Annie Dodge Wauneka

Annie Dodge Wauneka was a member of the Navajo tribe, who dedicated her life to improving the health & well-being of her people.

Born on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, Annie was the daughter of Navajo leader, Henry Chee Dodge. Her father was wealthy and could speak English; he had acted as a translator between the US government and the Navajo people, and become a successful businessman with a ranch, where Annie and her siblings grew up.

As a girl Annie tended to the sheep on her father’s ranch, which she enjoyed. Like many other young Navajo children, when she was 8 she was sent to the government-run boarding school. Her experience of leaving home and being sent to school led to her campaign later in life for schools to be built much closer to people’s homes across the reservation, so that children did not have to leave their families. 

At school she learned how to read and write in English. However, the defining moment of her school experience was during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Many of her classmates died, and Annie herself was ill for a time, but when recovered, she aided the school staff in nursing the other students. Many accounts of her life point to this as stirring in young Annie something of an awakening of her calling towards healthcare.

She moved to another government run boarding school, this time in Albuquerque. Here she met her husband, George, with whom she would go on to have 8 children.

When she left school and married George at the age of 19 her father asked them to move to, and run, one of his vast ranches on the Navajo reservation. Together they cared for cattle, sheep and horses. As Annie settled into family life on the ranch she was shocked by the poor conditions she saw her people living in around them.

Her father was a member of the Navajo Tribal Council and Annie often accompanied him to the meetings, as unusual as it was for a woman to attend. A few years after her father’s death, Annie was elected to the Council herself – only the second woman ever to have had the honor. For the next 27 years she was an important member of the Council, heading the Health & Welfare Committee and being elected Head of the Council three times – once even standing against her husband, who was also running, and beating him!

Annie was determined to improve conditions for her people. ”From my childhood,” she said, ”I have been aware of the problems of my tribe and have wanted to help make our people aware of them.”
Tuberculosis was a huge problem for the Navajo, so while George (Annie’s husband) stayed home and looked after the ranch and children, Annie went to study for 3 months to learn all she could about the disease and how to stop its spread. When she returned she earnestly set to work educating people about what she had learnt.

She didn’t stop there, one of her most significant achievements was the creation of an English-Navajo medical dictionary, which enabled white doctors and Navajo medicine men to communicate. She realised the importance of being able to bring together the traditional medicine men of the Navajo, who her people looked to and trusted, with the ‘white man’s’ medicine she knew could dramatically improve their conditions. In fact, this was a crucial aspect of the work which Annie did and key to much of her success in improving the health and well-being of the Navajo. She acted as a bridge between the two worlds, placing equal importance on each and helping the Navajo accept changes which would improve their health, without undermining their culture and traditions. She said,  ”The Navajo is caught in between. I must convince them to accept a mixture.”

She decided she needed to learn more, so went back to school to study for a degree in Public Health, equipping herself to help her people.

Her work extended beyond addressing tuberculosis to tackling other health concerns affecting her people including influenza, alcoholism & trachoma. She campaigned for people to have access to clean, running water and shared information about how people could improve the sanitation of their homes to prevent the spread of disease. She also worked hard with mothers and healthcare professionals to help decrease the rate of infant mortality, with simple things like access to warm clothing for newborns.

In 1960 she launched a radio show which was entirely in the Navajo language, aiming to increase access to information for those Navajo who could not speak or read English. She shared health information on her show, alongside popular news stories.

More than once Annie joined other tribal representatives in Washington DC, speaking on behalf of Navajo and other Native American people,  lobbying for their rights, access to healthcare and education.

In 1963 she was awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom, the first Native American to receive it.

wauneka__johnson_1963
Annie receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Lyndon B Johnson

The citation from the president read: “First woman elected to the Navajo Tribal Council; by her long crusade for improved health programs, she has helped dramatically to lessen the menace of disease among her people and to improve their way of life.”

This was just one of many awards and honors which she was given during her lifetime, recognising the amazing work she did serving the Navajo people. When she died Albert A. Hale, president of the Navajo Nation, called her ”our legendary mother” and ”the most honored Navajo in our history.”

Find out more…

The book I’ll Do More is a biography of Annie’s life.

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