Published on January 25, 2011 by Casey
Native American Henry Chee Dodge (c.1857 – 1947) was one of the most famous and revered Navajo tribal leaders. Developing bilingual skills early in his life, Dodge served as a translator and interpreter, providing a bridge between the United States Army and the Navajos. Later he served many years as the Navajo head chief. He was also the first chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council, an organization that he helped establish.
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Dodge was born at Fort Defiance in what is now Arizona. In his early life, he endured poverty, starvation and the subjugation of his people by the U.S. Army. From those circumstances, he grew up to become a prosperous businessman and landowner. But, more importantly, he became a respected tribal leader and an advocate for the improvement of the lives of the Navajo people.
It is not clear exactly when Dodge was born, and there has been disagreement about just who his parents were. However, in recent years, facts have been pieced together that begin to offer a more definitive account. Some historians dated Dodge’s birth at 1860 and reported that his father was Juan Anea (also known as Anaya, Cocinas or Cosonisas, and Gohsinahsu). Anea was a Mexican silversmith who worked for Captain Henry L. Dodge, a Navajo Indian agent at Fort Defiance, where Henry Chee Dodge was born. Supposedly, Anea had named his son after Captain Dodge, whom he greatly respected.
On these points, there are questions as to whether Anea was truly Chee Dodge’s father, but it does appear true that the future Navajo leader was born at Fort Defiance. The fort had been established as a military base from which the U.S. Army could patrol the Navajo territory in what is now New Mexico and Arizona. (The fort was later used as an internment camp and then became a governing agency for the tribe.)
In 1888, in a sworn affidavit, Henry Chee Dodge himself stated that he was born at the fort. But even he was uncertain of his own birth year, as he wrote that he was “about” thirty years old. He also said that he was the son of a white army officer and a Navajo woman. His mother was most likely Bisnayanchi, who was a Navajo-Jemez Pueblo woman from the Ma’iideshgizhnii (Coyote Pass) clan. The army officer was the aforementioned Henry L. Dodge, and it appears most likely that he was indeed Henry Chee Dodge’s father. Historian David M. Brugge, in an essay titled “Henry Chee Dodge: From the Long Walk to Self Determination,” reported that, in 1875, Augustus C. Dodge, who was Henry L. Dodge’s brother, revealed that he had an eighteen-year-old nephew, the son of a Navajo woman and his brother, who lived at Fort Defiance.
Historian and author Marc Simmons, Ph.D., in an article published in The New Mexican helped shed more light on the story. Simmons indicated that Henry L. Dodge, who was killed by Apaches in 1856, was “an interesting and well-known character on the Southwestern frontier.”
Henry Dodge was a native Missourian who fought in the Black Hawk Indian War when he was twenty-two years old. After he left the army, he later turned up in New Mexico, in early 1846. Simmons reported that Henry Dodge was appointed treasurer of the new American government formed in Santa Fe, and then the army made him agent for the Quartermaster Department at the outpost of Cebolleta in the mountains west of Albuquerque, close to Navajo country. The appointment had a profound effect on his life. “Henry L. Dodge,” wrote Simmons, “found his true love – the Navajo people.”
Henry Dodge learned the Navajo language and became an agent for the tribe in 1853. In that position, he was determined to make sure the people were treated fairly. In turn, the Navajos liked and respected Dodge and called him Bi’ee lichii (red shirt), because of his favored piece of apparel. Dodge also married a Navajo woman.
In November 1856, after Coyotero Apaches attacked Zuni Pueblo, Henry Dodge joined army soldiers in their pursuit. When he left the group to go deer hunting, the Apaches killed him. A few months later, Henry Dodge’s wife gave birth to a boy who became known as Henry Chee Dodge. This would place his birth at 1857, and not 1860. His name was a combination of his Navajo name, Kiilchii’ (which meant red), and his father’s name.
Other accounts of Henry Chee Dodge’s parentage are variations of a basic narrative containing similar elements (e.g., Navajo mother, father who was murdered). For instance, in one account, which indicated that Dodge was the son of a Bisnayanchi and Anea, the Mexican silversmith reportedly was killed while trying to recover stolen Navajo horses. But, beyond the accounts of Henry Chee Dodge’s origins, all narratives seem to agree on the basic facts regarding his early life.
After Henry L. Dodge was killed, Bisnayanchi took her infant son with her when she rejoined her people, the Coyote Pass Clan. Simmons reports that Henry Chee Dodge lived in the Navajo world until he was seven or eight, unaware of his true parentage.
In 1864, the Navajos’ world was ripped apart by the U.S. Army invasions, which were launched in response to Navajo raids that took place around Fort Defiance. Navajos who were not killed or captured split off into small groups that tried to stay one step ahead of the marauding soldiers.
Dodge and his mother were part of one such group. Their fugitive existence entailed hardships and starvation. One day, Bisnayanchi told her son that she was going to set out across the desert to look for food, and she left Dodge with relatives. She never returned.
Dodge was passed from family to family, until one day he got separated from his people and wandered alone in the wilderness for several days. Fortunately, at the point when Dodge neared starvation, he was found by an old man and his eight-year-old granddaughter. They were part of the “Long Walk” to Fort Sumner, where Navajos were being sent by the U.S. Army. After the U.S. Army had subdued the Navajos in the 1864 campaign, Colonel Kit Carson and a group of officers forcibly marched the surviving Navajos to the Bosque Redondo Reservation at Fort Sumner, which was essentially a concentration camp. The forced “walk” stretched several hundred miles, from what is now northeast Arizona to northwest New Mexico. At the end of the march, the Navajos – that is, those that survived the grueling ordeal – were incarcerated.
Dodge accompanied the old man and his granddaughter to the reservation, where he lived with them for four years. In 1868, Dodge returned to Fort Defiance with other Navajos. He met an aunt and lived with her. The woman, one of his mother’s sisters, had married an Anglo trader named Perry H. Williams, who subsequently taught Dodge the English language and gave him a clerking job at his trading post. In that position, Dodge used his bilingual skills as a translator. He also learned Spanish.
Dodge also lived with an Indian Agent named W. F. M. Arny, who allowed the young boy to attend the Fort Defiance Indian School, where he learned to read and write. In addition, Dodge found work with a freight company, as well as with renowned ethnographer Washington Matthews at Fort Wingate. Later, because of his considerable language and translation skills, Dodge helped Matthews write two books about the Navajos, Navajo Legends (1897) and The Night Chant (1901).
In the late 1870s, Arny hired Dodge to be the official Agency interpreter. By this time, Dodge developed a deep understanding of Navajo culture and, with language skills coupled with a keen sense of diplomacy, he often helped settle territorial disputes that arose between Navajos and encroaching settlers.
In 1883, Dodge was appointed chief of the Navajo police force, which had been established to help keep peace on the reservation. Again, his language skills proved useful, as he assisted as an interpreter in police investigations. He also managed to bring a calming, bilingual voice into potentially violent situations.
The following year, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Dennis M. Riordan appointed Dodge chief of the police force and, in 1885, Riordan made him head chief of the Navajo tribe at Fort Defiance. Also in 1885, Dodge, accompanied by a delegation of Navajo leaders, went to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Chester A. Arthur.
All of his various job positions, from clerking to serving a chief, enabled Dodge to save a substantial amount of money. In 1890, he bought a sheep ranch near Crystal, New Mexico, where he built a large home and started a successful trading post.
Settled and established in business, Dodge married his first wife, Asdzaa’ Tsi’naajinii. Reportedly, he later divorced her because her gambling habit threatened his financial security. According to some historical accounts, Dodge then married a woman named Nanabah and her younger sister. At that time, polygamy was both an accepted and expected practice in the Navajo culture. Coincidentally, Nanabah was a daughter of the girl who, with her grandfather, had found Dodge when he was a child.
In the meantime, his business continued growing and his ranch thrived. Nanabah proved to be as successful in business as her husband. She eventually amassed great wealth through real estate and cattle. As their separate business interests kept the husband and wife apart, Dodge married another woman, named K’eehabah. In all, Dodge would have eight wives and six children (Tom, Ben, Antoinette, Annie, Veronica and Josephine). He proved to be a caring father but a strong disciplinarian, and he made sure that his children were well educated.
In the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, Dodge spent much of his time tending his ranch and business, but he also continued working as an interpreter at Fort Defiance, helping agents resolve disputes. He also encouraged Navajos to become involved in issues related to mineral development and land rights as well as with federal programs. Further, he encouraged Navajo parents to send their children to the school at Fort Defiance.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Dodge grew in stature as a Navajo leader, and his guidance helped steer the tribe toward modernization. From 1864, the time of the U.S. Army attacks that sent the Navajos scattering, up until 1923, the tribe had no central leadership or tribal government. They lived as dispersed extended families, bound only by marriage ties and a shared language and culture. Dodge started bringing the people back together, at least in an organizational sense, when he helped form the first Navajo Tribal Council in 1923.
The council grew out of a Navajo business council that Dodge formed in 1922 with Dugal Chee Bekiss and Charley Mitchell to handle requests for oil exploration leases near the Fort Defiance reservation. The Navajo Tribal Council held its first meeting on July 7, 1923. Dodge was elected its first chairman four days later. He held the position until 1928. The council represented all nine of the existing Navajo districts and included 12 delegates and 12 alternate members.
At the time of council’s formation, the U.S. Government did not invest it with many substantial powers; still, the council managed to conduct a great part of Navajo business with the government and big business, as those entities sought to exploit the rich mineral and oil reserves on Navajo land. As leader of the council, Dodge did everything in his power to protect the rights of the Navajo people.
Moreover, with Dodge as its leader, the council itself steadily gained power. In one significant development, it earned the right to determine how oil lease royalties would be spent. In 1927, Dodge advocated before the government that the Navajos should receive 100 percent of the royalties from oil found under the reservation. This led to the creation of the Indian Oil Act of 1927, which directed that those states where oil was found were entitled to 37.5 percent of the royalties. Those states could only spend those funds on projects that benefited the Native American population, however. Further, the states had to first consult with the indigenous population before moving forward with any proposed projects.
Dodge stepped down as the council’s leader in 1928 because he wanted to spend more time at home, tending his sheep ranch and trading post. However, he remained active in Navajo politics throughout the next decade. One issue in particular involved his own business interests, as it had to do with sheep.
In 1934, John Collier, the commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was alerted to a problem of overgrazing on the Navajo reservation. Overgrazing been a problem before, because of the erosion it caused. In 1933, the Bureau had suggested that the Navajo reduce the number of sheep grazing on the reservation as a way of reducing the problem. But in 1934, Collier ordered the Navajo to reduce their livestock by more than half. Obviously, this upset the Navajo ranchers, and many of them became defiant.
The government had the upper hand, however, because of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Overall the Act represented an advance for the Navajos, as it provided them with more authority. At the same time, it allowed the government to limit the amount of livestock that could be raised on Indian reservations. Mustering his best diplomatic and negotiating skills, Dodge pleaded with Collier, citing the needs and feelings of the Navajo people; Collier remained unmoved. The government did offer to buy ewes for about one-dollar-a-head, and many Navajo ranchers agreed to reduce their herds. Other ranchers kept their most productive stock.
By 1936, hundreds of healthy sheep were being sacrificed to stock reduction, leading Dodge to accuse Collier of creating hunger and sickness among the Navajo people. Dodge even took his cause into a congressional hearing, without success.
Collier later admitted the sheep reduction was a bad idea, but by that time, the damage had been done. Dodge himself lost three-quarters of his own herd. Some Navajos put up a violent resistance, and they were either killed or imprisoned.
In 1942, Dodge was re-elected as chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council. By this time he was in his eighties. He spent his last active years informing the U.S government about the ongoing problems encountered by the Navajos and suggesting solutions.
In 1946, Dodge was elected vice-chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council, but he was unable to assume office. He contracted pneumonia and died on January 7, 1947, in Ganado, Arizona.
He was buried in the cemetery at Fort Defiance. He had become a well-known, well-respected and even well-loved figure during his life and hundreds of people, from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, attended his funeral.
His legacy lived on. Several of his children followed their father’s footsteps into leadership positions in the Navajo political system. In 1963, his daughter, Annie Dodge Wauneka, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Throughout his life, Dodge placed great importance on education for children. Appropriately, in 1989, a school, the Chee Dodge Elementary School, located in Yahtahey, New Mexico, was named in his honor.