This weekend, I watched the documentary film, Miss Navajo on PBS's Independent Lense. The film follows a young Native American woman, Crystal Frazier, as she prepares to compete in the Miss Navajo Nation contest.
The first time the title was awarded was in 1952 at the Navajo Nation Fair. Initially, the crown was awarded to the most popular contestant among fair attendees. Over the years, the contest evolved. The winner represents the Navajo people to the rest of the world, acting as a kind of ambassador of good will. Contestants must demonstrate skill in traditional Navajo ways, including fluency in the Navajo language. This particular talent has become a difficult hurdle for many, since most Navajo families now speak English at home and English has been the dominant language in the public schools attended by the Navajo.
Some of the other skills that contestants must demonstrate include rug weaving, fry bread making, and sheep butchering. This last bit is very grueling, for the contestant as well as the animal. Contestants are questioned on their knowledge of Navajo culture and history by a panel, typically in the Navajo language.
The winner of this pageant exemplifies a beauty of cultural spirit. Since Native cultures and traditions are threatened by modernization and more than a century's worth of subversive intentional assimilation, I applaud the intent of this contest. Wouldn't it be fantastic if other pageants encouraged contestants to embody certain spiritual, cultural, or intellectual ideals? While many Miss America contestants pay lip service to social ideals, how many actually do anything to further those ideals in more than just a mock fashion?
So, Hooray for Miss Navajo, and all the runners up who try to live up to the spirit of the contest.