'Keeping the Rope Straight: Annie Dodge Wauneka's Life of Service to the Navajo,' by Carolyn Niethammer
Annie Dodge Wauneka (1910 - 1997) was a Navajo activist who, through an unconventional life, helped spark change in the Navajo Nation.
Carolyn Niethammer wrote ''Keeping the Rope Straight: Annie Dodge Wauneka's Life of Service to the Navajo'' for young adult readers and based it on her 2001 full-length biographical treatment of Wauneka. Recurrent themes of family, gender and education emerge early in the telling.
Wauneka's father, Henry Chee Dodge, was a longtime politician and one of the wealthiest, most powerful and influential men in the Navajo Nation. The family owned thousands of sheep, goats and cattle, and from the time she was 5 years old, she spent her days tending herd. When she was 8, Wauneka - the youngest of four children - was sent to a government boarding school. Smart and motivated, she would excel academically, but initially her education took another form when the Spanish influenza epidemic hit her school. Hundreds of the school's students became ill, many of them dying. Wauneka later recalled the bodies of her schoolmates stacked ''like a bunch of wood.'' Wauneka remained healthy and helped nurse the sick.
Her long interest in tribal affairs began around the time of her marriage to George Wauneka, whom she met at school. Around this same time, environmental concerns prompted the federal government to order the Navajos to reduce their number of livestock. Wauneka was appalled at the inadequate translation provided during a meeting to discuss the livestock reduction.
Wauneka was in her late 30s when her father died. Though a matrilineal people, the older generation of Navajos believed that a woman's primary responsibility lies with her family (Wauneka ultimately bore nine children). Despite this, she ran for and won a seat on Tribal Council in the election after her father's death. Her fellow council members appointed her, the only woman on the council, to work with white doctors to address the tuberculosis epidemic affecting the Navajo Nation.
At this Wauneka proved greatly effective, personally visiting homes and hospitals to communicate health information to the Navajos. One of her greatest achievements was to help erase competition between Western doctors and traditional healers in favor of a collaborative relationship where Navajo medicine men urged those sick with tuberculosis to visit the hospital, and conventional practitioners invited medicine men to the hospital to offer traditional blessings. Inspired by her success, Wauneka went on to wage a series of public health and social welfare campaigns.
Niethammer's sources include interviews, council minutes and federal records. But since it is intended for a juvenile audience, the work does not include notes or a list of works cited (although it is indexed). Apparently, for this same reason, Niethammer forgoes analysis of her subject, instead delivering a straight narrative history.
The book focuses on Wauneka's public life, rather than her private one. Still, Niethammer manages to develop tension and even mystery surrounding Wauneka, especially in regard to her parentage and the conflicted relationship she shared with her father. The work, however, suffers at points from its emphasis on the public. One late chapter reads like a laundry list with Wauneka, among other things, fighting the bubonic plague, advocating for Head Start programs, weighing in on a conflict over cafeteria food and earning an honorary doctorate (after which she referred to herself as ''doctor'').
There's no question that Wauneka led an inspiring life, and in a sense Niethammer does a disservice to young readers by not disclosing more of it. In her young adult version of Wauneka's life, Niethammer writes that in 1978, after 26 years of service, Wauneka lost her bid at re-election to the Navajo Tribal Council. The reader does not learn that opposition to the use of peyote, sacramental in the Native American Church, contributed to her defeat.
We learn that George Wauneka largely raised the couple's children while his wife traveled, but not that his homemaking included caring for the couple's four disabled sons. In a sense, withholding such information implies the assumption that there is nothing to gain from the complicated or unpleasant aspects of an individual's life.
Nevertheless, this work has value for young readers. Not only would it serve to introduce readers to the Navajos, but it conveys the culture as contemporary and dynamic rather than static. And surely there is an audience of young female readers who would find Wauneka an inspiring role model.
l Ingram is a freelance writer in Asheville, N.C.