Chairmen, Presidents, and Princesses: The Navajo Nation, Gender, and the Politics of Tradition
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Chairmen, Presidents, and Princesses:
The Navajo Nation, Gender, and the Politics of Tradition

In 1998, when LeNora Fulton announced her candidacy for the president of the Navajo Nation, she faced criticism from Navajo/Diné men and women who argued that Navajo women should not be leaders because it would lead to chaos in society, as a traditional narrative stipulated.1 Navajo women have been discouraged from full political participation in the Navajo Nation government even as they exert considerable influence within their families and in local community politics. At the same time, women are most visible in the Navajo government as Miss Navajo Nation, the official representative and ambassador of the Navajo Nation. What does it mean to valorize Navajo women as princesses and beauty queens who represent ideal Navajo womanhood? How are women signifiers of culture and tradition in the construction of the Navajo Nation and, at the same time, denied full political participation in the Navajo government? How has the establishment of a modern Navajo government shifted traditional gender roles in ways that have been detrimental to Navajo women?

This study examines the intersection of the Navajo nation and gender by considering women's presence in the governmental structure and how Navajo leaders, who are primarily men, reproduce Navajo nationalist ideology to re-inscribe gender roles based on Western concepts even as they claim that they operate under traditional Navajo philosophy. As feminist scholars note, the idea of nation relies on the language of family and casts women as the mothers and the culture [End Page 9] bearers of the Nation.2 Significantly, although many Navajo men, and even women, declare that Navajo women should not hold the highest office in Navajoland, both men and women draw upon traditional narratives to challenge ideas about appropriate gender roles modeled on Western ideals. With the imposition of Western democratic principals, Navajo women find themselves confronted with new oppressions in the name of "custom and tradition."

Further, my study is informed by the scholarship on the status of Native/Navajo women and examinations of the establishment of Native governments and the ongoing quest for sovereignty. First, many Native and non-Native feminist scholars have pointed out that prior to Euro-American colonization, Native and Navajo women enjoyed a significant amount of respect and autonomy in their societies. In traditional societies, gender roles were often egalitarian, meaning that both males and females were crucial to the survival and perpetuation of culture and society. Although it is difficult to find many examples where women were chiefs or leaders, women were consulted about important decisions that affected all of their people on matters that extended to the economic and the political. Foreign ideas about proper gender roles have affected Native women's roles and Western perceptions of them have been just as detrimental. Native women have suffered under colonialism, but they have continued to challenge and counter gender oppression.3

Second, studies of the Navajo Nation government have followed approaches established by previous research on Indian nations, including examinations of the meaning and significance of Indian sovereignty, the relationships between the federal government and Indian nations, and the ongoing struggle to compel the U.S. government to honor its treaty obligations.4 Native intellectuals also propose that our research should focus on claiming and preserving Indian sovereignty.5 Such analyses emphasize a materialist approach that privileges state bureaucracies and other apparatuses in establishing and reproducing national ideologies and boundaries. Further, as feminist scholar Nira Yuval-Davis points out, such approaches render women invisible in the establishment and perpetuation of nations even though women reproduce nations—biologically, culturally, and symbolically. Women are part of the nationalist project where, as producers of the coming generations, their bodies are patrolled; they are the biological reproducers and so are referred to as mothers; they are invoked as cultural symbols and signifiers of the nation in many masculinist discourses; and women participate in the nationalist discourse by positioning themselves as creators of the nation as mothers, writers, and artists.6 Just as women are hidden in the various theorizations of the nationalist phenomena, so, too, are they hidden in the discourse surrounding Indian nations and...