This story is one for the history books, which is fitting, as the news itself is about a history book.
A devoted team of UNM Native American professors are planning, developing and writing the first-ever tribal government textbook for young adults.
Although dedicated does not even begin to cover the efforts of American Studies Professor Jennifer Denetdale and Ph.D. student Kara Roanhorse and Native American Studies Professors Wendy Greyeyes and Lloyd Lee, it’s a start.
“We're all academics. For all of us, what's important is that in our scholarship, we teach the ethics and responsibility to our respective tribal nations and our communities that we endorse and support in community-based research. All of us do that as part of our scholarship. It's part of our scholarship for all of us to do this well,” Denetdale said.
After informal surveys, personal testimonies, and firsthand experiences, Denetdale built this team to create a government textbook that not only filled the gaps experienced by Diné high school students but celebrated Diné authors. As she notes, in graduate school, there were so few Diné scholars publishing in academia. Today, Dine Studies is its discipline and rich with so many Diné researching, writing and building for the next generations.
“I was working with my grandson, who was taking a government class, and I was appalled at the quality of the textbook. I was sitting there helping him through the course, and I told our scholars that we need to write a new textbook,” she said.
The inconsistencies, inaccuracies and omissions in typical textbooks used in schools on and off the Navajo Nation were shocking.
“The resources for Navajo government information, like in textbooks, books, or articles, are mostly written by non-Navajos. Most of it is very much taking that Western methodological approach in terms of either the lack of depth or knowledge within that information or incorrect information,” Lee said. “There was no one particular book or textbook to describe the history of the Navajo government, from settler colonialism and European-American influences to now. This book is about addressing that and giving one definitive textbook that gives you that knowledge and information coming from Navajo individuals who have the background.”
Not only that, but as Greyeyes and Roanhorse attest–a decade apart– from both of their high school years, much of the material was outdated.
“I was taught by a medicine man, and he would be reading to us, and I always remember he would make comments about how inaccurate some of these things were. I got a very traditional perspective about our government system, but there was never really one book–one Navajo Nation government book– that brought that together,” Greyeyes said.
“I remember at the time that even getting access to the online version was very difficult and was a long and arduous process. I remember taking the course and it feeling outdated and not applicable to my life as a young person, so I think this project is really important for making this textbook youth centered. When I say youth-centered, it's really about understanding the needs of Diné youth education in the way they go through different types of structures and institutions in their lives, while wanting to learn about critical issues,” Roanhorse said.
So how does one start a textbook from scratch, meant to encompass centuries of nation-building land and tribal sovereignty? It starts with a discussion.
“A lot of the conversations that we had were about how we create youth-centered education that is applicable to their lives. Teaching young people like large systemic issues can often be daunting, but the youth are excited and ready to learn,” Roanhorse said. “I think that just goes to show that when we give them ways to become engaged with their education and make education something that they're excited to learn, then they're willing to put in the work to understand these things and apply it to their lives.”
“I'm excited about all of these authors coming together. Everybody comes from a different background. Dr. Greyeyes has expertise in education and policies. Dr. Lee has expertise in governance and sovereignty, and Kara has expertise in indigenous education in youth. These generations of scholars are really inspiring. It's amazing for me to listen and hear what everybody has to share.” – American Studies Professor Jennifer Denetdale
Two volumes will cover the Diné people from their inception to the COVID-19 pandemic. Specific attention will be paid to the foundation of tribal government and how Diné leadership tactics and governance are unique from the rest of the U.S.
“There's going to be some really important information shared in all of the chapters. We’re really going to be talking about the Diné government in its original form and grounding to what the government is. I'm ready to learn as well,” Lee said.
Perhaps the most instrumental portion of this undertaking is the funding from the Navajo Nation and its council, allocating $170,000 to the textbook so far. That’s thanks to the introduction of the idea by Rose Graham, the director of the Office of the Navajo Nation Scholarship & Financial Assistance. Division of Diné Education policy analyst Daryl Begay wrote the legislation that Council Delegate Andy Nez then sponsored before the Navajo Nation Council. Begay is the co-editor of the textbook.
“We're not, for the most part, used to this kind of grant award. We're humanities scholars. We're used to small grants and nickel and diming it. We're used to using our own resources, so it's pretty incredible that the Navajo Nation would fund such a humanities project,” Denetdale said.
It was not that there wasn’t support for the textbook before 2024. Federal laws, namely the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, left the Navajo Nation behind in the education Diné leaders aimed for.
“I think that's an important backdrop. The problem is that sometimes the Navajo Nation is consistently in that position of saying, ‘mother, may I, can we do this?’ because we have three different states operating on the Navajo Nation, four major school systems. and one federal entity. You literally have to go to the top and have Congress actually approve this type of change,” Greyeyes said.
The first funding cycle allows the co-editors to recruit contributing writers, support an editorial team, review drafts, gather data and illustrations, and finalize the manuscripts for publication.
“My excitement is the fact that it's all Navajo authors and from different generations. That is just going to be a big-time game-changer. It's going to send a big message to all the folks who have been writing and building their careers by writing about Navajo people; we're taking control of our narrative,” Greyeyes said.
Even more vital than the funding itself is the non-financial support from Diné leaders.
“For me, having the opportunity to have the Navajo Nation and its leaders and Rose Graham is really a big ldeal. It's a show of respect to the authors and scholars that they would give us this responsibility to do this textbook. It’s an honor that the Navajo Nation would support this,” Denetdale said.
“I think learning with and alongside youth makes learning fun again. I think that's something that I take away that they teach me and it often fuels my passions as an academic. It just doesn't feel like I'm struggling. Being among youth, they really make learning like something to treasure again.” –American Studies Ph.D. student Kara Roanhorse
“When the Navajo Nation invites you to sit at the table, you will sit at the table. This textbook fills a need. People will come to us, schools will come to us, and teacher education projects will use this textbook,” Denetdale said. “I was reassured by the support of the Navajo Nation that if the Navajo Nation endorses and supports this and we have the support of the school boards, we're changing things.”
Additionally, textbook chapters will be reviewed by Navajo educators and students in collaboration with the Division of Diné Education to ensure that the curriculum and assessment standards are met.
“Diné youth tend to not learn about these critical issues until they get to college, so this textbook is a way for us to fill those gaps before they even get to college. I think it's an important process that we undertake as scholars and dedicated people to generate learning,” Roanhorse said.
This textbook will be major for students and current and future teachers.
“It's a resource that not only will be used for high school students entering college, but it also will be something that will be used in teacher training. We're hoping it'll be used in teacher training courses at UNM, Northern Arizona University and Navajo Technical University. There's a lot of places that are very interested in this textbook, I think,” Denetdale said.
To make this feat even more incredible, this textbook will be available in English and Diné and online in both languages. The co-editors planned for a three-year process, with the English version being the first project.
“It's going to be a daunting task to translate all of this into Navajo, but it will get done. It's important that this is the first attempt because I'm hoping that this leads to others. This is the beginning of that,” Lee said.
Retaining the Diné language in younger generations is a priority not just at UNM, but across the nation.
“We're at a point in time, I think, for not only Navajo Nation, but all Native Nations in the U.S. and in the Western Hemisphere, where we’re really trying to find many ways to make sure that the language continues and that it's taught to younger generations,” Lee said. “I'm a big proponent of using everything possible to make sure that the language and culture is taught. That includes writing, that includes reading, that includes creating these types of textbooks to make sure that this happens.”
In a way, the inclusion of the text in this language represents what this tribal government textbook is; it’s a testament to how much the Diné people respect and adore their culture and history. This team of textbook contributors even includes a former Navajo Nation vice president, Rex Lee Jim.
“To have Rex Lee Jim participate and to share foundational knowledge that's rooted in the creation stories about what leadership means and what governance means is really wonderful to me. That's going to be no small feat,” Denetdale said.
It also shows the passion this group has for education, not just for understanding where the Diné people have been but also for predicting where they are headed.
“None of my 13 high school students one year knew who their Navajo Nation Council delegate was. It kind of blew my mind. In terms of that, this textbook is so desperately needed because our students who are the next generation are growing up not understanding what type of institutions we've created that dictate the future of our people,” Greyeyes said. “When people don't really understand what's happening in their chapters or in their communities, they're less likely to want to return because they don't see how empowered they are as citizens to make change for their future.”
Even though Native Americans have been battered by its brutal components of history, UNM researchers understand that these portions of time cannot be glossed over like in many other traditional history books. There are also plenty of instrumental moments that are never even mentioned that Roanhorse thinks could significantly impact modern-day Navajo Nation comprehension.
“I'm most excited about the ‘70s and the 80s because I've only heard from my parents about that history. I've never really seen it extensively documented in any textbook, yet it was a controversial period, so I'm excited to hear multiple takes in this era,” she said. “A lot of those policies and the events that happened during that period really shaped the current issues we have on the reservation.”
This textbook showcases the Diné people's resilience in more ways than one. Instead of enduring future haphazard editions, building curriculum one classroom at a time, and advocating when they can, this UNM team is taking up the baton and running as fast as it can.
“This is part of a whole massive movement that needs to happen,” Greyeyes said. “This vision, this comprehensive and Navajo-authored textbook, is really fulfilling the hopes and dreams of our prior leaders who have worked incrementally to push this change forward. This is wonderful.”