Christianity and Navajo Sovereignty: Colonization’s Influence on the Navajo Political Structure


Diné College

Kayla DeVault
Navajo Nation Government: NIS226
Mr. Vecenti


Although recorded Navajo history did not begin until the arrival of the Spanish some nearly 500 years ago, oral traditions recount history since the beginning of time. It is these oral traditions the recount the resilience of Navajos – but also the Navajo ability to adopt and adapt. While language remains one of the most preserved and uniquely Navajo parts of the Diné tradition, the influence of the Anasazi, the Pueblos, the Spanish, and subsequent groups remains unquestionable. The latest influence – Christianity – calls into question to what degree this influence threatens traditional structure and belief, and how have the policies of foreign powers assimilated and reshaped the perspective of tribal leadership today.

There are many values – or lack thereof – that could be considered traditional Navajo. Most notably, these include: matrilineal clanship, Hozho and K’é, a lack of land ownership or even static inhabitance, etc. Even the silver-making and weaving industries demonstrate a shift in economic practices as the Spanish first came into contact with the Southwest. All of these influences have had a significant impact on cultural retention. In the place of tradition, most often Christianity has come to the forefront of religions on the Navajo Reservation. This shift has had an incredible influence on the way many Navajos now think, how resources are managed, and how Navajos treat one another.

Although traditional Navajo belief upholds the importance of women in Navajo society, the influence of Christianity and “Western thought” has put the value of women behind that of men. Clans still function matrilineally, but the value behind that system has been nearly lost. As womanhood also represents the Mother Earth and what it provides for Navajo life, a disconnect is also garnered in this way between the Navajo people and natural resources. Navajos never believed in landownership, but the idea of “property” has been introduced by European influences, resulting in an attitude of superiority over all non-human and non-male aspects of life. Although women once represented portions of Navajo leadership, the influence of Christianity and other Western thought has decreased the influence of women to nearly non-existent.

Another important factor that has been altered over the years is ceremony. Not only has the influence of peyote from the Plains region been adopted into many systems within the Navajo Nation, but so have missions, the Native American Church, and a focus of monetary compensation amongst practicing medicine men. These changes have resulted in a shift of values and a challenge in maintaining a ceremonial structure. As the Nalchid was eliminated with one of the most significant Navajo treaties, it should seem that the era of traditional leadership was also eliminated. These leads into the final concerns: actual government structures and the priorities they make.

While it is important for the Navajo government to be focused on language and culture retention, it is also hypocritical of it to pursue such endeavors while completely adopting American democracy structures, Christian principles, and non-Navajo values. This betrayal begins when reviewing the history of the Navajo government: in essence, it was formed to hand over oil lease-making capabilities to the American government. In its place, we now see Navajos supporting extractive industries for the sole purpose of being competitive in the economy. In so many ways, the Navajo Nation – at least as a governmental structure – has adopted a mentality that views “poverty” in the same way that many non-Indians monetarily base it, have supported rigorously the concept of land ownership, and have not called into question enough the concern that, while tradition should remain, a separation of Church and State is commonplace in the American democratic system. Instead, we are faced to wonder what might become of centuries of resilience to dissolution in the face of policies meant to foster assimilation.





















Christianity and Navajo Sovereignty: Colonization’s Influence on the Navajo Political Structure

Since perhaps the beginning of time, Christianity and Navajo tradition evolved, grew, and spread on completely parallel paths. Although they are on opposite sides of the world, the two religions actually share many of the same values. For one, they respect theories of creation, existence, purpose, and duty to a holy figure(s). This respect dictates much of how they govern themselves and function in daily life. There are certain rituals that both religions require which help to maintain a balance acceptable to each religion’s individual belief system. In fact, many religions could be described as fundamentally similar as they, in many respects, are like a political ideology designed to create and maintain peace within society. They unite people. They create a tradition.

Yet it is when that unity forms superior coalitions over other groups of people and when the Word of God is bared as a weapon that religions like Christianity transform into something different. When Christianity transformed into Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery, it became a highly influential and highly deadly reign of terror, especially in Indian Country. Beginning with the era of the Spanish Inquisition and the genocide of peoples from present-day Caribbean down to South America, Christianity was used for cultural erasure. Centuries later, it was still being used to build political framework. Its values have been written into the American Constitution and way of thinking, even when Separation of Church and State attempts to remove it.

Most “New World” contact with Christianity came first from the Spanish. The very title “New World”, alluding to the “discovery” of two more continents, demonstrates the “us” and “them” notion Europeans held that made the “them” (“uncivilized indigenous peoples”) irrelevant in society. Because the ideals being practiced in the Catholic Church at that time had a very strict concept on what made “civil society”, the Spanish were amongst the many Europeans who were incapable of viewing indigenous life without their biased lenses. These lenses meant that enormous and complex civilizations such as the Aztec, with impressive structures that attract tourists to this day, were viewed as incompetent, simplistic, and heathen. The Doctrine of Discovery elaborated on that notion, giving Spanish and other Europeans cause to “civilize” indigenous peoples under the guise it would save their souls. (Wilkins)

Today, missions still attempt to influence indigenous communities. However, the techniques they use could most harshly be called bribery. They build new churches, schools, houses, wells, and things that appeal to the community while passing out Bibles and literature for conversion. The mission work of early Spanish colonization, on the other hand, can most harshly be called genocide. Their techniques included mutilation, torture, enslavement, and murder. If the diseases they brought did not destroy large populations, their brutality and capture of indigenous peoples did. These practices were rampant during the 1500s and continued for centuries in different forms across different parts of the “New World” as a power tool. This marked the beginning of a power struggle era that continues to affect tribes who are “excluded, marginalized and ‘Othered’” in a number of contexts. (Smith, 35)

The Navajos first made contact with the Spanish in 1583 in the vicinity of Mount Taylor. Coronado had claimed the New Mexico territory for Spain in 1540, and in 1607 Santa Fe was established as the capital. The Spanish “rule” in the area would last until the Mexican overthrow in 1826. (Wilkins) During these nearly 300 years of occupation, the Spanish continued their assaults on the Navajo, the Pueblos, and various other tribes in the area. They manipulated tribes against one another for their own personal gain and sent conquest after conquest to find the large swaths of gold they were convinced awaited them in this “New World”. Spain’s interests in this land were strictly to exploit it for its resources and take the wealth back to the crown. These resources not only included land and minerals but also people. As a means of manipulation, they also attempted to sign numerous treaties with the Navajo.

These treaties were manipulative because they demanded things from the Navajos that were often one-sided requests. They were also manipulative because of the conduct in which they were signed. During this time, there were five distinct bands identified among the Navajos. The largely decentralized structure of the tribe was neither convenient for the Spanish nor well comprehended on account of the lenses through which they viewed all indigenous societies. For these reasons, they imposed on the Navajos they encountered the political framework to which they were accustomed. Rather than requesting to meet with a collection of Naat’aanii, who actually better represented the voice of the tribe, they handpicked a single Naat’aanii or even a couple of Navajos not in a recognized leadership position and “anointed” them as “Chief”. This resulted in treaties that were not acknowledged by the entire tribe. It also created friction within the tribe itself, leading to the Cebolleta band’s designation “Enemy Navajos”. (Wilkins)

This schism remained for centuries amongst the Navajos. As the Pueblos around Santa Fe were close to and especially impacted by the Spanish brutality in the name of Christianity, the Cebolleta, who were the easternmost band and therefore the closest to Santa Fe, often negotiated with the Spanish to protect themselves. Their continued “selling out” intensified the animosity felt amongst the bands. The Spanish capitalized on this animosity in an attempt to divide and conquer the Navajos and continued to transpose their views of what constitutes as leadership, views that were heavily entrenched in their Christian values of the time.

From the Spanish era also came a wealth of livestock, including sheep, horses, and cows. The sheep brought wool, and weaving became a trade of many Navajos. Silver-making also found its way into Navajo trades. Many of the styles of jewelry still used today come from Spanish armor details, including the squash blossom – a modified version of the pomegranate that was reclassified as pomegranates were not known in the southwest in that time. (Iverson) Although trade and even acculturation were always a part of Navajo life and survival, these influences from the Spanish were the first tastes of assimilation that would later sweep all of Indian Country.

The Mexican rule in Navajo territory was very brief, from 1826 to 1846. The Mexican government repeated the errors of the Spanish in its treaty-making process with Navajo “leaders”. When the American government seized the entire New Mexico territory, they too made this error. It took until the Treaty of 1868 before true leadership was gathered and an agreement was negotiated. (Wilkins) However, everything about the Long Walk, Bosque Redondo, and even the Treaty of 1868 was a snapshot of the continued attitude of racial and religious inferiority against indigenous peoples. Most significantly to the analysis of how Christianity has affected modern Navajo society during this era is the Treaty of 1868 and the assimilating values embedded in its thirteen articles.

On July 1, 1868, the Treaty of 1868’s creation was concluded at Bosque Redondo. It was advised for ratification on July 25, 1868 and then proclaimed on August 12, 1868. Its thirteen articles are still applicable today to define the relationship between the Navajo Nation and the federal government. Article I called for the cessation of war and wrongdoing. Article II delineated the Reservation proper. Article III called for the construction of a warehouse, agency building, carpenter and blacksmith shops, schoolhouse, and chapel. Article IV assigned an agent reporting to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Navajo people. Article V established the distribution of land to individuals. Article VI made education for children compulsory. (Wilkins)

Article VII provided seeds and agricultural implements, and Article VIII includes other provisions to be given. Article IX demands that railroads, military posts, and roads be able to cross the reservation and that no attacks may happen to US citizens or their belongings. Article X established conditions for the validation of any future treaties. Article XI outlined provisions for Navajos to return to the Reservation from the prison camp. Article XII appropriated monies and, finally, Article XIII was the agreement to making the Reservation the permanent home for the Navajo. The treaty was signed by W.T. Sherman (Lieutenant General Indian Peace Commissioner), S.F. Tappan (Indian Peace Commissioner), and numerous leaders including Barboncito, Armijo, Delgado, Manuelito, Largo, Narbono, Ganado Mucho, etc. (Wilkins)

On the surface, these terms seem like a possibly honest effort to reestablish the Navajos. It provides them with some means of farming, livestock, food, clothes, monies, and also services. However, this is yet another tool of transposing values onto a tribal nation. Article II and Article V created distinct land boundaries for the tribe as well as boundaries for individual land ownership. The concepts of land ownership and static inhabitation go very strongly against the traditional values of Navajos. Without even taking into consideration the spiritual implications of delineating land for ownership, the static state of living was never part of tradition or resource management. Many Navajos have summer homes as well as winter homes. Their farming practices relied on fluidity as well, such as planting corn in areas that flood and utilizing canyons for growing peach orchards. The idea that a Navajo could sustain him- or herself completely on one tract of land does not fit into the cultural context.

As Berry states, the changes of a farming system is “a matter of complex significance, and its agricultural significance cannot be disentangled from its cultural significance… At certain critical points these systems have to conform with one another or destroy one another”. (Berry, 45-7) Smith in Native Science emphasizes this idea, stating that Native cultures are a product of their pre-Columbian state as well as the current federal policies that altered their lives. In terms of landownership, the “communal nature of resource allocation and decision making” was the backbone of many community function. Smith points out that, in the traditional framework, “no single individual has clear and proper title to any parcel of land, meaning that decisions must be made by or for the whole tribe”. (Smith, 62) In these ways, Articles II and V are transposing Western concepts of how Navajos should live and is therefore one (although relatively subtle) mechanism of assimilation.

Article VII, similarly, dictates the Navajo agrarian lifestyle. Although southwest tribes actually had incredibly well-adapted methods for growing crops suited for their environment, Americans did not acknowledge their techniques as being intelligent. Rather, they viewed their lifestyles as lacking. Generations later, we are suffering as a nation from the impacts of such American farming techniques as monocropping. It is clearly not an intelligent method, considering contemporary concerns. Yet the Treaty of 1868 demonstrates the headstrong attitude that American society was civil, proper, and rightful society, so Article VII distributed the tools to assimilate Navajos to American-approved farming methods.

Article III is a great example of the kinds of services Americans prioritized and therefore imposed on the Navajos. Not only were they imposing a different political framework for the distribution of services, they were also imposing their values and idea of how a society should function. Through the creation of warehouses and blacksmith shops, for example, they were suggesting these elements are pertinent to being “civilized”, as if lacking such things equates to a lack of advancement, capacity, and intelligent. Most critically, of course, is the provision for a chapel to be constructed. With this inclusion, it is crystal clear that the American government believed Navajos needed their Christian god to have a future as a civilized society. Finally, assimilation can also be seen in the demand for a schoolhouse. Article VI’s call for compulsory education excludes the possibility that Navajos are already educated, meaning it does not recognize traditional teachings and ways. The Americans only acknowledged formal education using the framework they value. Sadly, Article VI also opens the doors to a future program of residential boarding schools, cultural erasure, and the installment of generations of trauma.

1868 was a turning point in many ways for the Navajo, although not always for the better. It freed them from enslavement, but it also promoted the transposition of political and societal frameworks rooted in Christian values. Politically, the Naałchid, which was never acknowledged by any European or American government, disappeared around the time of imprisonment. (Wilkins) The Naałchid was crucial to maintaining the traditions and traditional structure of Navajo society. It was heavily based in ceremony and also community involvement. Traditional indigenous values and leadership are described as “a spiritual mindset in which one thinks in the highest, most respectful, and most compassionate way, thus systematically influencing the actions of both individuals and the community”, and therefore the Naałchid’s existence symbolized the resilience of culture and values in the midst of severe oppression. (Cajete, 276)

When the Naałchid ceased to exist, the American government was able to impose a Commissioner (Article IV) to oversee the implementation of the federal government’s tools of assimilation on the Navajos. Decolonizing Methodologies says it well by stating: “When confronted by the alternative conceptions of other societies, Western reality became reified as representing something ‘better’, reflecting ‘higher orders’ or thinking, and being les prone to the dogma, witchcraft and immediacy of people an societies which were so ‘primitive’.” (Smith, 51) In subsequent years, the resurrection of formal Navajo government was merely an extension of the arm of federal agents to control Navajo resources.   The assault on indigenous peoples continued through policy:

“Federal policy has had two competing policy goals when dealing with the First Nations: recognition of sovereignty and resource acquisition. The first policy goal acknowledges the Indian Nations as individual and sovereign entities with which treaties and international agreements are to be made. The second policy, best defined by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, includes acquiring all available resources for use and employment in the economy of the United States.” (Smith, 39)

The erasure of traditional government its replacement of an American structure facilitated this kind of political assault.

The death of the Naałchid is important because it also meant the death of women leadership and women vote amongst the Navajo Nation. Censuses conducted by the United States as a means of assessing the need and distribution of certain services outlined by the Treaty of 1868 transposed Christian, Western values in its very methods. For example, a head of house would be an adult male. This imposes a concept of what makes a human an adult. It also imposes the concept that women are accessories to a household and not significant except as housewives. Even community voice was now limited to the male figure as women were discouraged from participating in elections. With the Indian Citizens Act of 1924 establishing Native Americans as U.S. citizens and therefore creating voting rights for them in elections, women were still left out. Native women would not receive the right to vote in such elections until as late as the 1960s. (Wilkins) What part of these changes sound Navajo in a tribe that revolves around its matrilineal community relationships? None do, because they are all values transposed from a Christian-dominated, predominantly white, and patrilineal society.

The residential boarding schools created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs have an awful legacy that emphasizes the further imposition of Christian values on indigenous societies. “From being direct descendants of sky and earth parents,” reads a passage of Decolonizing Methodologies, “Christianity positioned some of us as higher-order savages who deserved salvation in order that we could become children of God”. (Smith, 35) In an attempt to “civilize” them, children of sovereign nations were ripped from their families and their cultures for years at a time, made to dress in Western clothes, made to cut their hair, taught English, and made to practice Christianity. The federal government’s slogan for this schooling program was, literally, “Kill the Indian, save the man”. While some families took advantage of the program, believing it was in the best interest of their families and their children, most had no choice. Children were subjected to brutally and a high degree of trauma that burdens individuals to this day. Even to this day, education is often taught from the view of the oppressors. Cajete captures this idea biased educational standards, stating “through the curriculum and its underlying theory of knowledge, early schools redefined the world and where indigenous peoples were positioned within the world.” (Cajete, 34)

With these assimilation policies in effect coming into the 20th century, Navajos begin dressing more and more like Americans. The three-tiered traditional skirt, for example, is a product of this acculturation to whatever degree it was actually forced or voluntary. Yet the assimilation policies increasingly focused on the political framework of nations themselves as the years passed and resources were desired on land reserved through relatively recent treaty enactments. This became especially critical on the Navajo Nation when oil was discovered in 1922. (Wilkins) Within one year, the federal government managed to swoop in and create a business council with handpicked Navajos. The focus was not on community building and organization, of course; it was on oil rights and leasing. This is an example of what Smith is describing in Native Science when he states: “Conflicts between culture and economic activity can arise. Past development strategies either were conducted by outside interests for the benefit of outsiders or were designed with the goal of assimilating the tribes into the mainstream capitalist-style economy.” (Smith, 15)

Although the Navajo Tribal Council has gone through a number of changes and reforms since the original council was created, the reality remains that Navajo leadership was no more the Naałchid. It was becoming increasingly American. In fact, studies by the Diné Policy Institute on government reorganization recommendations confirm that the present-day Navajo government is merely a copycat of the American democratic system. Only a small amount of traditional values have been incorporated, and they were late in coming. Beginning with the American attempt to reorganize tribal government with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, Navajos were being pressured repeatedly to adopt a Constitution and to reform their system. They repeatedly turned it down, only occasional attempting to appease the Bureau of Indian Affairs with a draft. (Wilkins) To this day, no Constitution draft has been both accepted by the Council and approved by the federal government. With all the changes the structure continuing to parallel the American system, the question remains today if a Constitution would be beneficial.

The Navajo Nation Council remains unique from most American government systems in that it is unicameral; however, the rest of the government is a three-branch model after the American democratic framework. The 110 chapters, representing local government, are slightly reminiscent of the Naat’aani years of the past. The Chairman and Vice-Chairman positions have, in the last decade, been transferred to a President and Vice-President position to further copy the American model. (Wilkins) Presently, the Navajo Nation exercises tribal sovereignty authority by having its own cell service and utility company, its own tribal parks, and even numerous entities such as Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, Navajo Nation Occupation Safety & Health Administration, and Navajo Nation Division of Transportation. However, these are also copycat structures, adapted from the federal government. Most tribal government offices actually report to the federal offices of the same nature and are obligated to do so by law.

The concept of Checks and Balances is also incorporated into the structure, following the American organization. This became a hot topic in 1989 after the Tribal Council scandals, and the embezzlement of tribal and federal funds continues to be an issue. (Wilkins) Some argue our current tribal leaders, victims of the residential school era, are byproducts of systematic oppression and that their trauma is evidenced through their values and choices. Just a short trip across the Navajo Nation will reveal the shift of values in the leaders as well as the people, as paved roads, cars, and rodeos are thoroughly juxtaposed against hogans, livestock, and chapter signs in the Navajo language. Perhaps these shifts and these histories help explain the values Councilmen uphold in the present day.

Society is always fluid and should be that way, so it is not to say that the Navajo Nation should remain static. Static things fail to sustain themselves in the world. As Smith describes, “maintaining cultural integrity does not necessitate returning to pre-Columbia economies…Rather, the behavioral characteristics that make an individual an Apache or a Navajo or a Mohawk are maintained and developed”. (Smith, 15) The shift of values includes the resistance for women to be community leaders or to have certain rights. Whereas traditional Navajo society viewed women as sacred, like many indigenous nations, the residue of past Christian influence and forced assimilation has altered that perspective. No longer sacred as they once were, and also caught often in a vicious cycle of trauma and substance abuse, indigenous women are now facing the highest rates of violence, including domestic violence. Navajo women are not immune to that statistic. The striking down of same-sex marriage’s recognition on the Navajo Nation is another example of how missions and policy have ingrained Christian values to the point that the Two-Spirit society of hundreds of tribal nations are being forgotten and dishonored. These mentalities are learned, not traditional or inherited.

Another example of these shifts in tribal leadership is the current President Russell Begaye and his values. While he was elected after Chris Deschene’s disqualification for not meeting an arbitrary degree of Navajo language fluency, and while Begaye is in support of promoting tribal sovereignty through language retention, he is also known for his refusal to partake in a traditional ceremony during his inauguration. Although Vice President Jonathan Nez partook, Begaye opted for a Christian equivalent. His devotion to Christianity permeates his policy-making and opinions regarding how to govern the Navajo people. This contradiction is problematic as it raises questions about the Separation of Church and State. Should such an argument be used to hold him to all required traditional practices of modern day leadership, such as the language requirement, would the argument for such separation be made? If so, that point threatens the last threads of resistance to assimilation: incorporating traditional values and customs in the governmental system and even in the tribal colleges’ educational framework.

From the first encroachment of the Spanish to the current American-Navajo trust relationship, the assimilation of values and frameworks have been rapidly impacting and in many ways traumatizing the Navajo society. This degree of colonization has resulted in a number of structural changes and value shifts. Although the Navajo system does attempt to incorporate the values of Sa’ah naaghai bik’eh hozhoon, the overarching structures, policies, and even paradigms reflect the values of a Western society rooted in Christian values. (Wilkins) Until the Navajo Nation is able to shake its learned stigmas against women and other realms also shunned by certain non-indigenous religious extremes, it will be difficult for the tribal government to truly function as the leadership structure of a sovereign nation.


















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