An Illustrious Father
BY THE SPRING OF 1910, the spotty winter rains and light snow on the Navajo Reservation meant there would be just enough grass for the sheep that year. The grazing lands were still recovering from the drought that had gripped the northern part of Arizona Territory in the earlier years of the century. Patches of dry gray snow remained under the shade of the tall pines and cedars on the Defiance Plateau when Annie Dodge was born on April 11 in a dirt-floored hogan near the settlement of Sawmill.
During the birth, Annie's mother, Kee'hanabah, was attended by her female relatives. Because spring days are cool and the nights are chilly there, most likely a stove burned in the center of the floor, warming the log hogan, a traditional Navajo eight-sided dome. An opening in the top of the dome let out the smoke from the wood stove, and as in all hogans, the small door faced east to greet the morning sun.
When Annie entered the world, she not only became a part of her immediate and extended family, but she also acquired a wide circle of clan relatives. The clan affiliation is an essential part of every Navajo's identity throughout life and marks forever the complex degree of relationship to hundreds of other Navajos in affiliated clans. Annie was born into the Tsenijikini clan (Honeycombed Rock or Cliff-Dwelling People) through her mother and the Coyote Pass People through her father.
The timing and amount of the rain and snow were of utmost importance to Annie's family, for they, like most Navajos of the time, were sheepherders. For them, early April was one of the busiest times of the year, the middle of the lambing season. Although sheep provided food, bedding, wool for weaving rugs, and income for Navajo families, they were far more than an economic asset. During those days, the herds were at the center of the culture, dictating summer and winter moves to optimum grazing and giving a sense of worth to both men and women.
This interrelationship with sheep began for every Navajo a few moments after birth. Newborn Navajo babies in those days were tied in a sheephide until they were about a month old and then put into a cradleboard. No doubt this was the case with Kee'hanabah's daughter. Although Annie eventually rose to national prominence and gained political power, she continued to raise sheep and cattle herself and understood on the deepest level the importance of the sheepherding tradition to the people she governed.
FROM THE HOGAN TO SONSOLA BUTTES
The modest circumstances of Annie's birth did not reflect the full extent of her family situation. Annie's father, Henry Chee Dodge, was not present at her birth. Kee'hanabah had apparently been drafted by her family as a fill-in wife for Dodge when her two cousins, both his wives, had left him temporarily. When the cousins returned to Chee, Kee'hanabah fled Chee's big house at the first opportunity and went back to her hogan at Sawmill, even though she was pregnant.
As Annie grew to adulthood and spent decades serving her people, she would become one of the most powerful and influential of Indian leaders in modern times and gather a string of national honors. She traveled to Washington DC to testify before congressional committees so often that senators, representatives, and their staffs would come into the halls to greet her. But she never lost sight of where she came from. "Pure dirt hogan," she called her first home.
She was not to stay in the hogan long. In fact, by the time Annie was a year old, her father and his wife Nanabah had ridden up to the mountains at Sawmill and taken Annie to Chee's fine home at Sonsola Buttes, near Crystal. There she was raised with her half sister and two half brothers.
At the time Chee Dodge added Annie to his household, he was fifty years old, a wealthy stock owner and businessman, and extremely active in tribal affairs. His large home was a scene of much activity, with a constant stream of both Navajo and white visitors and lengthy discussions of political events ranging from interfamily personal squabbles to concerns over grazing permits to national-level policies that affected the Navajos.
In those days there were few roads on the Navajo Reservation and fewer cars. People covered the long distances between their homes on horseback or in wagons. Frequently the discussions at the Dodge home went on so long that it was too late for the guests to return home, and they were invited to stay overnight. The little girl fell asleep many evenings to the lull of adult voices assessing the meaning of this or that new government policy and how it might affect the Navajos. No one, least of all her father, would have guessed at the seed of political awareness and public service that was being planted as Annie lay bundled in her blankets.
But it was this relationship with her fatherindirectly as a child and more intensely as a young adultthat nurtured the growth of her ideals and her desire to work for her people. Although Chee Dodge treated Annie less well than his other children when she was small, it seems he began to recognize her strengths as she matured. When she was in her twenties and thirties, he urged her to get involved in local politics, took her with him as he traveled the reservation, and ultimately passed his legacy for leadership to her on his deathbed. It is impossible to understand her life without knowing about his.
CHEE'S EARLY YEARS
It is unclear where Chee Dodge got his own bent for leadership. Historians admit to confusion over his history. Details like birth records, even memories of dates and times, become lost and twisted in times of crisis and upheaval, and the mid-1800s were such a time for the Navajos. According to the most credible story, Chee was born in the middle of a major clash between Navajos and whites. Historians are still undecided on whether his true father was a white army officer or a Mexican who worked as a Spanish translator for the U.S. Army.
The U.S. Army built Fort Defiance in 1852 on Navajo lands in the north of Arizona Territory, choosing one of the most desirable spots in this dry landa meadow beside a flowing stream. Navajos called it Green Place in the Rocks and used to pasture their flocks there. Soldiers were stationed at the fort to keep the Navajos from crossing into what is now New Mexico. The goal was to protect the white settlers in the area and also to keep the peace between the Navajos and the Native people of the New Mexico territory, who launched frequent raids against each other. Reports estimate that the Navajos appropriated more than 800,000 head of sheep and cattle belonging to other stockholders during their raiding years, and their neighbors took Navajo animals when they had the chance. Frequently people were part of the booty; records show that thousands of Indians were held captive in New Mexico Territory and Colorado.
Throughout the West, the U.S. government commitment to subduing the raiding Navajos was substantial, what with establishing forts, sending in sufficient staff, and keeping the forts supplied. The Western movies that have given Americans most of their knowledge of this period have misrepresented history, however, for they show the army as always and easily victorious. By the government's own estimates in 1870, it cost approximately one million dollars for every Indian killed.
Government officials found it difficult to negotiate any agreements with the Navajos because no one leader spoke for all of the Diné, the name the Navajos use when speaking of themselves, a term that means "The People," and that differentiates them from the birds and animals. The Navajos were a loose affiliation of clans, each led by a headman who held his position by virtue of personal prestige. Furthermore, no Navajo at that time could speak English, and no Euro-American could speak Navajo. All communication had to go from Navajo to Spanish to English.
In the fall of 1859, problems came to a head when the commander of the army post slaughtered Indian cattle he found on a lush range where he wanted to graze army stock. These were cattle that belonged to Manuelito, one of the Navajo headmen who was grazing them on land he considered his own. The Navajos living there decided that they had put up with enough of the army's arrogance and retaliated with a bloody raid.
The major in charge of the fort was frustrated because he did not understand enough about the Navajos to know what was going to happen next. What was worse, the Mexican who was his translator had been seen riding with the Navajos during the latest raid. This man was Juan Cocinas, who was sometimes called Aneas or Anaya. Showing more arrogance than sense, the officer sent some soldiers out to arrest Cocinas.
Cocinas's wife, Bisnayanchi, who was part Navajo and part Jemez Pueblo, was pregnant and close to delivery. When Cocinas refused to leave her, the soldiers brought her in, too, and locked them both in the stockade.
Juan and his brother Torivio were Mexicans of Spanish blood who had been captured by the Navajos as small children. As adults, they continued to make their homes with the Navajos, although they would have been free to return to their own people. Juan had worked as a translator for Captain Henry Linn Dodge, an army officer who served as the Navajo agent from 1853 to 1856. He was the son of Senator Henry Dodge of Wisconsin and brother of Senator Augustus Caesar Dodge of Iowa. Captain Dodge had been a compassionate officer and reportedly had taken a Navajo wife although he had another wife back East. Because he truly liked the Navajos, he had insisted on living among them at a place called Sheep Springs rather than in official quarters at Fort Defiance. Unfortunately for the Navajos he served so well, he was killed in 1856 by what most accounts say was an Apache. After Captain Dodge's death, Juan Cocinas had continued assisting the U.S. Armyat least so long as it was working for peace. But when Manuelito's cattle were killed, he switched allegiances, teaming up with the Navajos.
Juan Cocinas and his wife, Bisnayanchi, were held for a number of weeks in the stockade, where very early on the morning of February 22, 1860, their baby was born. They named him Henry Dodge after the Indian agent who had been Cocinas's friend and called him Askii Lichii or Red Boy, Chee for short, after the reddish color of his skin. Through his mother he was a member of the Coyote Pass People. Shortly after his birth, the little family was allowed to leave the fort.
Another, less likely, possibility is that Bisnayanchi was carrying Captain Dodge's child when the captain was killed and that Cocinas had then married her. That would have made Chee's birth about three years earlier since Dodge was killed in 1856. As we see later, Chee himself at times claimed Cocinas as his father and other times said he was Dodge's son.
At any rate, hostilities continued between the Navajos and the army, and one morning while on a trip working as a translator, Cocinas was shot in the leg and bled to death, leaving his wife alone with young Chee.
By 1863, the U.S. government decided that the only way to have peace in that region was to remove the Navajos. Kit Carson was sent to round them up and move them to Fort Sumner near Bosque Redondo on the banks of the Pecos River in New Mexico. The Navajos were expected to walk all the way, a distance of 300 to 400 miles, depending on where they started. In March 1864, about 2,400 Navajos, 400 horses, and 3,000 sheep and goats had begun the Long Walk, marching about 15 miles a day. In April, another 1,200 Navajos and their stock began their trek. Families who resisted had their sheep confiscated, their homes and crops burned, and their menfolk shot. Kit Carson enlisted the aid of some Utes and Comanches who were delighted to have official sanction to kill all the Navajos they could find.
To escape the soldiers, any Navajos who could flee did so, hoping to find a place to hide in their vast land. Chee's mother and her sisters joined a group heading westthe opposite direction from Bosque Redondohoping to make it to the Grand Canyon, where there would be room to hide out. They traveled slowly, mostly in the dark of night, hiding during the day in canyons or among the rocks and shrubs in the arroyos to avoid the soldiers. They had taken little food, hoping to find some along the way, but all they found were burned fields and other families as desperate as they were. The little band had traveled only as far as First Mesa in Hopi country when their supplies ran out. Chee's mother left her small son with her sisters and decided to go to Walpi, one of the Hopi villages, to ask for corn.
Although the Hopis, who were Pueblo farmers, and the Navajos had been neighbors for several centuries, they were unrelated people. Some Hopi and Navajo families traded goods and lived cordially side by side for years, but among others there was a great deal of animosity, and for years the Navajos had raided Walpi. Bisnayanchi knew that it was possible she might receive a hostile reception, but she was probably desperate to find food for her son. She never returned from the Hopi village, and Chee's aunts decided that the only way they could ensure the child's survival was to give him to another family who had more food. The orphaned boy, probably four years old, but possibly a smallish, malnourished seven-year-old, traveled with one family and then another until he finally hooked up with a young girl he called Shádí ("older sister" in Navajo), who was traveling with her elderly grandfather.
Eventually the soldiers found them and convinced them to surrender in exchange for food and clothing. They led the group back to Fort Defiance, with one of the soldiers taking young Chee on his horse. From there, they joined other Navajos in the Long Walk that took them to Fort Sumner. Eventually around 8,500 Navajos were imprisoned at Bosque Redondo.
The four years the Navajos spent there were miserable for them. Beginning with the Long Walk and during their confinement they were issued white flour, salted bacon, and coffee beans. These commodities were foreign to the Navajos, and at first they were stymied on how to turn these things into food. Imagine encountering a coffee bean if you had never seen one before. Navajos tried the obvious actionattempting to boil them like other dried beansbut they never did get soft. Many of the already weakened Navajos died from malnutrition during the learning period and later as supplies for the Navajos were stolen or sold by traders and unscrupulous army personnel.
Once they were settled at Bosque Redondo, the crops they were forced to plant in an effort to make them farmers failed due to drought, hail, and worms. Beyond lacking the mere elements of survival, the Navajos missed the vast beauty of their traditional homethe pungent smell of the sagebrush, the sandy red earth, the layers of blue and purple mesas on the horizon. Their land was the essence of their survival, inextricably woven into their legends and religion.
Despite his difficult life, young Chee showed signs of the intelligence and engaging personality that would mark his life. He became a favorite of the soldiers, running errands and picking up some English during banter with them.
Meanwhile, the Navajo homelands sat silent and empty, populated mainly by coyotes, prairie dogs, and rabbits. Those Navajos who had managed to evade the soldiers retained their freedom by staying hidden, easily swallowed up in the canyons and vast stretches of wilderness. Eventually, government officials realized that not only was the Navajo internment scheme failing to provide the hoped for utopia, but it was also expensive. The first twenty months of the experiment cost the War Department $1,114,981.70, and the average cost of rations between 1863 and 1868 was $750,000 per year, even though much of it wasn't even getting to the Navajos. Since the Bosque Redondo site wasn't working out, the officials in charge thought maybe they should send the Navajos to Oklahoma. The Navajos may have gotten an inkling that the government was beginning to consider relocating them, for in 1868, the Navajo leaders went together to the U.S. Army officers, pleading with them to be allowed to go home. Barboncito, one of the leaders, spoke for his people, telling the government agents that First Woman had told the Navajos after the Creation that they should never move beyond the area bounded by the four sacred mountains. By that time officials agreed that the experiment in trying to move the Navajos had been a failure, and the Navajos were told they could return to their former area if they promised to stop raiding their white and Indian neighbors. On June 1, 1868, they signed a treaty promising never to fight again, to work and irrigate the soil, and to send their children to school. On June 18, those Navajos who hadn't already slipped away singly started for home.
BACK ON THE RESERVATION
The reservation that was set up for them was about four million acres, only a tenth of their former territory, straddling the northern reaches of what is now the Arizona-New Mexico border. Most of the Navajos returned to the homes where they had been living before, unaware and uncaring whether that area lay within the boundaries of the new reservation. As far as they were concerned, it all belonged to them. They were happy to be back and, for the most part, gave up raiding their white neighbors. They got through the first winter on government rations. The next spring those who lived close enough to water planted gardens, and in the fall the government distributed 14,000 sheep and 1,000 goats.
Looking back, Chee would confide to his children, "I didn't even know who or what I was going back to. All I knew was the soldiers and these Mexican scouts." For most of his young life he had lived as either a fugitive or a captive.
The summer of their return, Chee and Shádí continued to live with the grandfather. Chee was probably about eight years old. When they each received two sheep and a goat, they kept them instead of eating them. The government was still passing out rations of corn, flour, and beef, which the family supplemented with small game and wild plant foods. Chee's animals would form the beginning of what would grow into extensive herds.
Then one day Chee unexpectedly found his aunt. After leaving him behind, she and her sisters had joined another band and had hidden in the Gray Mountain area, where they had stayed throughout the exile. She told him that she was married to Perry Williams, a white man who worked as an issue clerk at Fort Defiance.
CHEE BEGINS INTERPRETING
Sometime during this period, Chee was taken to a Presbyterian mission school where he studied for two or three months, perfecting his English and learning other basic school subjects. Since Chee spoke both English and Spanish, Perry Williams hired the boy to work with him at the store and help translate for the Navajos who came in. English speakers found it difficult to learn Navajo since the language involves use of voice muscles not needed in English. Also, Navajo is a singing language in three tonesand words spoken in different tones may have different meanings. The two languages also differ in ways other than just sounds, with grammar, sentence arrangement, and worldview all contributing to make direct translation impossible. Translators must reformulate the message to convey the speaker's meaning when moving between English and Navajo.
An additional difficulty was that the Navajo material world was of an earlier, simpler era. Chee illustrated this with a favorite story about the match. Although the soldiers used matches, the Indians were still making fire in the old-fashioned way by producing a spark with two sticks or a rock. After they watched the white men light their cigarettes by scraping a match along the seat of their pants to produce fire, the Navajos took to calling the match "fire on the pants" or "he scratches his buttocks."
Somehow, Chee managed to negotiate these linguistic pitfalls and byways. His facility at translation was an early indication of his considerable mental agility, considering his limited education. People began to call him Ashkihih Diitsi, the Boy Interpreter.
Years later, his eldest son wrote that when Navajo leaders came to the agency to discuss tribal and other matters with officials of the government, they frequently threatened the young boy with a beating with a heavy stick if he made any mistake in interpreting for them. Often Chee had to interpret long and involved discussions, and on such occasions he genuinely feared misinterpretation and the consequent thrashing it might bring.
Chee worked as a messenger boy and office interpreter at Fort Defiance for three years, earning $5 a week. From there, he went to work handling mules and cargo for the supply wagon train from Santa Fe to Fort Defiance. This was apparently a hard time for him, as years later he reminisced that sometimes his only food was the corn that the mules didn't eat.
CONFUSION OVER CHEE'S PARENTAGE
Chee's difficult life was apparently evident to others, because early in 1875, the commissioner of Indian affairs in Washington DC received a letter from Senator Augustus C. Dodge, brother of Chee's namesake, the late Henry Dodge, saying that he had received a report from a friend who was recently back from an official tour of New Mexico Territory. The friend had encountered a youth named Henry Dodge, who was talented in languages but who was working as a herder and being treated cruelly. This friend believed that the youth was the son of Senator Dodge's late brother and his Navajo wife. Augustus Dodge requested that W. F. M. Arny, at that time the agent at Fort Defiance, look into the matter and perhaps retain young Henry Dodge as an interpreter.
The photographs of Chee, both as a young man and as he aged, do not show typical Navajo features. One businessman who remembers him said he looked "just like a Welshman." In testimony that Chee gave in 1888 on an unrelated matter, he said that he was about thirty years old and the son of a white army officer and a Navajo woman. However, he referred to "my people" and indicated that he considered himself Navajo.
In an insightful essay on Chee Dodge, anthropologist David Brugge gives an analysis of Chee's rare transcultural perspective: "Obviously while still a young man, he had the opportunity to know and learn from the tribe's leaders in a way provided to no other person of his generation. He also was able to observe from the vantage point of an insider all the details of intercultural interaction on the highest levels. He undoubtedly had identity problems. It can be assumed that most whites viewed him as a `half-breed' and that his acceptance in white society was limited in many ways."
At any rate, whether because of Amy's intervention or some other reason, about this time Chee returned to school for three months in Albuquerque, picking up what was to be the last of his formal education. Much later, he told his daughter Annie that he would have stayed in school longer, but the older Navajo leaders wanted him to come back to the reservation so they could have an interpreter that they trusted. At this time there were only a very few men who could speak both Navajo and English, and all of the official Navajo and federal government business was funneled through them.