A Dine (Navajo) perspective on self-determination: an exposition of an egalitarian place.

Author:Manuelito, Kathryn D.
Position::Viewpoint essay

On a sunny July morning, in 2000, high in the plateau country of the Ramah Navajo with pinon trees surrounding us, I sat next to an old man, who had just finished checking the rusty barbed wire and aging wooden fence posts of his small corn field. Even in his eighties the old man, hammer and nails in hand, still seemed very capable. A cool brisk breeze blew now and then and kept us cool from the hot sun. We sat on the ground for hours while he related, in the Navajo language, stories about his childhood, Hweeldi, and life in his community. With his gnarled finger, he pointed toward the east at Tsoodzil, the sacred mountain, and stated his gratitude for living in the shadow of this mountain. The old man finished his stories by stating "Bilagaana, doo ts'i'it'eeda" [White people are treacherous, unpredictable, and powerful.] He warned that even today we, Dine (Navajo), need to be careful in working with them. With that shared wisdom, being careful of what is presented, I begin my story of the Ramah Navajo People, Tl'oh chini Dine'e.

All for the benefit of Western science research continues in indigenous communities. The Dine (Navajo) believe (and rightly so) that they do not have the privileged decision whether or not to be "put under the microscope." They, however, do have the power to decide what can and should be divulged. Responsibility in research of indigenous scholars to their own cultures and simultaneously toward Western academia becomes a schizophrenic undertaking in order to be published. The work of indigenous scholars is problematic but necessary because "Representation of indigenous peoples by indigenous people is about countering the dominant society's image of indigenous peoples, their lifestyles and belief systems "(Smith, L., 1999, p. 151). Correcting the misrepresentations about indigenous people is a monumental task.

Scholars have been reexamining theoretical constructs of research conducted in indigenous communities (Canella & Manuelito, 2006, in press; Grande, 2205; Mutua & Swadener, 2003, Smith, 1999). In the past, theory and its development based on perspectives from the Western worldview were assumed to be definitive. However, indigenous scholars, often as insiders doing research in their own communities, have informed and continue to inform academia about the incongruent applications of Western theory to life in indigenous communities as well as the unethical representations of indigenous communities. Non-Native researchers who have worked among the Dine (Navajo) "sometimes comment on a certain 'fuzzy' quality about the [Dine (Navajo)] culture" (Aberle, 1963 cited in Witherspoon, 1975, p.x). Comments such as the previous one continue to be made and reflect the biased perspectives of non-native researchers. Methodology in theory development is thus an important aspect of research that requires reexamination when research is conducted in indigenous communities such as the Dine (Navajo) community.

To understand the Dine (Navajo) people and their experiences, research methods must first and foremost address the Navajo worldview. The importance of identifying worldview in indigenous research begins with the basic question: What is the point of reference for the interpretation of data? Duran and Duran state that even when academicians pretend to study cultures different from their own, most dare not ask this question (1995, p. 25). Worldview of any culture and society is explicated through epistemological principles which frame the way one sees the world. Dine (Navajo) worldview is explicated through epistemology that has been rejected and debased by the dominant society since contact centuries ago. However, enduring powerful Dine (Navajo) worldview persists in contemporary Dine (Navajo) society and continues to frame the world for its people and children who daily are conflicted by the demands of American schooling and the Euro-western worldview. One area in which Dine (Navajo) world view has been ignored is in the construction of the concept of "self-determination."

For a democratic society to "walk its talk," the American society and its foundation, situated in academic research, must recognize Dine (Navajo) perspectives on self-determination, a concept that is paradoxical to Euro-western usage and understanding. Like indigenous people worldwide, American Indians desire to be self-determined and be rid of the shackles of colonialism. In the United States indigenous education has been greatly impacted by federal policies in what has been referred to as the "self-determination era." Self-determination related policies have been perceived as a panacea for inequities. Duran and Duran caution:

Native activism resulting in the 1975 Native American Self-Determination Act has ushered in a new era of native scholarship and tribal control on research and in program planning. This newly legitimized push for self-determination, unfortunately, does not immediately rectify problems rooted in years of white-biased research and social engineering. (Duran & Duran, 1995, p. 24) Grave misunderstandings between mainstream society and indigenous people have been caused by the imposition of "self-determination" as defined by the Western world upon non-Western indigenous societies. Centuries of imperialistic treatment by the United States government has also rendered American Indian people dependent upon directives that have been baffling and destructive to their lives.

In his reflection on self-determination and its expression and implementation in education, Deloria justifiably maintains that in the past three decades indigenous people have not clearly defined what we mean by self-determination. "As a result, many types of Indian controlled schools have been established under the umbrella of self-determination ... But we must ask ourselves, what is self-determination? What is it that we as selves and communities are determining?" (Deloria, 1994, p.56). Four decades later after the passage of the self-determination legislation, Native lawyers, educators, and Native communities still have not clarified the indigenous perspective of self-determination but instead have accepted the Euro-western definition of self-determination without question.

The 1975 Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act has been credited for the emergence of American Indian community-controlled schools throughout the country. In 1999 Tippeconnic reported that there were approximately 114 American Indian community-controlled schools in the United States (Tippeconnic III, 1999). Today, very little still is known about these schools with the exception of a few Arizona schools that had mainstream scholars widely publish their accomplishments. There are arguably valid reasons for the dearth of information about the many community-controlled schools. In most American Indian community controlled schools, administrators and teachers have been overwhelmed with daily operational activities that little time is left for publishing their stories. But by far the most significant reason comes from the value system of indigenous communities where tooting one's horn is not acceptable. The time has come, however, for indigenous people to tell their own stories about self-determination from their own perspectives. This paper focuses on the Ramah Navajo people's views of self-determination.

Contextual Background

The Ramah Navajo Community has been overly researched and has been deemed "the most studied people in the world" (Blanchard, 1971, p.3). Previous history or published commentary about the community has been written from a non-Ramah Navajo perspective. In this section the voices of the Ramah Navajo are presented in their telling of two major issues in their community, land and education/schooling.

The Ramah Navajo Reservation is one of three satellite communities of the Dine (Navajo) Nation. As a satellite community of approximately 3000, it is located 75 miles south of the main reservation. The present land base of 146, 953 acres is only a fraction of what use to be Ramah Navajo land. An elder in his eighties emphasized that the Ramah Navajo use to herd their sheep, hunt, and farm in the Ramah Navajo reservation and even further south toward Apache Creek, west toward Fence Lake, and 75 miles east all the way to the Dine (Navajo) sacred mountain, Tsoodzil, Mount Taylor. The present reservation for the Ramah Navajo people, which is surrounded by non-Navajo residents, has been considerably reduced in size.

The Navajo name for the Ramah Community is Tl'ohchini (translated literally to onions), designating the place where wild onions grow. The Ramah Navajo refer to themselves as Tl'ohchini Dine'e. The seat of government, the Ramah Navajo Chapter, is located at Mountain View. The Ramah Navajo Chapter is a member of the Navajo Tribal Council with a representative council delegate, who is elected by the Ramah Navajo Community. The Ramah Navajo Chapter House is the site of tribal, county, and government elections. The Ramah Navajo Chapter is the only chapter of the Navajo Nation with its own Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agency.

From 1864-1868, the Ramah Navajos along with other Dine (Navajo) were sent on a death march to Fort Sumner and were incarcerated there, approximately 300 miles from their homeland. Approximately 9000 Dine (Navajo) went on this march or long walk and only 2000 returned (Iverson, 2002). This event is known as Hweeldi (The Long Walk), a time of great suffering. Approximately 70 years ago Bidaga, son of Many Beads who was the leader of the Ramah Navajo before and during Hweeldi provided important information surrounding Hweeldi (The Long Walk) and the Ramah Navajo people's claim to their land.

I was born in Ramah before the Navajo went to Fort Sumner [1864]. The grandparents and great grandparents of the Navajos who live in Ramah now lived there long before going to Fort Sumner. The Navajos have lived in Ramah for...

To continue reading