I haven’t written forever…as I wait for Internet to be installed at my new place on the Navajo reservation, please enjoy the paper I am submitting about the Miss Navajo pageant for my Culture class. We had a vague prompt to follow. Feel free to Google more about the competition! It’s awesome.
In Dinétah this past week, the Navajo Nation Fair has had the center of attention. The Fair, with its various traditional dance, rodeo, and carnival events, runs in conjunction with the Miss Navajo pageant. Miss Navajo has gained a lot of popularity in outside media over recent years for its divergence from “typical” American beauty/national pageants. Rather than heels and swimsuits, these ladies dress up in traditional moccasins and crushed velvet dresses. Their political platforms take the shape of heartfelt “save our culture” and “save our people”, rather than overly-sentimental “feed the children of Africa” and “go vegan” – although not to say they wouldn’t personally make those choices, or that these choices aren’t honorable. Indeed, while Miss America is judged on her body, Miss Navajo is judged on her ability to butcher a dibé – tasks that include handling stomach organs and breaking leg bones in front of a focused and learned audience.
Although the Miss Navajo pageant lasts several days in September, the Traditional Competition was held at the Navajo Arts & Crafts Enterprise this past Thursday. This segment of the competition lasted approximately three hours, with people in the audience sitting for well over four. The Traditional Competition was divided into four separate categories: Traditional Skills, Oral Presentations, Traditional Talent, and Modeling Traditional Attire. This year’s five contestants were asked to compete in each of these four categories, and they appeared in shuffled orders each time.
For Traditional Skills, each contestant had five minutes to show her skill. These skills varied from grinding corn to singing songs. For Oral Presentations, each contestant was asked to draw a slip of paper and answer a questions on the spot. For the Traditional Talent, each contestant had five minutes to demonstrate something from singing from the Bible in Navajo to explaining the pieces of a traditional baby backboard. Finally, for Modeling Traditional Attire, each lady had three minutes to show off her traditional outfit and state a platform, then an additional two minutes to answer another impromptu question.
The pageant demonstrated the importance of two major interrelated concepts: Navajo fluency, and fluency in Navajo culture other than language. These women were asked to demonstrate their ability to present on stage, represent their culture and heritage, and to represent their direct lineage (through clanship presentation as well as through wearing ancestral pieces and demonstrating skills passed down through their families). Since this pageant is for Miss Navajo, a female representative of an entire nation, it is crucial that language and culture is critiqued. Language and culture are at the heart of identity; therefore, being a Navajo woman should be defined by these things.
The Beauty Way of Life is the standards by which Navajo people live, and knowing you culture – your language, your kinship, your place in the world – is a vital role of this way of life. It is especially represented by the Western direction (é’é’aah) and its tie to k’é, to family, and to who you are as a Navajo. I may not be Navajo, but I understand the need for Navajo fluency and for fluency of Navajo culture. I now live on the Navajo reservation and work for the Navajo government, so as a guest here I must learn and respect the Navajo language and ways. Furthermore, my particular heritage(s) value the same principles: of understanding one’s origin(s) and participating as much as possible in one’s culture(s). Witnessing elements of the Miss Navajo pageant has been inspirational in a variety of ways for me, although I will admit it was a challenging competition to watch with limited language and cultural skills. Questions I have about the competition would predominantly pertain to a more detailed explanation of what was demonstrated, what was asked, and what the greater meaning behind things were.
To conclude, I know that some of the questions were very challenging in the pageant…but I also know that the contestants to varying degrees struggled with the Navajo language. It is my belief that some understood the language to a decent degree, but were not fluent. Others seemed to lack the skill to spontaneously respond at all, speaking only when given the opportunity to deliver recited words. I feel slightly hypocritical considering I do not know more than a dozen words of my own language – a language that is becoming extinct – but I do believe Miss Navajo should be completely fluent in her language. It is the heart of a culture, it is the way a culture thinks, and speaking English in a cultural event is like broadcasting assimilation in the homeland. That is just my viewpoint…but I hope that Navajo children will continue to immerse themselves in their language and their culture, forever, and that Miss Navajo 2060 will be as fluent and culturally immersed as Miss Navajo 1960.