When Miss America season rolls around do you feel a little queasy? Does Honey Boo Boo and the thought of girls being guided toward high heels and swimsuits because beauty pageants are a career decision or direction make you want to puke? I totally understand your sentiments but don't be frightened away by the name of this documentary, "Miss Navajo." Directed by Bill Luther who is part Navajo (and Hopi and Laguna) native American, this movie was filmed in 2005 and 2006 and follows the then 21-year-old Navajo woman, Crystal Frazier, as she prepares and runs for Miss Navajo 2005-2006.
Luther begins the documentary with a woman speaking in what we suppose is Navajo. No subtitles are provided. You feel bewildered at first and then you feel empathy as Frazier sighs and asks, "Could you repeat that question in Navajo, I mean English please?"
Frazier doesn't look like Miss America material. She wears glasses. Her hair isn't done up in a well-sprayed 'do and you imagine she has plenty of bad hair days. She wears little or no make-up. Her breasts aren't proudly displayed. She could be you or me. She's just a homebody. A real simple country girl that hasn't met Dolly Parton's big hair and Robert Redford's Rhinestone Cowboy.
This is all good as far as Miss Navajo goes because practicality is more important than Miss America polish. Some of the competition requirements aren't pretty. This is a pageant that Gloria Steinem and other feminists could get behind, but not PETA because while there are not bathing suits there is some butchering. The competition is open to young women, usually between 19 to 25. The contestants are required to speak Navajo, build fires, cook traditional fry bread, sheer sheep and butcher livestock.
The dress up part of the pageant is more about looking good in contemporary versions of the traditional dress and that means a lot of silver and turquoise jewelry, but not a lot of skin exposed. Talent or skills could be something like dancing or weaving. That's what happens now, but it wasn't always the case.
When the first Miss Navajo was held in 1952, the contestants only had to look pretty and smile. A vote was taken informally but in time the Miss Navajo competition became a way of preserving culture. Director Luther interviews past winners to give us an idea of the competition's evolution.
"Miss Navajo" illustrates how what started out as an imitation of a conventional American beauty contest was transformed by an ethnic community into something positive and practical. The PBS website for the documentary includes Quicktime recordings of Navajo.
"Miss Navajo" is available for instant streaming on Netflix and SundanceNow.