Wauneka honor unites Nation in wake of tragedy

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, Nov. 27, 2013

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Dr. Annie Dodge Wauneka

November, 1963 was a hard time for many members of the Navajo Nation, first with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and then the dispute over the tribe's general counsel, Norman Littell, which split the tribal council as well as created turmoil in many chapters.

But there was some good news. During the last week of November and the first two weeks of December, the Navajo Times devoted a lot of space to one of the members of the Council who was being honored by the federal government.

Annie Wauneka, who represented Klagetoh and Wide Ruins on the Council, was to be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom personally by the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, in a ceremony on Dec. 5 in Washington, D.C., along with 30 other Americans who had contributed to the wellbeing of the American public.

The whole ceremony was to be given a lot of publicity because of a decision just hours before the ceremony to also bestow the honor on the recently assassinated president as well as to Pope John XXIII.

Wauneka was being honored for her efforts in the 1950s and early 1960s to promote better health care among the Navajos and because of her efforts to convince elderly Navajos to go to the IHS hospitals for treatment despite concerns among traditional people within the tribe about going somewhere where people had died.

Through talks with Navajo medicine men and traditional leaders, she was able to convince a lot of Navajos that these hospitals and clinics were exempt from traditional laws that prohibited people to go to any house or facility where a death has occurred without first having a ceremony done there.

The Times itself printed several articles on the matter praising Wauneka even though she had been an outspoken critic of the paper from the beginning because of some of the articles that had been printed about her and other members of tshe Council.

She would remain, for as long as she was in office, a critic not only of the Times but the press in general, even though many of the articles in the Times and other papers were very supportive of her and her efforts to improve health care on the reservation.

The Times was very complimentary of her in describing her actions during the awards ceremony in Washington.

"In the plush splendor of the high government offices making a striking contrast to the natural beauty of her lands of red bluffs, hogans and marks of progress, outspoken Annie Wauneka moved among national and world leaders with ease and self-confidence and was a celebrity in her own right," the article stated.

Wearing a long purple dress and a turquoise necklace, she later said that the occasion was thrilling. "I'll never forget this day," she said.

Before the ceremony, she got an opportunity to talk to Lady Bird Johnson, the President's wife.

"You know she's from Texas, down in my part of the country," Wauneka said, adding that she "is a gracious lady."

She said later that she also got a lot of questions from people -- mostly women -- that she met during a reception at the State Department about the turquoise necklace she was wearing.

She told everyone that the necklace had belonged to her father, the late Navajo chief Chee Dodge.

Interior Secretary Stewart Udall also held a reception in her honor with Udall praising her as being one of only three women being honored that year.

"Annie has been a kind of one-woman Peace Corps in Navajoland," he said. "It is my feeling that in honoring you today, we did not only honor only you, your family and friendsÊ but also all of the Indian people of the nation."

All in all, it was a time where everyone, including the Navajo Times, forgot about tribal politics and enjoyed the moment.

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