Dr. Jennifer Denetdale was honored with the 6th annual University of New Mexico Community Engaged Research Lectureship (CERL) award. Denetdale is a professor of American Studies and a citizen of the Navajo Nation. Denetdale is also is the director of UNM’s Institute for American Indian Research (IFAIR) and chair of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission (NNHRC).
Her book, Red Nations Rising, will be released in May, and she will soon begin work on a community-involved project to create a new Navajo history and government textbook for young adults. Her talk, presented virtually, was titled, “Dikos Ntsaaígíí ̶ Building the Perfect Human to Invade: A Diné Feminist Analysis of the Pandemic and the Navajo Nation.”
The CERL recognizes exceptional scholarly work that embodies UNM’s commitment to community engagement and that profoundly and systematically affects the relationship between the university and the larger community in a positive and meaningful way.
Denetdale’s work certainly exemplifies these qualifications. Her work has proven vital to Native American studies and history and has contributed to the formation of the novel field of critical indigenous studies. Her contributions to the community include efforts toward the advancement of civil and human rights and the pursuit of justice for the Diné.
As an example, her work with the NNHRC includes efforts to implement a declaration on the rights of indigenous people at the United Nations, the initiation of a study on the status of Navajo women, conversations surrounding gendered-based violence, traditional medicine practices, and more.
“I can think of no one more deserving of the honor bestowed by the Community Engaged Research Lectureship Award,” said Dr. Elijah Goldstein, professor of American Studies, who introduced Denetdale for the attendees. “She exemplifies the very best of what a scholar, community-based activist, teacher and mentor can be.”
During her talk, Denetdale evoked the words of those living on the reservation, including traditional Navajo storyteller Sunny Dooley who expressed the arrival of the virus on the Navajo Nation as “a monster that is feasting on us—because we have built the perfect human for it to invade.” Her research connects settler colonialism, government mandates, and exploitative capitalism as a chain of events that led to the ravaging of the Navajo Nation by COVID-19.
“I take these thoughts to think through the U.S.’s historical treatment of its indigenous people,” said Denetdale. “The systematic theft of indigenous lands and natural resources, and the genocidal policies that are still in place—for it is this history that created the conditions of life for the monster to feed upon us.”
Dr. Ellen Fisher, UNM vice president for Research, was in attendance and noted the importance of Denetdale’s continuing work. “Working to alleviate disparities while addressing these difficulties should be a continuing priority long after the pandemic has ended,” she said. “I want to thank Dr. Denetdale for her captivating and eloquent lecture.”
Denetdale spoke at length about the hardships and resilience of her ancestors, grandparents, and her parents. The latter were part of the generation to experience the livestock reduction program implemented by the U.S. government in the 1930s, and the effects of that program are still being felt today on the Navajo Nation. The lack of resources is one of the many ways Denetdale connects the historical mistreatment of indigenous people for profit with the devastation of these communities during the pandemic. As heads of their families, a lot of this burden has fallen onto Navajo women in particular.
But through it all, Denetdale notes the strength of the Navajo people to band together and help one another get through this time by protecting and supporting each other. Grandparents are driving grandchildren to locations with reliable WiFi for virtual school. Families work with each other to revitalize health care accessibility for the most vulnerable. The Navajo Nation as a whole has committed to COVID-safe practices and vaccinations.
“We have always turned to the strength of our ancestors, and we continue to do so now,” said Denetdale.
The video recording of the full lecture, and previous CERL awardees, can be found on the UNM Research website.