Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Miss Navajo: Reconceptualizing Native American Beauty.

image

Yolanda Charley, recently won the title of Miss. Navajo NationI am normally against beauty contests, as I see them as nothing more than the performance of femininity for the male gaze.  The Miss Navajo Nation is like no other pageant I have ever come across.

The Miss Navajo competition is a week long with a 45-minute, 18-question interview by former Miss Navajos to test the contestants' traditional knowledge. Navajo elders judge contestants' dance moves, attire and personal presentation. Charley presented corn grinding and dedicated a song to Navajo veterans for the traditional skill and talent events.

In the competition, young Navajo women are judged on their language, traditional skills and talents and contemporary skills to become ambassadors for the tribe... Miss Navajo contestants aren't helped by their parents or relatives during the pageants. They have to dress themselves and make their own hair bun, according to the application. They have to be fluent in Navajo and English and have a high school diploma.

What I love about this contest is that it is more than women parading around with fake smiles, with their bathing suits taped to their skin, to avoid being swallowed by their asses.  Miss Navajo is about celebration, and the perpetuation of  culture. 

As I looked through the photos of past winners one of the things that struck me was the fact that the women were of all different sizes.  Unlike the Miss America pageant where women are all thin, long legged beauties, the requirement to win Miss. Navajo is a firm grounding in language, and ancient traditions. In this we can see that beauty can be understood very differently from what the media and the fashion industry continually try to idealize for the public.

Miss Navajo Nation represents womanhood and fulfills the role of "grandmother, mother, aunt, and sister" to the Navajo people and therefore she can speak as a leader, counselor, advisor and friend.

I see this pageant as more than a return to the past, it is an elevation of womanhood.  While a good part of the competition involves the preparation of food, what should be considered is that this is actually an elevation of women's traditional nurturing labour.  Today when a woman prepares food for her family it is the expected and therefore an  invalidated act; whereas in the competition the labour is fully appreciated and rewarded.  The work that we do as women in the maintenance of our families upholds the private sphere, and this is often discounted because it does not produce a product that can be sold on the open market. When I see a pageant that celebrates womanhood in this way, I cannot help but to be thrilled.  Even though this competition is limited to Navajo women we should all take heed because what we should be celebrating are our skills and our devotion not whether we can  smile pretty, in a bathing suit and high heels.

H/T Ojibway Migisi Bineshii


12 comments:

White Trash Academic said...

Wow, I am impressed. Definately not the same as the "talent competition" in most beauty pageants. By having the focus being on the connection to and knowledge of the Navaho culture, Miss Navaho takes on an entirely different meaning. Now, this is one pageant I can get behind!

Dolly said...

That's really cool! :)

Guy Vestal said...

I agree with WTA... That is a pageant I could actually support. I don't even stop long enough to listen to news about the other plastic and fake ones.

Habladora said...

Wow - interesting post. I like that the women of the Navajo community are valued for being able to "speak as a leader, counselor, advisor and friend."

AR said...

Miss Navajo is about celebration, and the perpetuation of culture.

Doesn't this sort of attitude play into the "white people don't have culture" thing? Western beauty pageants are as much celebrations and perpetuations of the culture that spawned them as Miss Navaho, albeit less explicitly.

You could argue that the culture behind Miss Nvaho is more positive than the culture behind Miss America, but they are still both "cultures." A culture is not necessarily good simply by virtue of being a culture.

Renee said...

@AR you have a valid point that indeed Miss USA is part of culture. I should have been more specific in the language that I used.

Ojibway Migisi Bineshii said...

Renee I love this post! This pageant not only reflects and celebrates the beauty, intelligence and honour of Navajo women but of the connection to the Earth. I believe man women in Native American culture are becoming more empowered in their true beauty and a pageant like this is a reflection of that. Additionally, my relatives who live on the reservation have been healing issues such as sexual assault/rape, abuse, neglect and abandonment which affects ones pride, honor and ultimately how they portray themselves in the world. This is not to say that they have to dress a certain way or put on makeup but to hold themselves up and be proud in who they are. That is beauty. Truly honoring and elevating ourselves as woman in this world is evolutionary in so many ways.

Thank you for this wonderful post today!

Anonymous said...

In addition to the existing comments: this pageant actually sounds interesting to watch and fun to be in.

Anita said...

Thanks for posting about this. For years I have been reading about and admiring many things about various Native American peoples and especially the Dine.

The preservation of their culture has to be seen as a triumph in light of the long-standing U.S. policy of assimilation imposed upon them. Their land is, in their belief system, the sacred place where they must remain in order to be Dine. To our shame we drove them out in a reign of terror and forced marched them to a place of horror. It was not just being driven from their home but also from their temple. That they returned and retained their language, culture and pride is a miracle not of our making.

The coming of age ceremony for girls features beautiful dress and beautiful blessings, of course, but also beautiful symbolism which includes invoking the girl's spiritual and physical fitness in various ways such as the times in the ritual when she is expected to participate by running with great swiftness, grace and stamina.

There is much to admire even beyond the cliches and even after acknowledging our cultural assault and the widespread poverty and abuse of women and children which are often traceable to introduced vices. I think it admirable that the Dine voted not to add casino gambling to the other vices we thrust upon them.

I think all societies, doubtless including the spectrum of Native Americans have quite a sufficient roster of their own home-grown vices that it is doubly painful to recognize how much my culture has introduced more damage to theirs, quite apart from our outright war upon them.

It gives me a sense of reassurance and hope for humankind that many Native American people traditionally value the unique gifts that women and gay men bring to the betterment of their people. These two examples however seem so sane and positive, I weep that we were so blind that no coexistence was thought possible, and so false that no treaty was ever kept.

Anonymous said...

whoa, Anita! check that colonial guilt. the marginalization of indigenous peoples is a contemporary phenomenon, not just a historical one. "we" are still breaking treaties with "them," and ig'nant white folks are still calling for assimilation. and the casinos? sometimes that is a vice that "we" thrust on "them;" sometimes they fund community initiatives like schools, roads, and clean drinking water. oh, and university scholarships.

let's not lose the nuances in outward performances of guilt...

Anonymous said...

www.missnavajomovie.com this documentary is amazing. it shows the contemporary pageant, but also the history of the Navajo woman and the 50 years of the pageant

Anonymous said...

I am Dine' and I don't agree with the choice. I think that beauty is mentioned on the application for Miss Navajo. But I think that the judges were blind in this one.
Miss Navajo should project a Fit and Healthy Image for the Generation of Dine' growing up on the Rez with the rise in Diabetes and Heart Disease. Sorry I'm just being honest.