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Western women: Annie Dodge Wauneka was leader, voice of Navajo Nation
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Western Women

Western women: Annie Dodge Wauneka was leader, voice of Navajo Nation

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Annie Dodge was born on the Navajo Reservation on April 11, 1910. Her mother Kee’hanabah was a wife of Henry Chee Dodge, one of the wealthiest and most respected Navajo ranchers and leaders.

At age 5, Annie started herding sheep, a typical chore for young Navajo children. When she was 8 , her father sent her to a government boarding school at Fort Defiance. From there, she went on to Albuquerque Indian School.

“When I went to elementary school on the reservation,” Annie said, “the speaking of Navajo in or at the school was forbidden. And when I went to high school at the Albuquerque Indian School, the speaking of Navajo was still prohibited. So I and many of my Pueblo friends decided that we were going to speak the very best English that we could. It was very unfortunate that I had to forsake my Navajo friends and not enjoy the privilege of speaking my native language.”

From the time she left school in the 11th grade, Annie followed in her father’s footsteps as interpreter, arbitrator, and advocate for the Navajo people. Her ability to communicate and reason with Anglo administrators, even U.S. congressmen, allowed her to foster understanding between the two cultures. Few Navajo women have risen to the heights attained by this young shepherd girl.

In 1923, Henry Chee Dodge became the first chairman of the newly organized Navajo Tribal Council.

Chee Dodge believed education was the key to bringing his people into the 20th century. He wanted more boarding schools and advocated the teaching of English to Navajo children. He fought to stop the sale of liquor on the reservation, knowing its effect on his people. Ninety-year-old Henry Chee Dodge died Jan. 7, 1947, leaving Annie to continue in his stead.

Annie married George Wauneka in 1929, a young man she had met in school and through the years, the couple had 10 children.

She was elected to the Tribal Council in 1951, only the second woman to hold a council seat. The following year she represented the Navajo Nation in Washington, D.C., the first of many trips to the nation’s capitol.

In 1953, Annie was appointed chair of the Health and Welfare division of the Community Services Committee that dealt with the issue of tuberculosis on the reservation.

Keenly aware of the ravages of tuberculosis, she sought out experts to better understand the sickness, and took classes at the University of Arizona, receiving a degree in public health.

She visited hogans witnessing the toll contagious diseases took on families and discovered many had received treatment but upon returning home, they fell into old patterns of poor nutritional health and unsanitary living conditions. She encouraged medicine men and doctors to work together to provide a better understanding of medical issues.

Annie tore across the reservation in a beat up old station wagon, and later an equally disheveled pickup truck, delivering fruits and vegetables only to have the produce sit unprotected on dirt floors. She went to the tribal council seeking money to build wooden floors in the hogans.

She insisted toilet facilities be built farther from houses and argued for better water quality on the reservation. She taught women the benefits of canned meats and powdered milk while advocating better health care for pregnant women and infants. She went to the departments of education in Arizona and New Mexico asking that students be taught personal hygiene and disease prevention.

During the 1960s, the death rate among Navajo infants declined by 25 percent and the ravages of tuberculosis were reduced by 35 percent. The chief of the U.S. Public Health Service Division of Indian Health recognized Annie as the leader in improving the wellbeing of the Navajo.

Continuing the efforts of her father to ban the sale of liquor on the reservation, Annie also chaired the Alcoholism Committee. She even took to the airwaves with a radio program focusing on health issues.

In 1963, Annie became the first Native American to receive the highest honor given to a civilian. President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her crusade in the betterment of the health of her people.

She became the voice of the Navajo in Washington, D.C., speaking before Congress on many occasions. She always dressed in typical Navajo clothing — a plush velvet blouse over a long tiered skirt. Around her neck, she wore a beautifully decorated squash blossom necklace.

When a congressman once told her to “quit playing Indian,” Annie calmly replied, “Congressman . . . I didn’t come here to talk about your clothes, so you ignore mine and let’s talk legislation.”

At a 1975 Southwest Indian Women’s Conference held in Window Rock, she urged women to move forward into the future while holding on to their Indian culture.

“These changing times and changing attitudes can be detrimental to women,” she said. “It’s not just how men see us, but how we see ourselves. As we begin to demand expanded roles in the political, social, and cultural life of our people, we must not surrender our unique Indian identity. Otherwise we’ll find ourselves asking, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall — who is this?’”

In 1976, Annie received an honorary doctorate degree in public health from the University of Arizona and an honorary doctorate in humane letters from the University of New Mexico. She was inducted into both the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame. The Navajo Council named her the legendary mother of the Navajo people.

At age 83, Annie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and moved into a nursing home. She died Nov. 19, 1997.

The year before her death, the UA awarded Annie an honorary doctor of law degree. Her grandson, Milton Bluehouse, Jr., accepted the award for her.

“I didn’t know she was famous until about my senior year in high school,” Milton said. “Before that, I figured that she was just my grandmother. I thought, grandmothers do these things. They jump in their trucks and go everywhere.”

Jan Cleere is the author of several historical nonfiction books about the early people of the Southwest. Email her at

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