ways. Sometimes the meat of dead animals was left to spoil. For the first time Navajos who were no longer able to make a living by herding were forced to work for wages. With few jobs available on the reservation, some were unable to support themselves and their families.
Wauneka was powerless to stop the livestock reductions, but she would intervene to help an individual. In about 1945, an old Navajo woman with a grandchild had been unable to get a permit to graze her palomino horse. She begged to be allowed to keep her horse, explaining that she used it to haul wood and get to the store. The district supervisor confiscated the horse and put it in a pen for sale. Wauneka was incensed. She roped the horse and handed it back to the old woman just as the district supervisor returned and grabbed the other end of the rope. Wauneka jerked the rope out of his hands, swatted the horse with it, and watched the horse run away. The district supervisor was furious, but Wauneka continued to talk to him and suggested a compromise that he let the elderly woman keep the horse for the rest of her life. As it happened, the old woman lived another thirty years, but Wauneka secured a permit for 25 animals for her.
A long-simmering conflict between the Navajo nation and the Hopi Tribe reached a turning point during Wauneka’s years on the Tribal Council. Rights to the use of tribal lands were unclear, especially in the so-called Joint Use Area, which members of both the tribes were allowed to occupy and use. In 1974, Congress passed a law establishing a period of 180 days for the tribes to negotiate a settlement with the help of a mediator. When no settlement was reached, the legislation authorized a court to determine how the lands in the Joint Use Area should be divided between the two tribes. The mediator submitted a report to the court, and both tribes outlined their positions. In a series of decisions between 1976 and 1980, the court designated which portions of the Joint Use Area belonged to each tribe. There was sentiment among Navajos that the process had been unfair. The court’s decision mandated relocations of some tribal members whose families had lived in certain areas for many years. It was a painful time for the Navajo Nation.
Wauneka often said that the future of the Navajo Nation depended on education. She advocated for boarding schools on the reservation. She understood the hardship for school children to travel long distances each day to attend school and return to their modest homes every night. She believed that living in both cultures every day did not give them an adequate opportunity to understand the culture of the world outside the reservation. In contrast, she contended, if boarding schools were established on the reservation, the children would live closer to their families. In addition, for 9 months of the year, school children would get good food and health care, learn English, and be introduced to the culture outside the Navajo reservation. She also believed that reservation schools were a good step toward establishing reliable funding for education.
She was an early advocate for establishing a Head Start program on the reservation. The federal Head Start program helped preschool children build basic skills to prepare them to learn in school, including counting and reading readiness in English and Navajo. Navajo families worked as volunteers and the program enjoyed great success. Another of Wauneka’s projects was to convince the Tribal Council to provide school clothes for children whose families could not afford to buy them.
Wauneka was educated in boarding schools but made her home on the reservation. Throughout her years on the Tribal Council she maintained contact with her constituents by continually traveling around the reservation to attend meetings and talk with tribal members. The Navajo Nation covers over 27,000 square miles and overlaps parts of the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. It is larger than many states. In 1947, a few years before she became a member of the Tribal Council, there were fewer than 100 miles of all-weather roads and just 2000 miles of dirt roads and tracks on the reservation. Often Wauneka’s route took her across terrain that had no roads at all, just a path worn by the vehicles of the residents. She dug herself out of mud and sand when she got stuck and walked for miles when her car would break down. Hosted overnight by the families who lived in remote areas, she might be served supper of tea and fry bread and sleep on a sheepskin on the bare dirt floor of a hogan. She also kept in contact with people off the reservation through her work on health initiatives and her advocacy for the Navajo Nation. She traveled to Washington, D.C. many times to explain the needs of the Navajo Nation and became a familiar figure on Capitol Hill, always dressed in her best velvet blouse, full skirt, and Navajo silver and turquoise jewelry.
Wauneka’s experiences enabled her not only to be a bridge between the cultures, but also to be a problem-solver. Once a winter of severe blizzards reduced the flocks on the reservation, compounded by an illness affecting sheep that forced herders to wait until their lambs recovered before they could sell them. Many families who had been living on credit from the traders were desperately short of money. Wauneka convinced the Tribal Council to purchase the lambs at market rate and hold them until they could be sold legally, providing cash to desperate families.
She turned her attention to infant mortality. At the time, many Navajo babies were born at home in hogans. Wauneka knew that the custom was to wait until the birth to acquire clothes for a new baby. She urged mothers to deliver their babies in hospitals and convinced the Tribal Council to create a fund to provide clothes for newborns, avoiding the risk of the newborns spending the first critical hours of life without adequate clothing.
She devised ways to provide medical care for infants. She established a baby contest to be held at the annual Navajo Tribal Fair, boosting cultural pride and providing a setting for the babies to get medical check-ups. Her work on teaching tribal members about sanitation and protecting the health of newborns helped to reduce infant mortality 25% by 1970.
Wauneka found ways to promote the status of women and to preserve the Tribe’s cultural outlook. In traditional Navajo culture, women had power within the family structure. They often owned the family hogan and their own herds. However, their opportunities in the world outside the reservation and their access to education were limited due to the responsibilities of caring for the home and the herd. Wauneka believed that women’s cultural importance had diminished due to the intervention of outside customs because of the extensive involvement of the federal government on Navajo land. Wauneka convened meetings to bring Navajo women together to discuss their experiences and, as a well-known role model, was a frequent speaker at conferences. She believed that women should be equal partners with men in decision-making. She promoted the protection of tribal resources, especially language, spirit, emotional ties, tribal values, and natural resources.
Wauneka was opinionated and fearless in challenging federal policies she believed were unfair to her people. Wauneka was outspoken from her very first year on the Tribal Council on the issue of granting long-term land leases to non-Navajo corporations and ranchers. She believed that the Bureau of Indian Affairs should discontinue approving them and should incorporate consultation with the Tribe into the process. Well-studied on the issues, she was eloquent and opinionated.
At times her passionate advocacy would bring her into conflict with those who held other viewpoints. Wauneka stood out among Navajos because she was one of very few prominent women on the reservation. In addition, Navajo culture valued those who were reluctant to bring attention to themselves, making her stand out for her persistent advocacy. She would oppose tribal leaders with whom she disagreed, notably a newly-elected tribal President who had campaigned on legalizing peyote and dismissing some long-time tribal employees who were not Navajos. Those disputes became personal, and the divisiveness in the Tribe continued for years. Once in a public setting, she confronted and slapped an attorney for DNA, the legal services program on the reservation. She would react angrily if she felt she or another was being disrespected or mistreated. Some tribal members resented that she seemed to dominate every gathering and became cautious of opposing her. Despite the conflicts, she was widely known and respected in her community. She continued to be a tireless and effective advocate for the issues important to her.
As people became more aware of Wauneka’s work, she received many honors. In 1958 she was chosen as the Arizona Woman of Achievement by the Arizona Women’s Press Club. In 1959 she was the first Native American to receive the Josephine B. Hughes Memorial Award for promoting the health and welfare of her people and that of the entire country. Also in 1959 she was awarded the Annual Indian Achievement Award, presented at the annual Indian Council Fire.
In 1963 President John F. Kennedy chose her to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work to improve health, well-being, and education of the Navajo Nation. It is the highest civil honor conferred by the President of the United States for service in peacetime. The award was presented to her by Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson. She was the first Native American to be recognized with the award. The citation read:
Vigorous crusader for betterment of the health of her people, Mrs. Wauneka has selflessly worked to help them conquer tuberculosis, dysentery and trachoma. She succeeded in these efforts by winning the confidence of her people, and then by interpreting to them the miracles of modern medical science.
At the luncheon following the ceremony, Wauneka was seated with Chief Justice Earl Warren. Afterwards, she went to a reception hosted by Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, a native of Arizona. The Interior Secretary, among other federal officials, had recommended Wauneka for the honor. Interior Secretary Udall introduced her, saying:
Annie has been a kind of one-woman Peace Corps in Navajo land. It is my feeling that in honoring you today we did honor not only to you yourself, your family and friends, but also to all the Indian people of the nation – they have been honored along with you.
At the next Tribal Council meeting Wauneka was humble, attributing the honor to the work of many:
It is with you Councilmen and the previous Councilmen with their efforts behind me, working with them continuously, helping me in every way they can, that is how I promoted to get this particular medal. I appreciate this very much and every one of you is entitled to this award.
After 26 years on the Tribal Council, Wauneka was defeated by just 13 votes in 1976. After leaving public office she continued to serve on a number of health boards. She still enjoyed going to the restaurant at the Window Rock Motor Inn, the place to see people and hear the latest topics of conversation. In 1979, she and George celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. She mentored younger politicians, visited schools to encourage students to be the leaders of tomorrow, joined the board of the United Way, and devoted time and attention to her grandchildren.
Perhaps the most rewarding was the recognition Wauneka received from her Tribe. In 1984 Wauneka received the Navajo Medal of Honor and was honored by the Navajo Tribal Council as Legendary Mother of the Navajo People. Dr. Theodore Marrs, a former special assistant to President Gerald Ford and former Indian Health Service director on the reservation, commended Wauneka:
She’s never lost sight of the cycles of the moon, but she’s learned the cycles of the budget in Congress. She’s remained a shepherdess, but her flock is the people of the Navajo Nation. Strong men look to this shepherdess. They call her ‘mother’. Rough kids actually look on her with respect. Chairmen, chiefs, presidents are all included in her flock. She has put love into politics
Wauneka died on November 10, 1997 at age 87. She was honored in a ceremony as a strong-willed, confident, and intelligent champion for Native rights and community development. She had received so many awards and honors during her lifetime that a special show was arranged to display them. In 2002 she was inducted into the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame.
She is remembered as an entertaining storyteller with an infectious laugh. They say her eyes danced when she talked. A persuasive and passionate speaker, Wauneka spent decades tirelessly serving the Navajo people. She engaged with a wide range of issues and individuals, making an enduring contribution to the health, well-being, and cultural values of the Navajo Nation. She was, indeed, the Legendary Mother of the Navajo People.
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Juettner, Bonnie, 100 Native Americans Who Shaped American History, Bluewood Books, 2003.
Martinez, Donna and Bordeaux, Jennifer L. Williams, Ed., American Indian History An Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic, Vol 2, Greenwood, 2017.
Niethammer, Carolyn, I’ll Go and Do More, University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln and London, 2001