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Guest Column: Recognizing significance of Diné academic work

By Ezra Rosser

Academics express their admiration and respect for other academics primarily through footnotes. We don’t say, “this was a great book” or “what an invaluable article,” in the body of our articles or books. Instead we cite that book or article in a footnote.

It is a rather cold way of saying thank you and it is not a very public form of appreciation.

Which is why I thought I should say publicly through the Navajo Times, with the hopes that it reaches the larger community, how grateful I am for the tremendous work that Diné scholars are doing and for the increasing number of Diné finding a way to break into the academic world.

My biggest fear as I write this is that I will offend people by inadvertently leaving them out—something that reflects the rising number of talented Diné scholars.

In the late 1990s, early 2000s, there were, of course, books about Diné history and Navajo governance. Peter Iverson’s “Diné: A History of the Navajos” (2002) stood out, as did David E. Wilkins, “The Navajo Political Experience” (1999).

But since then, work on Navajo issues, especially work produced by Diné scholars has exploded, creating new ways of looking at and understanding Diné history, culture, and governance.

Diné studies has become its own area of study that unearths and celebrates Diné wisdom, and is led by tireless Diné scholars such as Jennifer Nez Denetdale, author of “Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita” (2007) and Lloyd Lee, author of “Diné Identity in a Twenty-First-Century World” (2020).

Diné academics have landed teaching and research positions at universities in the Four Corners region (Diné College, UNM, NAU, Univ. of Arizona, Arizona State, Navajo Technical University, etc., etc.) and elsewhere. Indeed, one of my great joys has been watching Diné academics who started teaching a few years after I first got a job come into their own and become confident voices for the people.

It is meaningful that so many Diné academics are creating space in academic institutions for work that unapologetically focuses on the Navajo Nation. I would love to have been a student in one of Wendy Greyeyes’s governance classes or learned the law from Raymond Austin. The fact that students encounter such stellar faculty as instructors and mentors can be transformative.

Diné have never suffered from a lack of doctoral candidates working on Navajo issues for their dissertation. Even though Vine Deloria Jr. famously warned about “Anthropologists and Other Friends,” non-Indians love to study the tribe.

Indeed, I read one study in which the author noted that she was staying with the same host family, and in the same hogan, as had another researcher a generation before!

Fortunately, in the last two decades, some of those and related studies found life as really great books. Andrew Needham’s “Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest” (2014) is fabulous, as are Colleen O’Neill, “Working the Navajo Way: Labor and Culture in the Twentieth Century” (2005); Kathleen P. Chamberlain, “Under Sacred Ground: A History of Navajo Oil, 1922-1982” (2008); Marsha Weisiger, “Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country” (2011); Dana E. Powell’s “Landscapes of Power: Politics of Energy in the Navajo Nation” (2018).

Given the rising number of strong Diné academics, the future of Navajo-focused works is quite promising.

One may wonder, does any of this academic work matter? That is a hard question and one bound to keep an academic up at night.

But when faced with misguided and deeply problematic books like Naomi Schaefer Riley’s “The New Trail of Tears” (2016), work that doesn’t shy away from complications but comes from a place of deep respect hopefully matters, even when written by non-Indians.

Academic works are a particular, albeit somewhat odd, form of storytelling but they involve storytelling nonetheless. Diné scholarship is full of insightful observations and arguments about all that is great about life on the reservation as well as the challenges facing the Navajo Nation.

The form of the writing varies, from research papers produced by the Diné Policy Institute at Diné College to Ph.D. dissertations (Michelle Hale’s work on the Local Governance Act, for example, stands out in my mind as just great scholarship).

Diné academics — and some Biligáanas (Paul Spruhan, for example, works as a lawyer in Window Rock but in his spare time writes well-researched articles about identity and blood quantum) — are telling important stories that, among other things, push back against the non-Indian views of Navajo history, of Diné culture, and of the Navajo Nation government.

Academic work can be quite dry, but these scholars should be acknowledged for the work they do that elevates Diné knowledge and creates space for positive change.

There is not always a large audience for such work. I liked to half joke when discussing my own forthcoming Navajo-focused book that I have an audience of one. And I’ll name him: Andrew Curley, a Diné academic who is currently a professor at the University of Arizona.

I first met Andrew when he was still a student, but I love his work. Not only is he producing far more stuff about the Navajo Nation, far faster than I ever will, but it is all great.

But what I most want to express here is not about any one particular scholar but rather the contributions and tremendous efforts of Diné scholars as a group, as well as the students, reporters, and others, whose work enlightens and helps create opportunities for future generations.

A footnote is the formal way of showing respect between academics, but Diné scholars deserve a more public expression of appreciation for their work and the place they have built and are building in the academic world.

Ezra Rosser is a Biligáana law professor and author “A Nation Within: Navajo Land and Economic Development” (2021).


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