‘Living Through the Generations: Continuity and Change in Navajo Women’s Lives,’ by Joanne McCloskey

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Ethnohistory, a relatively new form of interdisciplinary investigation, is frequently utilized by scholars who strive to present Indians in a more accurate cultural context. Joanne McCloskey demonstrates the effectiveness of this method in her new book, “Living Through the Generations: Continuity and Change in Navajo Women’s Lives.”

In her survey of Navajo women and cultural change, McCloskey employs oral history, linguistics, geography, kinship relations, gender and cultural studies, and previous historical, social and anthropological research. These varied sources add a new dimension to the effect of modernization and cross-cultural contact on the practices, values and beliefs of the Diné people.

The author has been conducting research among Diné women in Crownpoint, N. M., since 1988, and began this study by interviewing 77 women representing three generational groups: older grandmothers; older midlife mothers, who work in traditional industries and at mainstream labor; and young mothers.

McCloskey believes that cultural differences exist between Navajo and mainstream society that set Diné women apart. She contends that egalitarian Navajo society fosters more complementary relationships between men and women. Life strategies based on historic views of family and clan and the perpetuation of culture are primary goals of both men and women. Women are the caretakers of cultural traditions, assuring they are passed on through the generations.

This distinction is evident in the lives of Navajo women, yet they also utilize cultural accommodation to historical change that is expressed differently by the various generations. Each generation utilizes their own frame of cultural reference in making choices about education, work, marriage and child bearing. These dynamic new perspectives also make Navajo women “agents of change.”

Change is a concept consistent with Navajo cultural values. Women who head families in the matrilineal society are viewed as resilient and capable. Her power is further supported by extended family ties and Navajo religious beliefs.

McCloskey says that Changing Woman, an important Navajo deity, is the central symbol of Navajo motherhood whose strength lies in her ability to adapt and transform for survival. Her qualities and power, as described in the Diné creation story, are reflected in the lives of contemporary Navajo women.

Navajo women hold various attitudes toward education. The majority of McCloskey’s older grandmothers expressed regret over the lack of educational opportunities they had. Most remained at home working in land-based family enterprises. Those who completed high school usually worked away from home in the mainstream labor force.

The importance of education was just being recognized and land-based economy was declining when older midlife mothers grew up. Many attended boarding schools and pursued higher education after marrying. Today, young mothers routinely seek higher education to obtain jobs and contribute to family support.

In addition, 20th century transitions in the work patterns of Navajo women paralleled the changes in mainstream work patterns. The first opportunities for work in the new cash economy were available only to Navajo men. These included jobs in construction, mining, ranching and railroading, while women stayed home and tended the family and sheep and goat herds.

Midlife mothers were not always able to obtain work around the agency since jobs were scarce. Those who were lucky enough to be employed held on to their jobs as long as possible. Those among them who worked in more traditional industries usually developed weaving and crafting skills, supplementing earnings with domestic work, child care or food sales. Due to even more limited employment opportunities, young mothers now either relocate to urban areas for jobs, rely on family members, or state or tribal assistance for support.

The selection of marriage partners, residential patterns, and family formation also changed through the generations. When older grandmothers first married, arranged and polygamous marriages were still common. Families, who relied on farming and herding, lived in large, rural, extended family groups, and while divorce or separation did occur, most of these marriages were stable.

Midlife mothers experienced a higher rate of separation and divorce and more often lived in town. According to McCloskey, young mothers tend to wait until after childbirth to marry and often live with extended family members in town or in tribal housing developments.

While older grandmothers gave birth to children throughout their reproductive years, midlife mothers tended to have smaller families. Young mothers tend to give birth at a younger age but also rely on birth control for family planning. One precept all share, however, is their view of children as the continuity of generations – as symbols of growth and renewal in families, clans and tribe. Throughout the generations, motherhood is the most revered and honored status a woman can aspire to.

“Living Through the Generations” is more than a fascinating study of women and their roles in Navajo society. It is a moving portrait of dynamic change and cultural persistence. It is a delightful addition to Navajo ethnohistory.