clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Biracial Miss Navajo faces a lot of bigotry

Radmilla Cody is smart, beautiful and has a 100-watt smile.

She speaks fluent Navajo; she easily turns flour and lard into nice brown fry bread; and she knows her way around a sheep with a butcher knife.Judges of the annual Miss Navajo Nation contest found the 23-year-old Arizonan to be the best example of Navajo life and culture and crowned her as the tribe's goodwill ambassador for 1998.

When Cody travels around the reservation, greeting crowds in her velvet, satin and turquoise, she introduces herself in the traditional way, with her name followed by her clan affiliations, her mother's side first and then her father's side.

"I am of the Red Button People," she says, "born for African-American."

The daughter of a Navajo mother and an African-American father, Cody is the first biracial Miss Navajo.

Her reign has opened wounds of racial prejudice on the reservation, but it has also sparked a discussion of what it means to be Navajo. A letter in the tribal newspaper critical of the judges' choice started it all, outraging many Navajos who wrote in support of Cody.

Cody, who was reared by her Navajo grandmother on the western edge of the reservation in a small community called Grand Falls, learned to speak the Navajo language, to herd sheep, to weave rugs, to haul water and to cook over a kerosene stove. She knows the stories of the Navajo and can tell them in the Dine language.

She was reared by her grandmother because her father was absent and her mother was an alcoholic. Cody has no contact with her father and does not know where he lives. Her mother, now in recovery, lives in Flagstaff, and the two are very close.

Cody was well-prepared for last September's weeklong Miss Navajo contest, which pitted her against six other young women in competitions of fry bread making and sheep butchering. Cody, who counted the family sheep as her childhood friends, found the butchering competition the hardest. Her fluent Navajo, a language that is being lost among younger tribe members, especially impressed the judges.

While she knew the nuances of the Navajo language, Cody was in high school before she learned anything about black history or black culture.

"I guess I never really considered it," she says, "being that I identified myself with my Navajo side."

But it is Cody's African-American features that have prompted controversy. In a letter published in the Navajo Nation's newspaper, the Navajo Times, a member of the tribe lashed out at the judges' choice of Cody as Miss Navajo.

"Miss Cody's appearance and physical characteristics are clearly black and are thus representative of another race of people," Orlando Tom, of the Navajo community of Blue Gap in Arizona, wrote two months after Cody took the title.

Tom said tribal members who are of mixed race are a threat to the future of the tribe.

It is "the very essence of the genetic code which is passed down from generation to generation," Tom wrote, "that makes us who we are."

Tom suggested Cody focus on her African-American heritage ("she is a very pretty black lady," he wrote) and stay out of Navajo affairs.

Cody was stunned when she read the letter. At 23, she had come to terms with being a curiosity among both blacks and Navajos, and she had entered the Miss Navajo contest to make a statement that biracial people should not be judged as "half" of anything.

"Instead of looking at you as a human being and just another person, they want to look at you for the color of your skin," Cody says. "And if you are half-black, they push you into that position where you feel you have to try to fit in where you're with either group."

It wasn't until Cody entered elementary school that she heard the taunt "zhini" - the Navajo word for black. She was in high school in Flagstaff when she first heard blacks and other non-Indians students talk about "drunk Indians."

"When I read that letter I actually felt like I was a child again," Cody says. "I was dealing with all the feelings I had dealt with growing up, dealing with racial slurs from the black side as well as the Navajo side."

Tom lives in the hills outside Blue Gap, an isolated community just north of the Hopi reservation. He does not have a phone and could not be reached to talk about his reasons for singling out Cody or his response to the flood of responses to his letter - many from mixed-race members of the tribe and all in support of Cody.

Eunice Muskett, part Navajo and part German, wrote from her home in Nakaibito, N.M., with a message for Cody: "You are a positive role model for our daughters in your strength to overcome ignorance and prejudice where it should not be in the first place."

Another tribal member wrote: "I am proud of who I am (Navajo, 1/2 black)." Another tribal member who is Navajo and Puerto Rican responded, "We are Navajos, too, and proud of it. We are not the enemy."

Daphne Thomas from Leupp, Ariz., wrote that "ethnic blood cleansing has no place in the Navajo society because the Navajo way teaches that beauty is everywhere."

After weeks of letters in support of Cody and in disagreement with Tom, Sean Walker, a representative of the NAACP in Gallup, wrote to the Navajo Times to say "it is encouraging that many people of the great Navajo Nation do not share his opinions."

Cody, whose schedule includes appearances at schools and meetings on the reservation as well as representing the Navajo Nation at intertribal functions, is welcomed wherever she goes with thundering applause and gaggles of autograph seekers. She keeps a punishing schedule of two, three or four appearances a day.

Although she decided to enter the competition with the goal of showing that Navajos of mixed race "should be taken seriously," judges made no mention or issue of her race during the competition, which requires contestants to be enrolled members of the tribe.

Cody, who was working as a home and school liaison for the Native American program in the Mesa schools before she became Miss Navajo, usually sings the "Star Spangled Banner" in Navajo, describes her early life with her grandmother and the weeklong contest and tells children to work hard in school and be proud of their Navajo heritage.

But Cody talked about her background and her experiences with racial prejudice during appearances last month at an NAACP banquet in Gallup and before the Navajo Nation Council to discuss changing the council session's opening day so it does not fall on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And in a recent speech at the Black History Month program at Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington, Cody told a standing-room-only audience of students that she has weathered the storm by relying on the advice of Dorothy Cody, her grandmother.

"I have always had my grandmother there, who was my backbone then and who is still my backbone," Cody told the students.

"I had not the slightest idea who Malcolm X was. The only person I was aware of as a black leader was Martin Luther King, and that was just briefly."

She has since made it a point to learn about black history, especially as the events of this year have put her in the position of a spokeswoman for black Navajos.

Cody, who has been taking classes at community colleges in Arizona, plans to enroll at Arizona State University when a new Miss Navajo is chosen this September and her reign ends. She plans eventually to go to law school and specialize in tribal law.

Although the letter episode has been painful for Cody, she has been heartened by how it has sparked discussions about racism and by tribal members' responses.