Funded by the Sundance Institute Native Program, Miss Navajo is filmmaker Billy Luther’s reverential tribute to his mom, a former winner of the annual Miss Navajo beauty pageant in Table Mesa, New Mexico, and a celebration of the collective womanhood of the Navajo Nation. Don’t expect the usual bosomy bathing suit runway stiletto strutting, aspiring girl goddess hair and makeup regimens, coveting of Madison Ave and Hollywood contracts, and flirty come-ons to the crowd, because the Miss Navajo pageant is strictly about female pride, and being smart, creative and immersed in the wisdom and continuity of traditions and tribal roots.
The Navajo Nation is the largest tribe in this country, that is, of what remains of the surviving oppressed indigenous peoples subjected to historical ethnic cleansings and genocide. As one contestant describes the pageant, it’s in part a proud gesture ‘to tell the dominant culture that we’re Native Americans, and here we are, we’re alive.’
Women are traditionally respected leaders in this farming community, and so the primary values considered in the competition have nothing to do with sex appeal or conventional notions of glamour. Females of all sorts of shapes and sizes come together to impress the enthusiastic audience and judges with their creative skills in designing art projects, Native costumes, communicating in the original Navajo tongue once banned by the dominant culture, and even the killing and shearing of sheep. One contestant is understandably so overwhelmed by the latter, that she has to be taken away in an ambulance and later drops out of the contest entirely.
A welcome antidote to the dominant society’s soulless spectacle of the female sex object glamour girl gladiators scrutinized so brutally in the feature film Little Miss Sunshine, Miss Navajo has much to enlighten and convey to American women about self-respect, gender consciousness, honoring historical memory, and collective unity versus ruthless competition. Miss Navajo also ends on a tender, lyrical and euphoric note, with the reciting of a Navajo poem honoring the proudly unshorn hair of women, not for its powers of male seduction, but rather as passionate personal and tribal expressions of emotional state of being and shared gender identity.
Miss Navajo will air on the Independent Lens series on PBS Television, on Friday, November 16th. Check local listings. More information is online at the Miss Navajo interactive website, at: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/missnavajo. On the website, you can find information about the film and about Navajo culture, including the language, clothing, food, music, roles of women, and the Navajo relationship to the land. There is also an interactive Virtual Miss Navajo Nation pageant on the website, which visitors can enter for a chance to win the title, while testing their knowledge of Navajo history and culture.