Justice, Liberation and Freedom: Where Are Our Women Leaders?

Jennifer Denetdale

My ideas about liberation came from my father and my relatives, and are informed by my observations and experiences with my family, Diné community and my readings in feminisms, Native Studies and decolonization. I came to see that Native women experience stark oppression and violence, not just in settler nations like the United States and Canada, but within the borders of our tribal nations.

Thinking about the status of Navajo women in our nation, I went home with all my newfound knowledge and talked to my father, who holds a great deal of traditional knowledge. Sitting next to him, I shared my questions about the epidemic of violence against Navajo women and the question about the lack of women’s leadership in our government. After listening to me closely, with the both of us going back and forth in our language, Diné bizaad, my dad thought about the loss of respect for Navajo women and its reflection in the everyday violence of our lives. Then he said very simply, “The reason why we have lost respect for our women is because we have forgotten the name of Asdzáá Náádlehe (Changing Woman) our first mother.” I was struck by the simplicity of my father’s statement.

The violence against Navajo women has become pervasive, yet normalized. When Al Jeezra correspondent Massoud Hayoud came to cover the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission’s public hearings on gender violence, he reported witnessing a Diné man assaulting a woman outside a Window Rock, Ariz. restaurant. He tried to find an emergency number to call, looked around for assistance from others nearby, and attempted to respond to the woman’s need for help; the police did not show up by the time he left.

When it comes to Navajo lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer that are affected by homophobic violence on our nation, we don’t even begin to know the numbers or the extent of the violence. The war on Indigenous peoples has targeted relationships among men, women, and queer, because it was necessary to break down our sense of self as a people and to move us toward a nation created on a foundation of heterosexual patriarchy.

Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier, serving under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, has often been praised for returning self-determination to tribal government. But self-determination on his terms meant the privileging of male power and domination. For Navajos, draconian livestock reductions under Collier redefined property ownership and work along gendered lines so that livestock and grazing leases were assigned to men as the heads of households, while retraining women as domestics, thus radically transforming our concepts of family and the meaning of women’s labor, and Navajo queer were disappeared from the extended family unit. Collier’s legacy includes making violence against women and queer people seem normal and acceptable because they defy straight, male-centered ways of being in the world.

Indigenous feminists recognize that gender is a tool of colonization, so we have to look at how gender works as the building block of tribal nations. In its present form, gender norms—the behaviors and social expectations that come with assuming that some people are men and some are women based on their bodies—oppresses everyone. In particular, gender norms become the excuse by which Native women and queer people experience intimate partner violence, sexual assault, discrimination, police brutality, state violence, and lack of political voice. They are rendered invisible. As a result of ongoing colonial assaults, our concepts of K’é, kin relationships extended to all beings in the natural world, have been undermined.

During the Commission’s working session to explore Diné traditional gender roles, the topic of Diné women’s leadership was raised. One of our medicine women, Rita Gilmore, said that women’s leadership is founded upon the leadership of our sacred mountains, two of which two are feminine. She told us that White Shell Woman is the deity from whom our leadership is drawn. Women’s leadership comes in the form of the lay of the land and is connected to ceremonial knowledge, songs, and prayers.

The topic of Navajo women’s leadership came about as a result of the Navajo Nation’s transformation under American democratic principles, which is founded upon heterosexual patriarchy. For example, in the last Navajo presidential election, contender Lynda Lovejoy faced challenges by traditionalists who maintained that a woman should not hold the top leadership position of the nation or we would face the wrath of nature with unseasonable weather, quakes, and tornados. I question how the profound loss of traditional knowledge and language, which should be attributed to the United States ethnic cleansing policies, instead is blamed on women and queers.

As we talked, surrounded by photographs of past and present male Navajo leaders hanging on the walls, people asked: “Why are we surrounded by male leadership? Where are our women leaders? If women’s leadership is based on our Holy deity, White Shell Woman, then are we expected to live up to impossibly high standards? Are the men required to lead with the same high standards?”

Insights by Navajo women and queers about the state of our nation today lay bare how Navajo patriarchy as the rule of law has done little to respect the women and the feminine, even though time and time again, it is declared that “traditionally, women are respected.”There are days when the effort to resist and challenge Navajo patriarchy, much less the rest of the world, seems daunting. I remain inspired by Indigenous peoples, our movements, and Indigenous scholars like Glen Coultard and Audra Simpson who illuminate how Indigenous people have refused the gift of recognition, or in our case, the gift of Western democracy.

To refuse the gift of liberalism, democracy, and freedom on the settler nation’s terms is to affirm traditional principles that acknowledge the power of women and queer people in ways that recognize our commitment to tribal sovereignty and expresses inclusion, acceptance, and belonging. These are age-old principles of K’é. As I endeavor to bridge the space between my nation and academia, I am profoundly affected by the persistence of my people’s wisdom, of the women and the queers, who steadfastly affirm their love of the land, the natural world, and all beings.

Asdzáá Náádlehe remains a beloved deity whose teachings and ethics form who we are and how we should treat the earth and each other. Our first mother, Changing Woman, formed the land and used her own skin to create us. Her teachings are the basis for our women and men allies who seek to protect the land from ongoing environmental destruction. They know that the protection of the land is also the care, love, and protection of women and their bodies. I take from my relatives – women, men, and queer – a sense of the profound forms of love that motivate them to resist and protest, to teach and inspire, and to hold allies accountable to our responsibilities to protect the values and traditions that are the foundation for the survival of the land and Indigenous peoples.

Asdzáá Náádlehe‘s teachings show us that we do not speak about women’s empowerment alone. Her teachings are connected to tribal national and community issues. Our ancient mother’s love and generosity move across the land and the generations to tell us that the effective tool against the persistent degradation and inhumanity of colonialism, with its tentacles of capitalism and neoliberalism, is her remembrance.

My ideas about liberation comes not only from my father, but from a network of Navajo relatives who are straight and queer, who are connected to me through a complex of clanship based upon matrilineality. The lessons I have learned from the Diné community inform my sense of justice, liberation and freedom. There is much work to be done.


*The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission held public hearings on gender violence on February 19 at the Shiprock, N.M. Chapter House from 10 AM to 5 PM.


Jennifer Denetdale is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico. She was appointed to the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission to serve a four-year term and heads the Commission’s study on gender violence on the Navajo Nation.


You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page