It’s Women’s History Month, and we would like to take this opportunity to celebrate Annie Dodge Wauneka, the first Native American to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was granted the medal in 1963 by President Lyndon Johnson for her efforts to improve health care among her people. 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.”
Her first foray into the health care field came early, when she was just 8 years old, and an influenza outbreak hit the boarding school she was attending in Fort Defiance, Arizona. She “learned the skills of nursing and discovered a vocation in service, especially in health care, as she helped the staff treat the other children,” American National Biography Online says. She contracted influenza, but survived. Later, an outbreak of trachoma hit the school, and she again helped the nurses take care of the other students.
She not only found her love of health care while at boarding school, she also met the man who would become her husband, George Wauneka. They married in 1929 and would have six children.
Annie Wauneka was born April 10, 1910 on the Navajo Reservation, near what is now Sawmill, Arizona. Her father, Chee Dodge, was a Navajo leader, and the wealthiest man in the local community. Her father spoke fluent English and had been an interpreter for the government. The family home was on a ranch and more like a farmhouse than the traditional Navajo hogans.
That’s not all she was doing in the ‘50s though, she went back to college and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona in public health. Then, in 1959 she was given the Arizona State Public Health Association’s Outstanding Worker in Public Health Award.
The spread of tuberculosis among her people was the topic of a Navajo Tribal Council meeting in 1953, and she was well prepared to head the health committee to address it. According to her biographer, her decision to chair the health committee “was the major event that defined the next thirty years of her life, eventually thrusting her to the national platform of Indian health care concerns.”
She implemented campaigns against not just tuberculosis, but trachoma, influenza, and sanitary conditions, clean drinking water, alcoholism, and peyote use on the reservation.
One of her biggest contributions to help Navajos get better health care was the creation of a dictionary of medical terms. “She thus demystified non-traditional medical practices for the people of the tribe, quelling their fears and superstitions,” says the Annie Wauneka College. It also allowed for better communication between patients and doctors.
Wauneka walked on in November 1997 at the age of 87. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame on October 7, 2000.