Inside the Miss Navajo Nation Pageant, Where Lost Traditions Are Found Again

Miss Navajo Nation is no ordinary pageant. There are no bathing suits or evening gowns, and physical beauty isn’t glorified. Instead the 69-year tradition focuses on Navajo culture, womanhood, and leadership. “It represents the beauty, the language, the tradition, and the matrilineal strength of the Navajo Nation,” says Phefelia Nez, Navajo Nation’s first lady. “These girls prepare for this from a very young age, and it takes the family, the community, to get them ready once they have the desire.”

The weeklong competition was prevented last year as rising coronavirus infection levels limited in-person activities. Now that Native Americans have the highest vaccination rate in America, the Navajo leadership is confident in holding the event in person; it kicks off today, September 6—with some restrictions still in place. According to Nez, the event will be limited to 25 people total: the contestants, judges, and a few volunteers.

The pageant was first held in 1952 to center Navajo pride and honor the Diné (Navajo people). It has had between five and ten contestants in the past, but this year will see three young women compete for the title of Miss Navajo Nation. In addition to an age requirement of 18 to 25—signifying a new generation, a passing of the baton—the three participants must also be vaccinated. 

In the past, people from across the Nation would gather publicly and select the winner based on the loudest applause. But over the years it’s grown to include an exacting test of Navajo culture and has become a way to keep the mores of their ancestors alive in shifting contemporary times.

the crown from miss navajo pageant
The Miss Navajo Nation crown Rita Omokha
the crown

Shaandiin Parrish, the outgoing Miss Navajo, says the women that came before have inspired her “to hold a higher expectation for myself. To carry myself in a way that our culture says that women should.” She’s the only titleholder to wear the crown for two straight years, a result of the pandemic. “I want the contestants to know that being Miss Navajo Nation is a position for our people,” says Parrish. “That the needs of our people must come first.”

The four-day event includes preparing three traditional dishes, testing the women on Diné history and philosophy, demonstrating Navajo language fluency, and butchering an adult sheep (called dibé in Navajo) in an hour—a symbolic ritual. The sheep represents spirituality and life: Dibé bi iina; “sheep is life.” The Diné use the sacred animal as a main dish, like roasted mutton or lamb fillet, during ceremonies or significant celebrations—it’s a sign of hospitality, says 2011 Miss Navajo Crystalyne Curley, an administrator in the Nation’s office of the president and vice president.

Contestants must also show a clear understanding of traditional everyday life. That aspect is especially crucial because Miss Navajo Nation becomes an ambassador across the 574 federally recognized tribes and internationally, says Nez. Parrish, for example, represented the Nation in front of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights earlier this year to speak about the Diné’s pandemic struggles.

“Their platform is huge,” says Nez of the women who have been Miss Navajo Nation. “But on a personal level, it allows them to reflect back on everything that it took for them to get to where they are, how they were raised, the things that they were taught.”

Below, the three contestants share what this pageant means to them, what they look forward to in the weeklong competition, and what they hope to accomplish, especially as their community continues to reel from the pandemic.

Shandiin Hiosik
Courtesy of Office of Miss Navajo Nation

Shandiin Hiosik Yazzie, 25

Miss Navajo means I am an ambassador and role model for young women to say, “She’s trying her best despite the hardships and setbacks our people face.” I was nervous thinking we had to capture and butcher the sheep—which I was prepared for because my cheii [grandfather] taught me how to rope. But the sheep would already be there, all we have to do is slaughter—so I’m a bit at ease.

To have the sheep butchering part of this pageant may seem misplaced, but its significance goes beyond that one act alone. My grandmother once told me, “Don’t ever forget that this sheep feeds us, it gives us everything. It’s our food, it’s our clothes, it’s our bed, and most importantly it’s our medicine.” Its value is based on the traditional perspectives of k’é [kinship]. K’é is how everything is connected. How the sheep gives its life to my family and me, so we make sure to bless it before we butcher it. We say, “Thank you,” and pray for our families, the earth, the sky, the environment, and for all earth surface peoples.

One thing people may not realize is that the United States still holds power over all indigenous people. We don’t have “real” sovereignty and are not free from injustices and the continued violence of settler-colonialism. We’ve struggled from years of untreated intergenerational trauma caused by systemic violence that colonization caused. What gives me hope is my generation and those coming behind me, wanting to fight abuses of power. Even if it means we start small.

I’ve been working in mutual aid for indigenous and women organizations like the K’é Infoshop, working in our communities on and off the Navajo Nation. Mutual aid is a form of solidarity-based support, where we unite against a common struggle rather than leaving individuals to fend for themselves. I want to continue advocating for restorative and transformative justice regardless of if I win or not.

Niagara Aveda Chanel
Courtesy of Office of Miss Navajo Nation

Niagara Aveda Chanel Rockbridge, 22

Growing up, the idea of kinship was always emphasized. During the pandemic we lost our matriarchs and elders. People that we leaned on for support, and it’s been hard on us. But we have their teachings. That has helped us stay strong through this time.

My name, Rockbridge, represents the sliding rock the Rockbridge people use as a landmark to identify their homelands. A Northstar. It comes from my great-grandfather, an elder who many turned to for guidance and wisdom. And those qualities of leadership were passed on to my grandfather and father. Since I was a child, my father has been keen on teaching me the Navajo way of life. Making sure I don’t forget our heritage, our language, who we are as a people. So my passion for helping my people stems directly from my lineage. As Miss Navajo, I want my main message to center on the concept of unity and teaching our culture to future generations.Most Popular

We’ve endured historic tragedies, even through this recent year with the impacts of COVID—how much it has taken its toll on us. Yet there’s also a collective strength that we have found within our history, within our way of life. And holding on to that helps us survive.

This week is more than a competition. It’s not about who wins. It’s about our heritage. It’s about continuing the legacy of the Diné people. We’ve been sidelined for so long; we want the world to know that we are forever strong, forever resilient, much like every Indigenous nation in America.

oshkailliah lakota
Courtesy of Office of Miss Navajo Nation

Oshkailliah Lakota Iron Shell, 19

This pageant is a dream for every Diné girl—and I was one of them. I would watch how graceful all the previous Miss Navajo presented themselves and never realized how much dedication and work it was for them. They’ve accomplished so much for us, for our nation. I was mentored by a former Miss Navajo, Audra J. Etsitty Platero​, and time with her inspired me to compete, to aim higher.

I was raised Catholic and learned to express love and selflessness. As a child I would always go out of my way to give someone money, even a meal. People in need always break my heart. So to now have a chance to help my community, especially our youth who’ve lost their parents this past year, and even before the pandemic due to the ongoing missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis, would be the center of what I do.

I’ve seen my generation, my mother’s generation, struggle. Some are still dealing with homelessness and unemployment, not knowing where they’d eat or sleep each day—something the pandemic only made worse. I want to raise more awareness of that growing issue. I want to ask and find solutions to, Where are the resources for them? What can we do to make sure each one has a place to rest their head at night? Who do they turn to?

I am a bit nervous about competing. I think we all are because it’s a huge responsibility that can shape our Nation. But I’m also looking forward to seeing how my sisters and I will do in every event. It’s our way to show the world we are still here.

Rita Omokha is a freelance writer based in New York. These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.