The Bridge Lady

March 14, 2021- Throughout history, change for the better has been orchestrated by both people adopting a progressive stance and by those taking a prudent, conservative view, whilst remaining open to new ways of doing things.

Annie Dodge was born in 1910, to a traditional Navajo family. Her father, Chee Dodge, was the last man to hold the position of Chief of the Navajo Tribe. He became the first Chairman of the Navajo Tribe-first of the Navajo Business Council (1922-28) and later, of the Navajo Tribal Council (1942-46). Chee was a shrewd businessman, amassing a fair amount of wealth, whilst maintaining a strong sense of Navajo tradition. As such, he lived in a hogan-based camp and had three wives, the third of whom was Annie’s mother, Mary Begaye.

Annie, and her five siblings were raised in the traditional Dineh manner-learning to herd sheep, practice Dineh medicine and honour their maternal and paternal clan structures. At the same time, Chee saw to it that all of his children learned the ways of the wider world. Annie took a conservative view of politics, becoming a lifelong member of the Republican Party. The event that shaped the course of her life, however, was the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19. Because of her having suffered a mild case of the disease, from which she developed immunity, Annie became interested in Public Health. She earned a doctorate in that discipline, and worked diligently to improve the lives of the Dineh people, over a span of fifty years. She served three terms on the Navajo Tribal Council, at one point running against, and defeating, George Wauneka, the man she married.

George and Annie remained a strong couple, regardless. Annie always regarded the men around her as her partners, never as her overlords. The strong Dineh matrilineal system helped in that regard, as did her parents’ commitment to their daughter’s education and well-being-and Mary’s fierce independence from her husband.

Annie’s greatest legacy was the improvement in the overall public health of the Navajo Nation. She broadcast a weekly radio program, in the Navajo language, carefully explaining modern medical practices and techniques to her fellow Dineh. She pushed for better well-woman and well-baby practices, regular ear and eye examinations; a strong campaign against tuberculosis and alcoholism; for vaccinations against polio, chicken pox, smallpox and measles/mumps/rubella, as well as improvements in sanitation and housing.

Annie continued her father’s work of bridging the gap between traditional Navajo life and the wider American society. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Lyndon Johnson, in December, 1963, becoming the first Native American to receive this honour. In 1984, the Navajo Tribal Council designated Dr. Annie Dodge Wauneka “The Legendary Mother of the Navajo Nation”. Upon her death, in 1997, she was enshrined in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, in Seneca Falls, NY.

Annie Dodge Wauneka’s life work is a shining example that one can hold traditional, conservative views and make a strong contribution to the improvement of the surrounding community. The key is always keeping an open mind and heart.

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