Miss Navajo Nation is a pageant like no different


The 69th annual Miss Navajo Nation Pageant started on a Monday simply earlier than 7 a.m. with three younger girls in lengthy colourful clothes and aprons standing over a trio of trussed, bleating sheep.

The contestants patted the animals with small pine branches, blessing them.

“Let’s begin the butchering,” the emcee mentioned.

The ladies drew knives, grabbed the sheep by their chins and slit their throats. Blood spilled into the filth.

The pageant is a contest like no different. At a time when the normal lifestyle is ebbing, the competitors is supposed to showcase a deep data of Navajo tradition, customs and language together with abilities wanted to thrive within the fashionable world.

After canceling the six-day pageant final fall due to COVID-19 — which has killed greater than 1,400 of the almost 200,000 residents of the reservation right here — tribal leaders resurrected it in early September, preserving the general public out, however welcoming choose journalists and a Navajo video crew that livestreamed the competitors on YouTube and Fb.

Gathered inside a white tent, the contestants had one hour to kill, pores and skin and intestine the sheep, half-hour to scrub the intestines and 20 minutes to chop up the meat.

People stand over a sheep.

Niagara Rockbridge blesses a sheep earlier than the butchering competitors on the 69th annual Miss Navajo Nation Pageant.

(David Kelly / For The Occasions)

Shandiin Yazzie, 25, battled by means of the sheep cover.

“Medic!” she cried, after slicing her finger. It was bandaged however later required 5 stitches. She stored reducing.

Certainly one of her two opponents, Oshkaillah Lakota Ironshell, 19, flayed her sheep’s stomach, methodically separating pores and skin from meat.

As the ladies labored, three judges circled with clipboards and peppered them with questions. Why did you chop right here? What is that this piece used for?

Niagara Rockbridge, 22, knew each reply. In 45 minutes, effectively forward of the opposite two opponents, she had skinned and eviscerated her sheep and was cleansing intestines.

“Miss Navajo Nation is the final word Navajo lady,” she mentioned. “It’s the final competitors as a result of it’s actually testing the interior and outer energy of the contestant. Are you able to think about Miss USA or Miss Universe butchering a sheep?”


The primary Miss Navajo Nation pageant, held in 1952 as a part of the Navajo Nation Truthful, was attended by 1000’s. It rapidly turned an annual occasion.

There have been typically greater than a dozen contestants, who had been judged for his or her look in conventional gown. Audiences selected the winner.

“A person would take a cowboy hat and stand behind a younger lady and put the hat on high,” mentioned Sophina Shorty, who gained in 1988 and served as a commentator for the printed this yr.

“Whoever acquired the loudest applause was the winner.”

Column One

A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Occasions.

Again then, earlier than there have been many supermarkets on the reservation, butchering was a standard talent, and Navajo was extensively spoken.

Because the language and traditions started to fade, the pageant took on new that means and urgency.

In a matrilineal society the place girls are revered as keepers of data, Miss Navajo Nation got here to characterize the beliefs of conventional womanhood.

“Ladies have a revered place in our tradition,” mentioned Sunnie Clahchischiligi, a Navajo member and journalist. “Not solely do they offer life, they perpetuate life and data for us.”

Through the years, extra occasions had been added, together with rug and basket weaving, data of the language, preparation of conventional meals and a enterprise interview competitors.

“A lot of those that died had been our data and knowledge keepers. We’ve got misplaced lives, however we nonetheless have energy inside us. I wish to assist protect and revitalize our language and conventional lifestyle.”

Niagara Rockbridge

The addition of sheep butchering in 1996 was a nod to the significance of the animal in Navajo tradition. Apart from the wool, meat and milk they supply, sheep determine prominently in songs, prayers and sacred ceremonies of the Dineh — the folks — because the Navajo name themselves.

However few younger folks learn to butcher a 70-pound ewe, and the requirement is likely one of the largest causes fewer girls are competing. Contestants have to be single and 18 to 25 years previous.

Simply two entered in 2019. Organizers had been grateful for the three this yr.

Yazzie, who attended a Navajo-language immersion faculty, sings in a punk rock band and in 2019 carried out the a part of Mommy Shark within the Navajo-language version of the hit kids’s tune “Child Shark.” She described herself as a “bisexual, queer Dineh lady.”

With plans to develop into a lawyer, she is keen about Black Lives Matter, homelessness and the work she does on violence discount on the reservation.

“I see this as an opportunity to talk out on these points,” she mentioned.

In the course of the pandemic, she delivered meals throughout the reservation to folks with COVID-19.

“Some households don’t have water to scrub their fingers, and a few locations didn’t have electrical energy to run a ventilator,” she mentioned.

Rockbridge, who works along with her father of their electrical, air-conditioning, heating and plumbing enterprise, grew up elevating sheep and horses along with her household. Navajo was spoken at residence, and conventional beliefs and songs had been a part of life. Her grandmother taught her the right way to butcher.

Rockbridge gained her first pageant at age 5 and went on to triumph in all 10 she entered. The pandemic motivated her to hunt the Miss Navajo Nation title.

“A lot of those that died had been our data and knowledge keepers,” she mentioned. “We’ve got misplaced lives, however we nonetheless have energy inside us. I wish to assist protect and revitalize our language and conventional lifestyle.”

Ironshell was raised Christian and was not immersed within the Navajo language. Her father, a Lakota Sioux, was homeless. She routinely referred to as him at shelters to ensure he was secure. Two years in the past, he died.

She recalled their final dialog.

“He advised me, ‘Be robust and study your Dineh tradition,’” she mentioned. “That’s what I’m doing. It takes loads to be a Dineh lady.”

A month earlier than the pageant, her mom employed a trainer to indicate her the right way to butcher. Ironshell hung footage of sheep elements on her wall and memorized them.

With the butchering performed, contestants constructed fires and boiled pots of Navajo tea made with native herbs. They cooked conventional meals — squash and corn, goulash of sauteed liver and intestines from the sheep they butchered.

The judges ate and took notes.


A person works with food.

Shandiin Yazzie prepares conventional Navajo meals for the judges.

(David Kelly / For The Occasions)

The subsequent 4 days had been a whirlwind of efficiency, reflection, public service and conferences with Navajo officers.

At one level, the contestants every took 10 questions onstage contained in the auditorium of the Navajo Nation Museum.

Describe the tribe’s relationship with the US. How does Indian gaming have an effect on the Dineh? How would you enhance use of the Dineh language and tradition?

Yazzie was requested in regards to the affect of home violence on the group. Hundreds of girls and ladies have been reported lacking or murdered on reservations throughout the nation together with right here, the place poverty, alcoholism and drug abuse stay critical issues.

“I’ve seen it, I’ve endured it, and I do know a number of my mates have been part of home violence,” she mentioned. “There aren’t any shelters for battered girls right here.”

“Trauma is likely one of the issues we by no means speak about as a result of Navajo teachings of no matter occurred, you don’t speak about it, you allow it up to now,” she mentioned. “There’s a number of untouched trauma that we have to handle.”

As regards to Indian gaming, Rockbridge mentioned it was a false impression that each one Native Individuals get individually paid by casinos.

“That goes to our companies, our belief funds … to assist everybody on the nation,” she mentioned. “Indian gaming is utilized as an financial stimulant … so we will create generational wealth for our folks. Some could not agree … however Indian gaming is working so if it’s not broke, don’t repair it.”

Ironshell struggled with the questions, declining to reply about half of them, however successful assist from a number of the tens of 1000’s of individuals watching on-line.

“Perhaps the girl who can reply these ought to run for Navajo Nation president,” one individual watching on YouTube wrote within the feedback part.

In one other session, Rockbridge got here onstage in denims and a instrument belt and carrying a drill. An upright board held two blue swap bins, wires and a light-weight.

“Now I’ll reveal the right way to wire an outlet, a swap, and on the finish I’ll activate a light-weight,” she mentioned.

The drill whined within the silent auditorium. She linked wires, flicked on the sunshine and introduced: “And you’ve got energy.”

Yazzie’s expertise was singing. She belted out a couple of stanzas of the 1974 hit “Come and Get Your Love” by the band Redbone, adopted by “Unhealthy Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

For the normal abilities and abilities competitors, Rockbridge chanted a Navajo tune about corn. Yazzie displayed rugs she had woven. Ironshell danced.

When it was time to take questions in Navajo, nevertheless, Ironshell stood onstage with closed eyes.

The language is famously tough with tones and glottal stops not like something in English. The U.S. army created a code based mostly on the language throughout World Warfare II. A bunch of Navajo Marines serving within the Pacific, generally known as Navajo code talkers, transmitted messages utilizing the code, and the Japanese by no means cracked it.

When the primary query got here, Ironshell mentioned nothing. Seconds handed. Lastly she left the stage and didn’t return, later saying she was overcome by nervousness.

Dottie Lizer, spouse of Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer, advised viewers that she didn’t develop up talking Navajo both.

“I used to be raised in a Christian residence,” she mentioned, her voice breaking with emotion. “That doesn’t imply I don’t love my tradition or my language. So have some compassion for her.”


Miss Navajo Nation is a yearlong, paid authorities job understanding of the president’s workplace as an envoy of tradition and goodwill. She will get a home in Window Rock, the tribal capital, in addition to a small administrative employees, a university scholarship and a automotive and driver when obtainable.

The 2019 winner, Shaandiin Parrish, visited all 110 chapter homes — facilities of native authorities — on the 27,000-acre reservation, which stretches by means of elements of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

When the pageant was canceled final yr, Parrish was requested to serve a second time period, spending a lot of her time delivering meals, masks and gloves — all the time sporting moccasins, a standard velvet gown, heavy jewellery and her sash and crown.

“I by no means hesitated,” she mentioned. “I’m far safer and assured of who I’m and who I’ll develop into after two years of placing myself second to my folks.”

She met with the three contestants at regionally owned Latte Abini Espresso on a day put aside for them to study the job. Prospects instantly requested to take their footage.

A person signs posters.

Shaandiin Parrish, who gained the pageant in 2019, indicators posters exterior the Coyote Canyon Chapter Home.

(David Kelly / For The Occasions)

“They’re the epitome of what a Navajo lady needs to be,” mentioned Kaylynn Tsosie, who had been watching the pageant on-line. “They usually must do it in all this regalia. As a Navajo lady, I can let you know these clothes should not breathable on this climate.”

It was 97 levels.

After espresso, the ladies drove over to fulfill Pearl Yellowman, who runs the tribe’s Division of Group Improvement.

“While you journey this land like Shaandiin did, you’ll come to grasp why some folks don’t have any electrical energy or operating water or loos,” she mentioned. “Immediately we celebrated 25 homes getting electrical energy, tomorrow we are going to open a senior heart.”

Shortly after the go to, Yazzie started feeling ailing and was taken to a hospital and handled for warmth exhaustion and dehydration.

The others dropped off a boxed synthetic Christmas tree at an area Head Begin program earlier than going to Hilltop Christian College to distribute hand sanitizer, masks and gloves.

The entourage walked right into a fifth- and sixth-grade class, the place Parrish defined the workplace of Miss Navajo Nation.

A boy requested, “How a lot does your crown weigh?”

“4.3 kilos,” she replied.

One other boy requested whether or not she had a limo.

“Typically I get to drive with the president’s govt officers, they usually have a black SUV,” Parrish mentioned.

“Is it a Cadillac?” the scholar requested.

“It’s a Chevy.”

As they entered Norma Nelson’s kindergarten class, college students sang “Jesus Loves Me” in Navajo. Rockbridge urged them to continue to learn their language.

It was getting late and there was extra to do. The ladies — minus Yazzie, who was nonetheless recovering — headed for the distant Coyote Canyon Chapter Home.

There, throughout the street from the stays of an previous buying and selling submit, they arrange a tent emblazoned with the Miss Navajo Nation brand and ready to greet residents.

Automobiles instantly pulled up, and a line shaped. Parrish sat at a desk signing posters of herself.

“Thanks for taking good care of us for 2 years,” mentioned Valentina Benallie, who acquired posters for her grandchildren.


People on a stage.

Niagara Rockbridge is topped Miss Navajo Nation 2021. Standing beside her is the previous titleholder, Shaandiin Parrish.

(David Kelly / For The Occasions)

On Saturday, the contestants walked into the auditorium for the final time.

Relations sat in designated seats. Everybody wore masks.

“They confirmed all their abilities, underwent large strain and by no means wavered,” the Navajo Nation president, Jonathan Nez, advised viewers. “I even discovered new methods to butcher and even jumped in to hoist a sheep. I acquired feedback: ‘Did you get blood in your go well with?’”

The contestants stood quietly as Parrish mentioned her farewell and Alfreda Lee from the tribe’s Workplace of the Auditor Normal carried the outcomes to the rostrum.

“The second runner-up is Oshkailiah Ironshell,” she mentioned.

“The runner-up is Shandiin Yazzie,” Lee mentioned.

Every obtained hearty applause in addition to rugs, moccasins and jewellery.

“And the winner of Miss Navajo Nation,” Lee mentioned, “is Niagara Rockbridge.”

A brand new crown was unveiled depicting feminine Navajo deities together with White Shell Girl and Spider Girl. Parrish positioned it on Rockbridge’s head.

After two years of working to mix the fashionable and conventional, she was off to Arizona State College to get a grasp’s diploma in enterprise. Now it was Rockbridge’s flip.

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