Thursday, June 18, 2009


Heated debate is taking place over Patricia Wrede's book, The Thirteenth Child. Many people defend her decision to write a "settling the frontier book, only without Indians" story while others, me included, think it was thoughtless or lazy or... you fill in the blank.

In the midst of that heated debate, yesterday's mail included Jennifer Denetdale's The Long Walk: The Forced Navajo Exile, a nonfiction volume aimed at high school students. It is one of the books in Chelsea House's "Landmark Events in Native American History" set.

Here's the opening lines from Denetdale's first chapter, "Who are the Dine?" (Note: The letter e in Dine should have an accent mark over it, but I can't do it in Blogger.)

It is one of those hot summer days when the gathering clouds promise rain but are still too far away to tell if rain will fall. In Window Rock, Arizona, the capital of the Navajo Nation, Dine Tribal Council delegates dressed in a combination of Western and Navajo style clothing begin to fill the chambers for the summer legislative session. (Dine means the People and is the word Navajos call themselves.)

That's a terrific opening for this book! Denetdale's first sentence embraces the reader's senses, inviting that reader to be with her, in that space, as she tells him or her about the Dine and the Long Walk. There are five chapters, followed by a Chronology, Timeline, Notes, Bibliography, and, Further Reading. The latter are all standard items in a work of non-fiction, but what distinguishes Denetdale's book is that the history and life of the Dine is given by someone who knows, on multiple levels, what she's talking about. Denetdale is Dine. And, she's a historian on the faculty at Northern Arizona University. As such, she brings a lived experience and a scholarly perspective to this book. Quoting again from her first chapter:

In the twenty-first century, it might appear that the Dine are no different than other modern Americans who drive to work in their cars, shop at malls for the latest fashions, grab a quick lunch with co-workers at a local fast food restaurant, or, after work, change into Nike sportswear and go for a jog. On the other hand, Navajos struggle with high rates of poverty and unemployment, with all of its accompanying ills such as disease, domestic violence, and homicides. In many ways, the Dine have become accustomed to American culture, for they are just as proud as others to be Americans. Nevertheless, Navajos remain mindful of how their ancestors have left them a powerful legacy, a determination to remain a sovereign people who have land, a still vital language, and a strong cultural identity.

From there, Denetdale talks about Dine origin stories, and, she tells us that these stories differ from theories of non-Navajo archaeologists and anthropologists. She describes Dine contact with the Spanish, and then with the Americans as she talks about manifest destiny and Navajo resistance. She devotes two chapters to the Long Walk, and the Dine's return to their homelands, and finishes with Chapter 5, "Remembering the Long Walk and Hweeldi." Facing the page on which chapter 5 begins is a photograph of an absolutely stunning rug that depicts the Long Walk. In that chapter, Denetdale brings the reader right up to the present day. There is, for example, a photograph of Dine singers (Verdell Primeaux and Johnny Mike) who won a Grammy in 2002 for the best Native American Music Album.

Her final words in the book are the ones with which I'll end this review. Order The Long Walk. It belongs in every school library, and every public library, too. And, listen to her radio interview on "Indigenous Politics: From Native New England and Beyond" about her book, Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita, and order it, too. Reading The Long Walk gave my day a decidedly different trajectory yesterday, effectively countering the story that Wrede's book tells. Thanks, Jennifer!

The Navajo people have not allowed non-Navajo interpretations of this important event in their history to be controlled by non-Navajos. They have taken initiatives to ensure that Americans do not forget the unjust treatment of native peoples; however, at the same time, they are determined to rise above the nightmare of the past that continues to haunt them and reclaim the vitality of their cultural inheritance. The stories of the Long Walk and Hweeldi and what happened to their people has made the Navajos determined to create a better world for the coming generations.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You can use the alt code alt+0233 to produce the accent. Hence, Diné.