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wicazo sa review: A Journal of Native American Studies 15.2 (2000) 103-110

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There is No Word for Feminism in My Language

Laura Tohe

As long as I can remember, the Diné (or Navajo, as we are also referred to) women in my life have always shown courage, determination, strength, persistence, and endurance in their own special way. My female relatives lived their lives within the Diné matrilineal culture that valued, honored, and respected them. These women passed on to their daughters not only their strength, but the expectation to assume responsibility for the family, and therefore were expected to act as leaders for the family and the tribe. Despite five hundred years of Western patriarchal intrusion, this practice continues.

My mother dropped out of high school, ran away to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and ended up becoming pregnant for my father, who had recently returned from World War II. They married, and more children followed. After several children and a failing marriage, my mother gathered all us kids up, and we went to live near her mother, who was teaching on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. In the early 1950s, my mother took her young family of four boys and one daughter to live in a hogan, a Diné traditional home. Our home had no plumbing or electricity. With less than a high school education, my mother took a job as a cook with the Bureau of Indian Affairs school, where she cooked over institutional stoves, washed heavy steel pots, and served food to Diné boarding school students. My mother, with her trays and cumbersome pans, and I, with my word processor, are just one generation apart. [End Page 103]

I have children of my own now. I hold a Ph.D., write, and teach in a large Southwestern research university. I live a relatively comfortable life, unlike that of my mother and her generation of Indian women, who were for the most part thrust into a world that required them to know how to fill out job applications and pass a driver's license test. The world had changed for these women, who were still bound to the traditional ways of living and providing for the family. I imagine my mother now and the daily struggles Indian women from her era had to endure and still endure. I ask myself: How did this previous generation of Diné women do it? How did they survive the hand-to-mouth existence that became more common after boarding schools and the introduction of a monetary system? Tremendous changes took place in the lives of these women, particularly during and after World War II. However, this is not a story about "those poor" Indian women who were assimilated, colonized, Christianized, or victimized. This is a story about how these women cling to the roots of their female lineage despite the many institutional forces imposed on Indian communities and how they continue to survive despite five hundred years of colonialism. The Diné women continue to possess the qualities of leadership and strength and continue to endure and ultimately to pass on those qualities to their daughters, even though there is no word for feminism in the Diné language.

Diné women have always worked to help support the family, even before the reservation system was established. Later, when the white man established trading posts on the reservation, the women wove and sold blankets in exchange for food and supplies. While the male roles diminished as protectors and providers for the family, the women's roles persisted and, in many instances, the women adapted more easily.

Changing Woman, sometimes known as White Shell Woman, is the principal mythological deity in the Diné culture. She gave to the Diné the first clans and the guidelines of how the Diné should live their lives. She birthed the Twin Heroes who destroyed the monsters that were ravaging the people. She underwent the first Kinaaldá ceremony, the puberty ceremony for young women. Through her, the matriarchal system of the Diné was...


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