Guest blogger Jennifer Denetdale examines the 1913 uprising at Beautiful Mountain to illustrate how, through cultural and legal processes, the Diné were transformed into ideal citizens of both the United States and their tribal nation that was increasingly modeled after the settler colonial state. Employing Indigenous feminisms and queer Indigenous critiques, Denetdale illuminates the processes by which tribal nations have been fashioned into heteronormative patriarchies and the necessity of engaging gender in discussions of tribal nationbuilding and decolonization.
Return to the 1913 Uprising at Beautiful Mountain
By Jennifer Denetdale
In the aftermath of the American all-out war on the Diné and their incarceration at the Bosque Redondo prison reservation, they were allowed to return to their homeland in 1868. As Raymond Austin points out, Navajo traditional leaders lost a significant amount of authority and autonomy when they came under the authority of first the U.S. military and, later, the Indian agents during the Bosque Redondo period.[i] From 1863 into the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Navajos were characterized as still having a significant measure of cultural autonomy. At the same time, the Diné were marked as “rebellious” and “defiant” through a number of events that occurred during this period. One particular event, the uprising at Beautiful Mountain, was but one of several where Navajos and Hopis challenged U.S. authority.
In this essay, I take Patrick Wolfe’s concepts of the process of elimination and “invasion [as] a structure not an event” to illuminate the workings of American colonialism on the Diné Nation, and how the U.S.’s all-out war on the Diné shifted to a different, more subtle war after 1868.[ii] The Beautiful Mountain case illustrates how the transition of the Diné into willing citizens of the U.S. and then their own tribal nation occurred through institutions that regulated and employed technologies of surveillance to monitor their identities and practices, from education and health to marriage and sexuality. The process of eliminating Indigenous peoples was a sustained practice that permeated the intent of all American institutions and my analysis of the “uprising” at Beautiful Mountain illustrates how — through cultural and legal processes — the Diné were transformed into citizens of both the United States and tribal nations as heteronormative nuclear family units. Such an examination illuminates how these processes of transformation are still presented as neutral and benign.
In 1913, the Indian agent, William T. Shelton, at Shiprock, New Mexico, learned from one of his Navajo policemen that another Navajo, Hata’lii Yazhi (Little Singer), had three wives. Shelton was one of those zealous government officials who were determined to stamp out all Indigenous customs and practices that did not conform to U.S. ideology about family, marriage, and sexuality. Previously, he had been involved in other efforts to coerce Navajos to conform to American values and customs in regions such as Aneth, Utah. J. Lee Correll characterized Shelton as a “puritanical disciplinarian who would tolerate no opposition to his arbitrary and autocratic methods.” [iii]
Shelton organized a raid to put an end to the polygamous practices, but Little Singer and the other Navajo men were away, so the police arrested the women and took them to the Shiprock jail. Upon return, the men discovered the women missing. After some consultation, the nine men, including Little Singer’s father “attacked” the Indian agents, fired their guns in the air and generally created havoc. Returning to his post, Indian agent Shelton immediately telegraphed for support from the U.S. Army. In response to the Indian agent’s complaint, General Scott brought 380 men from Fort Robinson, Nebraska. After several weeks, and with the intervention of the Franciscan Anslem Weber and Navajo leaders recognized by the federal government, the men were compelled to give themselves up to American justice. Scott parlayed with the “recalcitrant” Indians for two days and had Thanksgiving dinner with them (mutton was substituted for turkey). At different times, the men insisted that they had done nothing wrong and that Shelton was harsh and mean-spirited. Nine of the men stood trial for rioting; Little Singer and another man were given 30 days and the rest of the men were to serve 10 days, all of the sentences to be served out in the Gallup jail.
The initial reason for the event revolved around polygamy and the Indian agent’s determination to abolish the practice. However, the charge does not get answered by judicial authorities. Lost also in the narratives produced about the event are the women who are never heard from. Neither do we learn anything about polygamy as a traditional Navajo practice. Rather, narratives center on Father Anslem Weber’s efforts to bring the Navajo men to American justice without bloodshed. Weber is cast as a longtime advocate who worked tirelessly to secure land for Navajos who had settled in areas outside of the original 1868 treaty reservation. Cast as sympathetic to Navajos, Weber believed that only when Navajos were settled into communities would their conversion to Catholicism be possible.[iv]
Along with Weber, Navajo leader Chee Dodge and the translator Frank Walker successfully persuaded the eleven Diné men to surrender to American authorities and be tried in Santa Fe. The men were tried upon a variety of charges, including horse stealing and rioting. What became the issue was the Navajo men’s refusal to acknowledge the authority of the Indian agent. Further, the U.S. attorney refused to issue a warrant for polygamy against Little Singer. Weber notes, “He [the U.S. attorney] was of the opinion that the Indians ought to be educated to a certain standard of morality before being prosecuted in the courts for such offenses.”
After hearing from Weber and Chee Dodge, who spoke on behalf of the prisoners, the judge lectured the guilty men for approximately 30 minutes: “If they (the Indians) obeyed the law, all white people would be their friends and help them; if they disobeyed the law they would have to be punished; they had been right in some things and wrong in others; they had had a perfect right to go and see Mr. Shelton about the women prisoners. Every man, white, red or black had a right to protect his family.” The judge then went to the crux of the matter: the men should not have taken away Shelton’s prisoners and they should have surrendered immediately to the military. He then delivered sentences: Little Singer and Niduhullin Binalli were both sentenced to serve 30 days in a Gallup jail. Binalli’s sentence resulted from his assault on the policeman during the process of re-acquiring the women. The other five men were sentenced to 10 days in the Gallup jail.
In re-examining the uprising at Beautiful Mountain, I take the idea of Indian violence and how it was used to further reservation administrators’ efforts to transform Indians into compliant colonial subjects: “Reservation administrators had long sought to transform Indian people from conquered enemies into colonial subjects who were –and who saw themselves as—part of the American state.”[v] Shifting from all-out wars on Indigenous people once they had been militarily subjected the U.S. moved to civil kinds of violence to create “perfected Natives,” who would never have been treated as equals, but fit in the lower echelons of American society. Knowledge about Diné collected through institutions and technologies transformed Navajo enemies into American subjects and simultaneously as the Navajo nation established itself on democratic principles, became self-regulating and enforced its own boundaries around heterosexual patriarchy as normative. In the narratives about the uprising, the original charge of polygamy gets lost and the women who are rescued from the Indian agent’s jail disappear. There are no questions about multiple marriages as a traditional Navajo practice nor how Navajo kin relations structure polygamy.
Viewing this case through a gendered, decolonizing lens shows the historical process by which the Diné were incorporated into the white heteronormative patriarchal American nation.[vi] By the 1950s, their transformation as U.S. citizens was also indicated by the adoption of American systems of governance, economics, and social organization. My analysis of the uprising and its aftermath speaks to, first, the erasure of the amount of violence and coercion used to turn Natives into colonial subjects. Secondly, it raises questions about the nature of technologies of surveillance and the institutions used to transform Natives into their own version of heteronormative nations and community. It also gives us pause as Diné and Indigenous peoples about the possibilities for decolonization—in a time when tribal nations and leaders face issues and problems that have a foundation in the legacy of U.S. colonialism, we should take stock and articulate visions about the realization of true sovereignty and what that means for all of our tribal citizens.
As the first Diné/Navajo to earn a PhD in history, Dr. Jennifer Denetdale is a strong advocate for Native peoples and strives to foster academic excellence in the next generation of students. Her book, Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 2007. She has published two young adult books on Navajo history: The Long Walk: The Forced Navajo Exile (Chelsea House Publishers, 2007) and The Navajo (Chelsea House Publishers, 2011). The excerpt that appears here is part of a chapter from her work-in-progress on the Navajo Nation, gender, and the politics of tradition. Dr. Denetdale was recently reappointed to the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission by Johnny Naize, Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council.
[i] Raymond D. Austin, Navajo Courts and Navajo Common Law: A Tradition of Self-Governance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 8-13.
[ii] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8(4) (2006): 387-409.
[iii] J. Lee Correll, Bai-a-lil-le,: Medicine Man or Witch? (Window Rock, Ariz.: Research Section, Navajo Parks & Rec., The Navajo Tribe, 1970).
[iv] Robert L. Wilken, Anslem Weber. O.F.M.: Missionary to the Navaho, 1898-1921 (Milwaukee, Wisc.: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1955).
[v] Philip J. Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places (Lawrence: University Press of of Kansas, 2004), 4-14.
[vi] Scott Lauria Morgensen, “Settler Homonationalism: Theorizing Settler Colonialism Within Queer Modernities,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16: 1-2 (2010): 105-131.