Miss Navajo: A pageant with an edge
In time for this week’s Navajo Rug Show, The Sundance Institute Documentary Series will screen "Miss Navajo," a 2007 Sundance Film Festival selection.
Through interviews with former Miss Navajos, director Billy Luther paints the history of the Miss Navajo pageant. The pageant started in 1952 at the Navajo Nation’s annual fair at a time when most Navajo women entered the contest without any idea of what they were getting into. Past winners reminisce about meeting Senator Robert Kennedy and the pop piano star Liberace.
However, Luther does not to dwell on the past, investing most of his energy in the preparations leading up to and during Miss Navajo in 2005.
Miss Navajo is not the typical pageant. Anyone can sign up to participate, provided they are female, single and older than 18, but they must be prepared to sheer, butcher and cook a sheep over a fire outdoors. They must be well versed in Navajo legends. They must have an idea of what they would like to teach all 250,000 residents of the reservation. Above all, the recent high school graduates must be able to speak and understand the Navajo, or Dine, language.
Luther’s gaze rests mostly on Crystal Frazier, a tomboy who enters Miss Navajo on a dare. Frazier calls herself a reservation person and enjoys her chores raising livestock. "Poultry is my expertise," she declares. She reads magazines about chickens the way most girls read Cosmopolitan or Vogue.
"Mom always tells us this is what a young lady needs to know how to butcher a sheep, make bread, things like that," Frazier explains. "Then you’re considered to be married."
When it comes to Miss Navajo, within the field of six contestants, Frazier has an advantage in the area of butchering. But Frazier falls short when it comes to the language portion, requesting to speak in English instead. Here, Frazier is not alone. Nearly each contestant painfully stumbles and stutters or begins responding in English.
The women in the film describe the feeling of going away to boarding schools as being stripped of their religion, and their language.
"When I went to boarding school, my grandmother cried," remembers Dolly Mason, crowned Miss Navajo in 1981. "Perhaps she thought she was losing her granddaughter."
Luther’s mother, Sarah Ann Johnson Luther, was crowned Miss Navajo in 1966, and he has said in interviews during January’s festival that he had heard many stories about the contest throughout his young life. In his film, he avoids assigning blame for the loss of language a tragedy he forces the viewer to confront head on. Instead, he has said that he focused on making the film contemporary: "Not what we had taken away, but about what we have today."
See "Miss Navajo" tonight, Wednesday, Nov. 7, at 7 p.m. in the Santy Auditorium, located at 1255 Park Ave. For details, visit sundance.org.
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When it comes to the U.S. census, let’s just say Park City has… room for improvement.