ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – When competitors head off for the weeklong Miss Navajo Nation pageant, they bring along their evening gowns, jewelry, high heels, public speaking skills — and butcher knives.
On the nation's largest Indian reservation, where tradition reigns, contestants are required to speak their native language, make fry bread and butcher a sheep, the animal that represents life to the Navajos.
"The pageant really gets people's interest because they say, 'Oh my gosh, a pageant where you butcher sheep,"' said Billy Luther, a documentary film maker. "But I think people walk away learning the Navajo way of life and how much the Navajo people respect women."
Luther, whose mother was crowned Miss Navajo in 1966, offers a different take on what it means to be beautiful in his first feature-length documentary, "Miss Navajo," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year is airing on PBS's Independent Lens.
Beauty is very much internal, Luther says. What Navajos perceive as beautiful might not be beautiful to others, he said.
"It's having the knowledge of your culture, it's having respect for your mothers and grandmothers, it's the language, fluency. As we say, that's harmony, that's what we strive for," said Luther, 32, who is Navajo, Laguna and Hopi.
Luther's documentary follows Crystal Frazier, a now-23-year-old Table Mesa resident, on her quest to become Miss Navajo during the 2005 pageant.
Held each year during the Navajo Nation Fair in Window Rock, Ariz., the pageant takes contestants of all shapes and sizes through skill and talent tests, and quizzes them on tribal government and Navajo beliefs.
For Frazier, a self-described introvert who raised chickens as a hobby, her insecurities centered on her ability to speak Navajo, an Athabascan language that long had been passed down orally.
A panel made up of former Miss Navajos greets the contestants in one part of the film with the intent of finding out whether the girls truly know their native language.
Frazier blanks on her turn. She wants the question repeated in English.
"I was just a deer in headlights," said Frazier, who was Miss Northern Navajo in 2004-05. "I remember being in the room and being in awe of seeing formal titleholders. You feel the pressure, and you see all the lights from the cameras, and you just freak. I remember I didn't even hear a word."
The queen's panel was added in 2005 at the insistence of Sunni Dooley — the 1982-83 Miss Navajo.
"They know they are supposed to talk Navajo, but as you saw in the pageant, a lot of them entered without knowing their language," said Dooley, a storyteller from Vanderwagon. "They probably had memorized their clan, where they came from, who their parents are and who their grandparents are."
What the judges wanted seemed simple enough: Give directions to your house.
The pageant began in 1952 as something of a popularity contest, with the winner crowned based on how much applause she got from the audience. And until the early 1960s, two Miss Navajos were named; a traditional one, and "one who looked like Jackie Kennedy," Dooley says.
Now only one queen is named, and the contest is open to any Navajo woman age 18 to 25 who is single and meets other contest requirements, such as having a high school diploma or GED and no children.
Faced with a dwindling number of contestants, Dooley and other former Miss Navajos created a nonprofit group in Arizona this year to address how to make the pageant last.
"I think what's scaring a lot of these contestants is the sheep-butchering part of it, also the (speaking) Navajo," she said.
Ultimately, Dooley said she would like to see one girl representing each of the Navajo Nation's 110 chapter houses in the pageant.
"I think whoever wins that pageant, they can say, 'Yeah, not only did I compete against 110 girls but I can butcher a sheep with one hand,"' Dooley jokes.
Although his original intent wasn't to make a film about Navajo women, Luther sees the final product as an inspiration for young girls, some of whom consider Miss Navajo the ideal woman.
Some people who have watched the film consider it an important one about women, an unexpected story of a contemporary Navajo family or a language-in-crisis film, he said.
Luther says simply: "This is a film about a beauty pageant contestant, and there's a winner and a loser."
"But sometimes, as in life, the winners aren't always the winners and he losers aren't always the losers."
On the Net:
"Miss Navajo," http://missnavajomovie.com/
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