Annie Dodge Wauneka (1910-1997) was a Navajo Nation leader who won the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom for her efforts to improve health care among her people.
A Navajo Nation leader, Annie Dodge Wauneka was the first woman elected to serve on the Navajo Tribal Council. Her efforts to educate her people about the prevention and treatment of disease, especially tuberculosis, saved many Navajo lives. She served as the catalyst to improving Navajo health care in general, bringing the issue to the forefront in the political arena. She was also active in state and federal government, serving as a member of the New Mexico Committee on Aging. In 1963, Wauneka was awarded the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom for her service to the Navajo.
Annie Dodge Wauneka was born on April 10, 1910, in a Navajo hogan near Sawmill, Arizona. She was raised in a non-traditional Navajo setting. Her father, Henry Chee Dodge, was a Navajo rancher and politician. Her mother, K'eehabah, was one of Dodge's three wives. Navajo custom allowed polygamy, and a man's wives were usually related to one another. Navajo society is also matrilineal, so children born to wives who were related were considered full siblings. Wauneka lived with K'eehabah for only her first year. At that time, Dodge brought Wauneka to live with him, along with her half-siblings. Dodge spoke fluent English and had been an interpreter for the government. He was a tribal council head as well as the owner of a large ranch with all the modern conveniences. For these facts alone, Wauneka's childhood would have been highly unusual for a Navajo. Their home was more like a typical farm house than like the Navajo hogans. They even had servants. Dodge kept his children humble by making them do chores, like sheep herding, so they wouldn't feel superior to the tribe's other children.
Young Wauneka attended a government-run boarding school at Fort Defiance, Arizona, from the age of eight. After that, she went to the Albuquerque, New Mexico, Indian School, which she left after her junior year of high school. The Indian School twice strongly influenced her future. First of all, it was where she met her husband, George Wauneka, whom she married in October of 1929, a year after she left the school. Her marriage was unusual in that it had not been arranged by her parents-she had chosen her husband herself. Second, the influenza outbreak at the school found her assisting nurses-work that made her feel valuable and useful. She had found her calling.
Wauneka's interests eventually expanded to include tribal government as well, no doubt due to her father's influence. Henry Chee Dodge served as the first chair of the Navajo Tribal Council during the time Wauneka was in school. The council was a formal body organized to govern the tribe as a corporation according to the rules of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Dodge shared his knowledge of Navajo leadership with his daughter, and she took his lessons to heart.
While she was breaking ground in health care and tribal government, Wauneka still held to some traditional female roles-but not entirely. She and her husband, George Wauneka, had six children: Georgia Anne, Henry, Irma, Franklin, Lorencita and Sallie. The children were raised at Klagetoh near Window Rock, Arizona, where their father stayed at home with them, tending the property and the herds. Annie Dodge Wauneka often traveled the reservation as Dodge's aide.
On the reservation, Wauneka witnessed the devastation caused by disease, especially tuberculosis. She knew that conventional Western European, or more colloquially, "white man's medicine, " might be the answer. She needed to find a way to bridge the gap between cultures for the good of the Navajo people. First, she tried to explain to the traditional families that they might improve their health by simply changing the way they prepared their food and sanitized their cooking and eating areas. She also attempted to win them over through the medicine men, whom the Navajo respected and trusted. If they could be convinced to try conventional medicine, they might convince the others. Eventually, she decided she could make more changes if she were a part of the tribal government. She ran for, and won, a seat on the Tribal Council in 1951. She was the first Navajo woman ever elected to that office. Wauneka was reelected to a second term in 1954, and again for a third in 1959. She was also chosen to head the council's Health Committee.
She held the office for three terms, leading a tuberculosis eradication project. One of her biggest contributions to the effort was a dictionary she put together that translated English medical terms into the Navajo language. She thus demystified non-traditional medical practices for the people of the tribe, quelling their fears and superstitions. Wauneka also campaigned for other health care improvements for the Navajo, including better gynecological, obstetric, and pediatric care. She also pushed for regular eye and ear exams and fought alcohol abuse.
In order to better help herself and her people, Wauneka went back to college in the mid-1950s. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor's degree in public health. In 1959, she was rewarded for her efforts on behalf of the Navajo, winning the Arizona State Public Health Association's Outstanding Worker in Public Health Award.
The next decade saw her helping a larger circle of humanity. She became active on the state level, serving on the New Mexico Committee on Aging, and at the general level, serving as member of the U.S. Surgeon General and the U.S. Public Health Service advisory boards. In 1958, she won the Josephine Hughes Award and the Arizona Press Women's Association Woman of Achievement Award. She was named Outstanding Worker in Public Health of the Arizona Public Health Association the following year, and was honored with the Indian Achievement Award of the Indian Council Fire of Chicago that year as well. Her father had won the latter honor in 1945.
In 1960, Wauneka hosted her own daily radio show on KGAK in Gallup, New Mexico. Broadcast in Navajo, the program had Wauneka covering general interest items along with important health issues. Her community out-reach wasn't limited to government and the airwaves, however. She was also active in the Head Start program, combining her belief in education with her commitment to health care, and she participated as a leader in the Girl Scouts.
On December 6, 1963, Wauneka was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to health care services. She was the first Native American to win this honor. The citation she received from President Lyndon Johnson read, "First woman elected to the Navajo Tribal Council; by her long crusade for improved health programs, she has helped dramatically to lessen the menace of disease among her people and to improve their way of life."
Wauneka received an honorary doctorate in public health from the University of Arizona in 1976. In 1984, the Navajo council honored her as the legendary mother of the Navajo people. She still served as an advisor to the Navajo Tribal Council into her eighties. On May 9, 1996, her alma mater, the University of Arizona, awarded her a second honorary doctorate, Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws, which was accepted for her by her grandson, Milton J. Bluehouse, then a student at the university.
Wauneka died in November 1997 at the age of 87. Navajo Tribal President Albert Hale, another one of her grandsons, made note of her many accomplishments and declared, "She made us proud to be Navajo."
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Chicago Tribune, November 12, 1997.
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Quotes for Learning and Service, http://k2.kirtland.cc.mi.us/∼service/quotes.html a w