Reclaiming Diné History
By Jennifer Nez Denetdale
Four To-Be-Read Piles =
Totally Worthy of Your To-Be-Read Pile!
Reviewer: Red Velvette
Reclaiming Diné History (University of Arizona Press 2015) by Jennifer Nez Denetdale is a well-researched, thoughtfully written, scholarly work on the history of the Navajo people with a focus on the Long Walk and Denetdale’s own ancestors, Manuelito and Juanita. The book definitely falls under an academic heading and is at times rather dry and not necessarily an easy read, but it is well worth the time and effort to work through the entire book. Written originally as part of Denetdale’s PhD dissertation at Northern Arizona University, the book consists of chapters that could easily stand alone as independent papers detailing various aspects of Navajo culture, history, gender roles, and creation stories. Even now, so much of mainstream America’s knowledge of “Indians” comes from Hollywood films and television shows, and Denetdale’s work strives to correct certain misconceptions. Often the indigenous people of North America are depicted as wearing feathered bonnets and living in teepees; Denetdale goes to lengths to show true aspects of traditional life in North America pre- and post-colonialism.
This is a great read for anyone with an interest in American history, Native American culture, or gender history. The Navajo are known for traditionally being a matriarchal society, and this book details that tradition and dispels popular misconceptions about gender roles in native societies. While the focus is more on how the Diné survived European and then Anglo-American imperialism, and the early reservation years, one chapter does delve into the creation story of the Navajo. The works referenced include Diné Bahane’: The Navajo Creation Story by Paul Zolbrand, among others, and I enjoyed seeing works that I have read, and valued, cited as part of a cumulative history of the Diné. The works cited offer great further study for an enthusiastic student of this topic. With a rich oral tradition, it is important to capture in writing the history of the People for future generations and Denetdale does a tremendous job of that.
The author interviewed generations of her own family across Navajo Land, and this approach gives the entire work a more personal feel than you find in most academic tomes. The book also includes a trove of photographs and genealogical charts of Manuelito, Juanita, and their extended family. While this work is not some “action-packed” pop work like a Tony Hillerman mystery, it provides a solid read. And it goes without saying that this book absolutely deserves a place in any library of Diné literature. (Some of the chapters could have used another round of proof-reading, as there are a few distracting typographical errors that cause some confusion, but that I am blaming on the editor and not the author.) I am giving this book four To-Be-Read piles, but this one would be enjoyed more as an academic piece than a fun beach read.
Denetdale’s offering is one of those books that causes the reader to reexamine their own thinking and question certain perceptions. She illustrates many traditional teachings and ideals of the Diné and presents these to the reader for consideration. This is the type of book that I would urge any student of history or culture to study. In our current tumultuous time, the type of social and self-examination presented by Denetdale goes far in binding perceived ethnic differences. If Denetdale could hashtag her work, I’m guessing she might use #readnavajohistory or #historymatters or maybe #studythepasttomakeabetterpresent.