The jewelry that the women on the screen wear is made from silver and turquoise, matching their ornate and beautiful dresses. This is Miss Navajo, a 2007 documentary that examines issues of history and culture as it follows 21-year-old Navajo Crystal Frazier’s attempt to become Miss Navajo 2005-2006.
Showcasing the respected role of Miss Navajo in the community, a former winner says, “One of the things I’ve discovered is that once you’re Miss Navajo, you’re always Miss Navajo...it’s a responsibility that we’ll probably take all of our lives.” Judging by the numbers and sincerity of the former Miss Navajos featured in the engaging documentary, I’d agree.
The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum recently held an event showcasing the documentary, which is available to watch online. At the event, Marcia Burris of the Anacostia Community Museum invited Zandra Wilson, “cultural interpreter from the National Museum of the American Indian; she is Navajo and was familiar with both the film and the Miss Navajo contest.” Because of her background and expertise, the Q&A went well.
From former Miss Navajos to the modern-day young Navajo woman, Miss Navajos represent various aspects of Navajo culture. “Not just a beauty pageant and waving...it’s a lot more than that,” says a former Miss Navajo in the course of the documentary. Nodding to a familiar criticism of pageants like Miss USA, "you have to speak your language, you have to have a skill, you have to have a talent, and I think that’s what makes our pageant, one of the few that really taps into the whole woman,” she says.
Competitors showcase their personality through the depth and breadth of questions they must answer, along with testing their skills and talents. From Navajo mythology, native traditions, and the role of women in government, to the problems of alcoholism and drug addiction in the Navajo community, the young women are expected to know their history and current events. “It showcases every aspect of the young lady, from the point of spirituality to her family, to what she’s willing to teach to the entire population of Dine [Navajo] people,” says another former Miss Navajo. (Former winners were identified only as ‘Miss Navajo’ throughout the film.) Leading up to the competition, contestants quiz each other on Navajo history and are taught self-care and beauty product application by an expert. Not all activities are for the dainty: during the competition, contestants must demonstrate that they know how to butcher a sheep, while also being tested thoroughly on their Navajo language skills.
The 250,000-strong Navajo are the largest Native American tribe in the United States. They live primarily in the Southwest. To the “outside world” Miss Navajo is seen as “the ambassador of the tribe” to show that “we’re Native Americans and we’re very much alive” said a former Navajo. To those who are a part of the tribe, the title of Miss Navajo carries immense respect and responsibility. “A lot of our people, especially young ones, really look up to Miss Navajo,” she says.
The pageant began in 1952. “At that time the Navajo people did not know what a beauty pageant was,” says another former Miss Navajo, “So what they did was during one of the evening events, they had a variety of girls come out onto the rodeo arena grounds. And just by applause they selected a young lady to become Miss Navajo.” The Miss Navajo event has grown to receive national recognition and contributes to promoting a positive image of the Navajo, as well as working on specific issues within the community, like education, domestic abuse, and drug addiction.
One former Miss Navajo recounts her most memorable moment of when she carried the title. “After being at a hearing to listen to Robert Kennedy testify to a subcommittee about Indian education, he later came out to our reservation, where he came up to me and said ‘how awfully nice to see you again.’” That moment not only stayed with her as a crowning moment of her reign, but demonstrated the great impact that Miss Navajo can have.
While the majority of the documentary was touching and enlightening, there were disturbing elements. Many of the former winners talked about their time in “Indian boarding schools” where they were taught that their native Navajo language was “bad” and “dirty”. They were often forced to do manual labor, such as cleaning all of the bathroom floors with a toothbrush if they were caught speaking in Navajo. If the importance of the Miss Navajo competition is found in nothing else, it is in remembering the collective history of these events. The Navajo language is a source of pride for surviving oppression, and the Miss Navajo competition reflects the triumph of the surviving culture. These women are often torchbearers for carrying on their native language and teaching the Navajo children their culture, and history. May they continue to do so - and with pride.