Most people are familiar with the names Sandra Day O’Connor and Gabby Giffords. They are both associated with Arizona and national politics. O’Connor was the first woman to serve on the US Supreme Court. But Annie Dodge Wauneka and Vera Brown Starr were Apache women who have been important too, but few people recognize their names. Starr has become familiar to me because I visited the Native American Women of Arizona Monument on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Navajos live primarily in New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. The Navajo Nation has almost 300,000 citizens. There is no urban center among all of the Indian Reservations in the United States. The town of Kayenta, AZ, population about 5,500, is the nominal capital of the Navajo Nation. This nation within another nation controls the largest land area overseen by an indigenous tribe in the United States. The 2 women named above have contributed to this entity over the years. That’s how I know the name Vera Brown Starr.
Annie Dodge Wauneke, noted Navajo leader, lived to be 87. She began getting an education in Fort Defiance, AZ at the age of 8. She had humble jobs like tending the sick during a TB outbreak and keeping kerosene lanterns operable. She got a degree from the University of Arizona in Tucson. Her degree was in Public Health. In 1949 she became the first woman member of the Navajo Tribal Council. She received a Presidential Medal of Freedom and an honorary doctorate as she continued her mission to improve Native American health. Her entire life was spent trying to improve the lives of Navajos.
Vera Brown Starr’s name is inscribed on the Native American Women of Arizona Monument at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She died in 1985. She was the 1st woman chair of the Yavapai-Apache Nation. The Yavapai are a Native American tribe in Arizona. The “People of the Sun” were irrigation masters who settled in the Prescott area. The 2 historically distinct tribes joined together to form one nation in Arizona. Vera Brown Starr was a mentor during her lifetime who was devoted to improving her tribe.
The Navajo have always been a matriarchal society. Descent and inheritance, for example, are determined through one’s mother. Navajo women have owned most of this tribes resources and property, including livestock, over the years. When an Apache woman dies, her children are traditionally sent to live with her family. They are keepers of the cultural flame and are currently fighting the COVID pandemic.