Jennifer Denetdale, Ph.D.


First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is pleased to launch a new online series of essays that focuses on Native justice. With generous support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), First Nations invited multiple experts to discuss the root causes of Native injustice and highlight possible frameworks to move forward toward Native justice.

This essay by Dr. Jennifer Denetdale, department chair and professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico, exposes the “imaginary boundaries” between reservation and urban spaces. In this essay, Denetdale reminds us that “we are on Indigenous lands wherever we go in the Americas,” and must develop methods and strategies to respond to Indigenous injustice regardless of where it occurs. She emphasizes: “Justice for Native people will not be delivered by the settler state,” and must be addressed by tribes and tribal people through organizations such as the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission (NNHRC), which seeks to protect and promote the human rights of Navajo Nation citizens.

About Dr. Jennifer Denetdale

Jennifer Denetdale (Diné) is professor and chair of American studies at the University of New Mexico. She is the author of “Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita” (2007) and two Diné histories for young adults. She has authored numerous essays and articles. She is the chair of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and has served as commissioner for 12 years. She is the 2023 Benedict Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

Justice for Indigenous Nations in the Era of Settler Nation Occupation

By Dr. Jennifer Denetdale

In 2006, Clint John, a Diné man, was overheard being belligerent toward a woman he was with in a Farmington, New Mexico, Walmart store. His abusive behavior continued into the parking lot where he was confronted by police who had been called to a domestic violence scene.¹ What then unfolded, the killing of John by a white police officer, became another incident that sustains a recurring pattern: the treatment of Native and Diné people in border towns like Farmington. These killings are not as well-known as similar police killings of Black people in the U.S.

Longtime activist Chili Yazzie organized a march into Farmington to protest this police shooting, but the snipers poised to shoot at Diné people who had assembled that day convinced Yazzie to call off the march. He did not want to endanger the lives of his relatives.

Yazzie, himself, was the victim of violence when he hitched a ride to his home community of Shiprock (30 miles east of Farmington) and a white man picked him up and then shot him, leaving him wounded alongside the road. He lost his arm that day. The perpetrator was never caught. Yazzie later became the first chair of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission (NNHRC) of the Navajo Nation. Violence such as that perpetrated against John and Yazzie shed light on Native/Diné and non-Indian/white relations in urban spaces. Often, victims do not receive justice and perpetrators go free, especially in cases of police brutality and shootings. According to settler laws, the police were justified in their actions.

In response to John’s death, Navajo Nation Council delegate Irvin Keeswood created the NNHRC as an entity of the Navajo Nation that would address Navajo citizens’ complaints of racism and discrimination in border towns and cities. In 2008, the commission opened its doors with five seated commissioners to act as an advisory board to the newly hired Executive Director Leonard Gorman. The language of international human rights, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and Diné Fundamental Law inform the commission’s mission, which is to educate, protect, and advocate for Diné citizens who live in towns and cities.

In existence for 15 years, the commission actively engages with international human rights and U.S. civil rights forums, and Diné fundamental laws as the vehicle to advance Diné rights. Its directive is to protect Diné civil and human rights beyond the Navajo Nation’s borders and to educate about Indigenous human rights.

This essay explores the term “justice” when it is applied to places beyond the borders of designated tribal lands. As we know, tribal nations’ jurisdiction theoretically is bounded by its boundaries and their “domestic dependent” status under the colonial American government. Current events, such as the Supreme Court decision to uphold the Indian Child Welfare Act and the renewal of the execution of Native people convicted for major crimes under former President Donald Trump, for example, are based upon the logics of the U.S.’s sovereign right to treat Indigenous peoples as their citizens and without regard to the sovereign status of tribal nations.

Justice for Native peoples will not be delivered by the settler state, which always seeks to eliminate Indigenous nations and their people. As Indigenous feminists assert, the very presence of the Native is a threat to American democracy because we represent a different kind of order, a way of life and being that is antithetical to the principles of American democracy and its structure as liberal capitalism.²

My experiences as a Diné historian and a commissioner on the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission inform this essay. I have served on the commission for 12 years and I am currently its chair. I am a Diné woman who grew up on my homeland, attended public schools in our communities, and traveled back and forth to the towns and cities of which I now research and write.

Like many of my relatives across at least eight generations, I have “gone to town” for even the most basic of necessities because tribal nations have been made into islands of third-world countries, where poor infrastructures require constant movements across the imaginary borders of designated homelands and what is now the U.S. When Native people travel across the imaginary boundaries between tribal lands and “off the reservation,” we are treated as if we are alien and foreign, even though we are on Indigenous lands wherever we go in the Americas.

Indigenous/Native Sovereignty and Justice
Even though lands held in trust by the U.S. make up 3% of our land base, the land is always still under threat. Today, Native peoples make up 1% of the entire population. Native land holdings are held in trust by the federal government based upon the Marshall Trilogy, 1832-32, which Melanie K. Yazzie charges as the most belligerent of U.S. legal strategies that “unilaterally changed the status of Native nations – which was their status according to treaties – to colonized subjects of the United States.”³

The trilogy is the foundation for the U.S. definition of Native nations as domestic dependents, tribes, and uncivilized peoples who are subject to its authority and “helped to establish the conditions for mass land dispossession and granted the U.S. government the absolute right to rule over the supposedly heathen Indigenous nations, treating them as wards/children of the state and denying them sovereignty in perpetuity.”⁴

In the present moment, Native nations and their citizens continually face elimination by the settler nation of the U.S., which seeks to erode their distinct status as the original peoples of this land. Over decades, settler laws, policies, and practices endeavor to reduce Natives to the status of U.S. citizens who have no more rights and privileges than those of their citizens. Being a U.S. citizen reduces Indigenous people to racialized citizenship that ultimately intends to eliminate our claims as the first peoples of this land.

As Diné political theorist Glen Coultard argues, the colonial relationship between settler nations like Canada and the U.S. with Indigenous nations can never be adequately transformed via a “politics of recognition” because colonial powers dispossess Indigenous peoples ‒ first of their lands, and second, continuously through axes of power that reproduce hierarchical social relations that move from capital, to the political, and to the domestic sphere. The “politics of recognition” refers to an “expansive range of recognition-based models of liberal pluralism that seek to ‘reconcile’ Indigenous assertions of nationhood with settler-state sovereignty via the accommodation of Indigenous identity claims in some form of renewed legal and political relationship” with settler states like Canada and the U.S.⁵

Since the 1970s, in an era of protests and militant actions by the American Indian Movement and the Black Panthers, for example, settler states were prompted to accommodate minority groups within their liberal democracies. Today, we live in an American polity that continually seeks to strangle liberation for Native people through its multi-layered systems of justice.

Dakota historian Waziyatawin also addresses the settler state and its citizens’ relationship with Indigenous peoples and asserts that accommodation as citizens into their democracies will never lead to Indigenous freedom.⁶ Like Coultard, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, Waziyatawin stresses, settler colonial structures recreate their values and feed off Indigenous land and life.

Under the protection of a settler government, settlers come to stay and declare that settler sovereignty is supreme and unequivocal. As Tuck and Yang note, “For the settlers, Indigenous communities are in the way and, in the destruction of Indigenous peoples, Indigenous communities, and over time and through law and policy, Indigenous peoples’ claims to land under settler regimes, land is recast as property and as a resource. Indigenous peoples must be erased, must be made into ghosts.”⁷

Further, significantly, Waziyatawin redefines Indigenous experiences of Indigenous dispossession under the international standards of genocide and ethnic cleansing, thereby calling for the U.S. to act upon its moral and ethical responsibility for its treatment of Indigenous peoples under its occupation.

Urbanization of Indians and Border Towns
Native and Indigenous studies have long studied the conditions of Indigenous life under the U.S. as its wards. These disciplines have worked hard to articulate Indigenous histories and experiences from our perspectives and founded in the wisdom of our ancestors. Our ancestors’ wisdom continues to be the framework from which we endeavor to put forth our visions of our futures as Indigenous peoples of this land.

In settler colonial vernacular, Natives are relegated to designated spaces geographically and we are assigned to a time in which we fit within their conceptions of “Indians.” U.S. sovereignty has meant sustained forced removal, relocation, and displacements of Indigenous peoples from their homelands, including the Allotment Era of the late 19th century when the Dawes Act of 1887 divested Indigenous nations of most of 150 million acres. In fact, the U.S. claims its sovereignty at the expense of Indigenous people. In 1924, the U.S. passed the Indian Citizenship Act and granted U.S. citizenship to all Native Americans.

In keeping with these preconceived notions of Indians and where we belong, Larry W. Burt published a study of the “urbanization of Indians,” to assess the migration and relocation of Native peoples off of designated “reservations.”⁸ The idea that Indians had become urbanized by the 1970s when the population numbers had surpassed those in rural/reservation spaces, is to naturalize a dichotomy that there are “reservation” and “urban” Indians and that somehow, if we are “off the reservation,” we are aliens and foreigners in our own lands.

“Indian urbanization” has its roots in the 1930s and 1950s, when the government actively facilitated relocation and displacement to “off reservation” as the means to erase Indigenous peoples’ sense of themselves as distinct peoples with claims to land, histories, cultures, and languages. Being swept into the milieu of American fabric of democratic society has meant that the federal government continually works to divest itself of its trust responsibility for its “wards” by dissolving Natives into an American liberal democracy. However, as Burt points out, Native peoples who left the boundaries of their nations found themselves in the lower echelons of society and defined racially, found little or no support from the federal government or their respective tribal governments.⁹

Several Indigenous scholars like Nick Estes, Melanie Yazzie, and myself, have shifted urban Native studies to consider urban spaces as “border towns.” Border towns refer to non-Indian settlements established on the periphery of Native nations and include towns and cities. Indigenous histories of colonial war on our people, our dispossession, and poor infrastructure on our existing land bases has meant that we must move back and forth across spaces for even the most basic of necessities for survival, including food, water, clothing, jobs, and services. In these spaces, we find sustained violence against Indigenous people. This violence against Indigenous peoples, these injustices, have yet to be addressed in any meaningful way through the settler U.S. justice system.¹⁰

Native people experience violence at rates twice that of the rest of the population, and most of the violence against Natives is perpetrated by persons of a different race. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that “Native Americans are 0.8 percent of the U.S. population, but comprise nearly two percent of the victims of police violence, a rate greater than any other racial group.”¹¹

Native community-based organizations have raised the level of public awareness to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and people throughout the U.S. and Canada. For instance, Navajo Nation Council delegate Amber Crotty kicked off a campaign to address the issues of missing and murdered Diné in the Southwest.¹² As the Amnesty International Report on violence against Indigenous women indicates, Indigenous women experienced some of the highest levels of violence in settler society.¹³ Police killings of Native people are rarely noticed because, first, these are killings of people of color; and second, when investigated, these killings are characterized as upholding departmental procedures and therefore justified.

These killings conform with the standard operating procedure of anti-Indianism, which underpins the larger dynamics of settler colonialism in border towns, such as those that exist on the boundaries of the Navajo Nation, the Pueblo nations in New Mexico and in South and North Dakota, the Oglala, Standing Rock, and Rosebud.

The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission
When Irvin Keeswood established the commission, he was responding to a pattern of violence against Diné in rural and urban spaces where Diné experience multiple levels of violence.

In the spring of 1974, three white high school students from Farmington, New Mexico, murdered three Navajo men ‒ Benjamin Benally, John Harvey, and David Ignacio − mutilating and torturing them. Keeswood knew that the brutal murders were nothing new in Farmington, where white high school students shared amongst themselves a practice known as “Indian Rolling,” shorthand for beating and killing Navajo men and women in border towns without retribution.

Following the murders of Benally, Harvey, and Ignacio, Navajos marched through Farmington on seven successive Sundays to protest the treatment of their people. Regardless of these protests, these three white teens received minimal sentences for the murders of these three Navajo men.¹⁴ Indian Rolling is not exclusive to Navajo experiences, but is the experiences of Native people who go to border towns throughout the U.S.¹⁵

In the wake of Red Power, and community activists taking matters into their own hands to protect their communities, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights commenced investigations into allegations of discrimination against Indigenous peoples. These investigations, which included public hearings, were focused on off-reservation spaces, towns, and cities, and produced several reports, including ones from South Dakota, Flagstaff, Arizona, and Farmington, New Mexico.

In late 2005, 30 years after the killings of these three Navajo men, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report on race relations in Farmington and declared that race relations had improved, “The climate of tolerance and respect between the two cultures is a marked improvement from the conditions the committee observed 30 years ago in 1974.”¹⁶

Yet in the years between 1974 and 2005, the violence against Navajos continued unabated. Today, this violence is compounded by other forms of exploitation, such as the proliferation of the payday loan and pawn industries that are over-represented in these spaces, and the profits made by the alcohol industry, which has made millionaires of the town’s businesspeople who target Diné for their liquor sales.

The newly established Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission began its first term by hosting 25 public hearings, and invited Navajo citizens to share their observations and experiences in border towns. The commission issued its study, “Assessing Race Relations Between Navajos and Non-Navajos” in 2009.¹⁷ The study revealed sustained violence against Diné towns and cities.

The commission’s work to advocate for their citizens in border towns includes efforts to resist settler nation and state legislation that purports to limit voting rights and challenge businesses charged with exploiting Navajo consumers and workers, for example. The organization has created a network comprised of U.S. entities that address civil rights to state civil rights organizations to the Navajo Nation’s own organizations that deal with the well-being and welfare of its citizens. The commission actively encourages Diné leaders to incorporate UNDRIP and other international human rights mechanisms to promote the Navajo nation’s sovereignty.

In its existence, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission has conducted extraordinary work to defend and protect Diné citizens’ human rights – rights that intersect with the Navajo Nation’s own efforts to promote governance based upon its principles of Sa’ah naagháí hózhóón ‒ the Path to Beauty and Old Age, which has been codified as Diné Fundamental Law. The commissioners and their staff are guided by Commissioner Steven Darden, who acts as a spiritual advisor.

In my own work as a scholar and current chair of the commission, I often reflect on the teachings of our people who carry the wisdom of our ancestors and say that we must never forget that we are of this land and our existence predates any settler nation and its citizens who claim our birthright as the foundation for their existence.

Diné feminist Melanie K. Yazzie reminds us to keep our vision of Indigenous liberation. She writes, “When you enter into a relationship, there is an expectation. What is this expectation? For me, it is an expectation, simply, to be a good relative. To be responsible, reciprocal, respectful, and accountable. And in the realm of political struggle, it is also an expectation to defend, protect, and grow hard-fought struggles for liberation from the violence of white supremacy, settler colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy.”¹⁸


[1] Alyson Kennedy, “Cop Kills Navajo Youth in Farmington, New Mexico, The Militant vol. 70, no. 25, July 10, 2006,; Dan Frosch, In Shadow of 70s Racism, Recent Violence Stirs Rage, The New York Times, Sept. 17, 2006,; and ABQJOURNAL News Staff, “Jury Clears Farmington Police Officer,” Albuquerque Journal, June 9, 2009,

[2] Audra Simpson, The State is a Man: Theresa Spence, Loretta Saunders and the Gender of Settler Sovereignty,” Theory & Event vol. 19, issue 4 (2016).

[3] Melanie K. Yazzie, “The Armed Friendlies of Settler Order” in Violent Order: Essays on the Nature of Police, ed. David Correia & Tyler Wall (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2021), 129.

[4] Melanie K. Yazzie, “The Armed Friendlies of Settler Order,” 129.

[5] Glen Sean Coultard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Engagement (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 3.

[6] Waziyatawin, What Does Justice Look Like?: The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland (St. Paul, Minnesota: Living Justice Press, 2008).

[7] Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization Is Not A Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012), 6.

[8] Larry W. Burt, “Roots of the Native American Urban Experience: Relocation Policy in the 1950s,” American Indian Quarterly vol. 10, no. 2 (Spring 1986): 85-99.

[9] Larry W. Burt, “Roots of the Native American Urban Experience.”

[10] Nick Estes, Melanie K. Yazzie, Jennifer Nez Denetdale & David Correia, Red Nation Rising: From Bordertown Violence to Native Liberation (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2021). See also Jennifer Nez Denetdale, “`No Explanation, No Resolution, and No Answers: Border Town and Navajo Resistance to Settler Colonialism,” Wicazo Sa Review vol. 31, no. 1, Special Issue: Essentializing Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (Spring 2016) 111-131.

[11] David Correia, “Police Violence Against Native People,” Counter Punch, June 9, 2015.

[12] Emma Gibson, As MMIWG Crisis Continues, Navajo Nation Calls for Emergency 911,” KUNM, March 20, 2022,

[13] For Amnesty International’s report, Stolen Sisters: Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada, go to See also Sarah Deer, The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

[14] Rodney Barker, The Broken Circle: A True Story of Murder and Magic in Indian Country (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).

[15] Nick Estes, Melanie K. Yazzie, Jennifer Nez Denetdale & David Correia, Red Nation Rising, 37, 38.

[16] New Mexico Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, “The Farmington Report: A Conflict of Cultures,” July 1975.

[17] Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, “Assessing Race Relations between Navajos and Non-Navajos, 2008-2009: A Review of Border Town Race Relations” (St. Michaels, AZ: Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, 2010).

[18] Melanie K. Yazzie, “We must make kin to get free: reflections on #nobanostolenland in Turtle Island,” Gender, Place & Culture vol. 30, no. 4 (Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, 2023), 602.