On the Road with Miss Navajo Nation

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(Letter to the Editor of the Navajo Times newspaper)
Sense of Identity
December 23, 1997

Navajo Times

In Indian Country Today's, Guest Column, November 3-10,1997, Navajo President Albert A. Hale, wrote about the prospect of gaming on the Navajo Reservation and how it would adversely impact on the "strength and integrity of our (Navajo) sovereignty." However, the erosion of Indian sovereignty, at times, can be quite subtle. It can manifest itself in seemly innocent activities. Such was the case when the Navajo Nation recently crowned, Radmilla Cody, as "Miss Navajo."

Language, weaving, beading and being able to dance is all culturally correct in being part of a tribe, but nonetheless, it is still learned behavior. No doubt, Miss Cody is an enrolled member of the Navajo Tribe (since her mother is Navajo). Which entitles her to all the benefits and services as is accorded all other enrolled people of the Navajo Nation. However, when the Navajo people select a person to represent their nation as "Miss Navajo," that person must possess the appearance and physical characteristics of the Navajo people. Miss Cody's appearance and physical characteristics are clearly black, and thus are representative of another race of people. It appears that those judges who selected Miss Cody have problems with their own sense of identity.

(Letter writer's name withheld)

"Don't even think about taking a picture of that" Miss Navajo said as she placed a small dab of white corn pollen under her tongue. In the manner of traditional Navajos she performed this ritualized offering as a blessing before addressing a group of elders at the Shiprock Community Center.

As she hurried in to speak to the audience of traditional Navajo elders, Ms. Navajo's chaperone, confidant and "mother" on the road, Dinah Wauneka, said to Radmilla "...Just relax, go up there and win them over like you usually do." Addressing the crowd in Navajo, Radmilla introduced herself first by identifying her mother=s clan and then her father=s, as is the custom. She joked of her childhood and how her only friends were the sheep and goats she had to herd daily. Radmilla reminisced of how she used to pretend she was a young Whitney Houston and that the animals were the best friends she could ever have because they never ran away when she=d sing to them. Having established a rapport with the elders, she sang in Navajo a traditional song of her Navajo ancestry and of how she walks upon the land in beauty. The audience sat spellbound and applauded vigorously when she finished. Before leaving Radmilla went to each of the elders to greet them personally by extending a hand and/or a hug. Many showed their appreciation by asking for her autograph.

Born 23 years ago to a Navajo mother and African-American father, Radmilla A. Cody struggles to define who she is while under the unrelenting scrutiny of Navajo tribal members. Whereas some tribes in the eastern part of the U.S. recognize 1/64 blood quantum as qualification for tribal membership and it's benefits, the Navajo tribe recognizes 1/4 blood quantum. Radmilla is half. The half people see looks African-American. The half unseen is what makes her a traditional Navajo woman.

Six months into her reign as Miss Navajo Nation, she's still not fully accepted as a qualified representative of the Navajo people, despite having been raised on the reservation by her traditional grandmother. In fact, when speaking publicly Radmilla identifies her grandmother as the real Miss Navajo who instilled in her the values which helped her win the contest. The title of Miss Navajo Nation entitles one to travel widely, across the reservation, the nation and sometimes internationally representing the culture of the tribe. Competition is tight. Contestants have to impress a panel of judges over the course of a week with their knowledge of Navajo culture, history, traditions and values (which includes a demonstration of butchering a sheep); must be fluent in English and Navajo; must be 18 to 25 years old, single, never married and with no children; must be a Navajo Tribal member with a census number; must have a valid driver's license and must have a high school diploma or G.E.D. Having satisfied these requirements, finalists must address an audience of several thousand people at the annual Navajo Nation Fair in Window Rock so the audience can take part in the voting process by cheering for the contestant they like the best. At this year's fair in Septmeber Radmilla proved far and away to be the people's choice.

Yet, her brief reign as Miss Navajo Nation has generated a lively discussion across the reservation on race, what it means to be Navajo and racial intolerance. Since mid December letters to the editor have appeared challenging her legitimacy to represent the Navajo people. Each letter critical of her for being chosen Miss Navajo Nation is followed the next week by three letters in support of her. As is happening elsewhere in the country, race and multiculturalism are being addressed openly and honestly. Many Navajos who never considered themselves to be racist have searched their souls upon seeing Radmilla.

(Letter to the Editor of the Navajo Times)
A child of ours
January 15, 1998

Navajo Times

In response to "Sense of identity" printed in December 23, 1997 editorial section, Miss Navajo, Radmilla Cody, I commend you for your courage, integrity, wisdom and empathy. You have shown and demonstrated yourself as a Navajo Indian even before you earned the title "Miss Navajo Nation."
I am very proud of your accomplishments and serving as a role model for our people. Not all of us think the way Mr. Tom does. As it is, for many of us "newager Indians" we look past the color of people, for they are bi'lla'ashdla (five fingered), and human beings. A child of our maker and he has set us on earth to serve a purpose.

You have inspired many young people to practice their culture, learn/speak Navajo, and even spend time with elderly people. Your ability to butcher a sheep, make fry bread, and speak your native tongue obviously earned you points during the pageant and even now.

Any child born into the Navajo Nation is a child of ours, regardless of what quantum of Navajo blood they may have. A child/person is innocent of their making, it was not their choice of blood mixing. A racist attack on our children is not necessary. Instead, we as parents should teach our children to accept people for who they are regardless of color, creed, age, religion, handicap, and marital status. Let us be proud Native American Indians, Dine? and not extend envy or racism to others.

(Letter writer's name withheld)

Speaking to a group of middle school students in Crownpoint, NM Radmilla engaged the students in a call and response chorus of self affirmation reminiscent of Jesse Jackson's "I am somebody." "I love myself," the kids repeated after her while pointing to their hearts. AI love myself this much," they said hugging themselves following Radmilla's lead. AI love myself so much, I won=t do drugs. I love myself so much, I=ll listen to my parents."

Known as the "Navajo Whitney Houston," she sang several songs for the attentive students. As the assembly was concluding one student asked about what it's like being half black. Radmilla stopped for a moment and said that just as she is proud of being Dine', she is proud of being black. "Being part black," she said Agives me a certain 'umph!' I don't know how to describe it, but I'm glad it's there."

African-Americans comprise less than 2 percent of the 200,000 people living on the Navajo reservation in a land mass larger than the state of West Virginia. More often than not, Navajo attitudes towards blacks reflect those of the majority culture. The casual observer might think that Native Americans would possess a sense of solidarity with African-Americans based on a shared history of oppression; however, many Navajo recognize people as either Navajo or non-Navajo and interact with them on that basis. Navajo attitudes towards the majority culture are shaped by satellite honed tv depictions, video movies, music and limited interactions with "the other" off the reservation.

Radmilla has become the unoffical representative for racially mixed Navajos and those otherwise dispossed. As is often said, "who feels it, knows it" and Radmilla is able to identify and focus on the similarities people share rather than differences. Before leaving Crownpoint she sought out three high school girls she'd heard about who couldn't attend her earlier presentations. The 3 girls were from broken families and had been placed in a group home by Social Services. The girls' acceptance of Miss Navajo was immediate. Radmilla shared with the girls how she never knew her father and how her mom had been an alcoholic when she was a little girl. That's how she ended up living with her traditional maternal grandmother for 10 years. Her grandma's home had no running water or electricity, but a lot of love.

She shared with the girls that she knows what its liked to be teased, to not be liked because you're different, to be labeled, but that they shouldn't feel limited in anyway by someone else's smallness. An hour later they exchanged teary eyed hugs.

As she was leaving Radmilla passed through the school's office area. The Navajo staff excitedly recognized Radmilla as Ms. Navajo and introduced her to the assistant principal who is white. Never having seen her before, he responded saying "...Miss Navajo? Are you sure you're Miss Navajo? You don't look very Navajo." Unfazed by his uncertainty, Radmilla smiled, shook his hand and assured him that indeed, she was Miss Navajo Nation, the goodwill ambassador of her people.

(Article in the Navajo Times)
January 8, 1998

Hale's traditional campaign statements trouble NAACP

Window Rock - Navajo Nation President Albert Hale's comments about the African-American population troubled the Arizona chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In a press release labeled "The return to tradition," Hale said the repatriation of sacred stone figurines marks one step among many to strengthen traditional Navajo values.

He followed that statement by saying, "I don't ever want to see the day when the Navajo are in the position of the Blacks...Blacks lost their language, their religion, their culture and their traditional values due to the dominant society...All they have left is their color."

In 1995 Radmilla was a runner up in the Miss Black Arizona pageant. That came at a time when she was attending a junior college in Phoenix. Radmilla hadn't been off the reservation for very long then. Making the transition to life off the reservation was tough. Though she looked black, associating with blacks was problematic because she knew nothing about the culture and they didn=t understand her world view. The situation was worse in high school. There Radmilla feared black girls because they used to beat her up and call her names since she wasn't fully African-American.

One of Radmilla's favorite examples of her disorientation to her initial off reservation experience is the story of how cool she thought it was that all the kids in high school wore t-shirts with their initial on it. She thought of getting a t-shirt with a large "R" on it until she noticed that everyone else's initial was "X." She had no idea who Malcolm X was. Now Radmilla is making an effort to learn more about her other side. Like a ghost in the closet, her unfamiliarity with African-American history was made painfully apparent to her this past January 15th on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. While being interviewed live on the reservation's radio station the DJ asked Radmilla what she thought of Dr. King's contribution to the Civil Rights Movement and how that may have benefitted Native Americans. Disappointed and embarrassed, Radmilla told the DJ she wasn't prepared to answer that question.

When I asked Dinah Wauneka what then Navajo Nation Tribal President, President Hale. thought of Radmilla she responded, "...At first he was a little apprehensive, but as he's gotten to know her, he's come to accept her." And that's all Radmilla asks of anyone, to give her a chance. However, she knows the struggle for acceptance and the realization of her dreams will continue to be an uphill battle. As I was leaving her speaking engagement to the elders in Shiprock I noticed graffiti sprayed onto an abandoned building in the reservation town of 7000 Navajos. Surrounded by swastikas it read: "Kill All Niggers."

Fortunately, controversy and the vocal opposition of a minority of Navajo people don't stop Radmilla. Focused, poised and with the strength of her ancestors, she walks in beauty.

C. Thomas
(who spent two days in February following Miss Navajo around the reservation)

May 27, 1998