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American Indian Beauty Pageant Hits the Big Screen

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Beauty pageants are an American tradition. From big hotel ballrooms to tiny auditoriums around the country, young women strut in ball gowns and high heels, vying for everything from Ms. Corn Silk to Ms. America.

But imagine a pageant where contestants must also butcher a sheep, make fry bread, and speak the language of their ancestors. We're talking about the Miss Navajo pageant. The Navajo nation, this country's largest tribe, has held the annual competition for more than half a century. Each year, one young woman earns the crown and the challenge of representing the Navajo culture. "Miss Navajo", a new documentary about the pageant, airs tonight on the PBS program "Independent Lens."

The film's director, Billy Luther, joins us from his home in Los Angeles, and his mother, Sarah Luther, a former Miss Navajo, joins us from member station KERA in Dallas.

Welcome to both of you.

Mr. BILLY LUTHER (Director, "Miss Navajo"): Thank you.

Ms. SARAH LUTHER (Former Miss Navajo; Mother of Billy Luther): Thank you.

MARTIN: Billy Luther, why was the pageant started? Was it based on Miss America?

Mr. LUTHER: When it first started in '52, it really was to attract tourism to the Navajo Nation Fair. But then a few years later, the tribe and the pageant people thought they could do something much more important, showcasing Navajo skills and traditions.

MARTIN: Is it really about beauty? I was trying to figure out what language to use to describe it. Is that the right - what do you think?

Mr. LUTHER: I do. I think that is the right - call it a beauty pageant and beauty just - I think it forces viewers to look at beauty in a whole different way.

MARTIN: I noticed that there weren't a whole lot of contestants in this competition. I think it was under a dozen, Billy, was it?

Mr. LUTHER: Six, yes.

MARTIN: So it's six. Right. So, Sarah, when you were competing, were there more young women interested in this kind of experience?

Ms. LUTHER: In the year I competed in 1966 - our reservation is divided into five agencies, and I came from the central. So at the time, we just had five contestants, and then I understand since 1966, there was a time when they had, like, 30 contestants.

MARTIN: But do you think that it's — the contest has lost its luster in some way? You know, a lot of, you know, young women across cultures are questioning some of the traditions and things that their mothers value. And I just wonder if you feel that perhaps the younger generation just isn't as interested in the traditions that you were, and in showcasing in this particular way.

Ms. LUTHER: I think the main drawback in our Miss Navajo pageant is the language because that is such a criteria that the emphasis is on, and then, of course, doing the traditional skills.

In the time when I competed in 1966, our competition was both in the traditional and the contemporary. The traditional push in the pageant was just second nature to us, but now and today because the language is not spoken as much, the old competition has somewhat reversed. The young ladies are more comfortable in the contemporary side, whereas they are now struggling with the traditional category.

MARTIN: That you make a very good point. One of the former Miss Navajos interviewed in the film talks about — that was the first and only time she had ever worn high heels was when she competed in the pageant. But let me ask you about some of the traditional skills that are a part of the pageant — the ability to butcher a sheep, being one; the ability to speak the language. I mean, are these things that Navajo women have to do? They don't really have to do these things, so what is the point of insisting that they do them?

Ms. LUTHER: The whole emphasis there is time to retain our culture, time to keep that in perspective for the generations to come, to let them know that this is something that our grandmothers have taught us. This is something that we, as mothers — and now that we are grandmothers — we want some of those skills and those traditions to be passed onto the future generation. Of course, that…

MARTIN: Billy, what about you? I'm sorry, I was going to ask Billy…

Ms. LUTHER: Okay. Go ahead.

MARTIN: Billy, could he do it? Could he, if you were a girl, of course, could you compete?

Mr. LUTHER: Oh, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUTHER: I think it takes a lot of guts to go and compete in this pageant. The six young women who I follow in this Navajo pageant, you know, had a lot of guts, and each of them just - they were sort of different and so diverse to shine through in the film.

MARTIN: And if anybody has any stereotypes about, you know, Navajo women, I think that these young women certainly, you know, let them know what's what. There is a question and answer phase of the contest, and they're expected to speak in Navajo for a part of it, but then they're also asked, you know, questions about governance and public affairs. And here's a short clip I'd like to play when one of the contestants, Janine Yazi(ph), is asked about the role of women in the Navajo nation.

(Soundbite of Ms. Navajo pageant)

Unidentified Man #1: What is your position, or your thinking, on a woman being in a capacity of a leader in a government entity?

Ms. JANINE YAZI (Contestant, Miss Navajo): I think a woman is just very able to lead. I think that everyone stresses culture and tradition in our government, like, including our government. You know, like they try to say, like, we're trying to implement all these, all our traditional practices and our values into our schools. But they're forgetting a large part of our culture, is that we are matriarchal. And I believe that woman are very — are just as capable as men, for me, in any leadership position and that sex shouldn't be an issue at all.

Mr. LUTHER: Hello.

MARTIN: How did that go over, Billy, with the judges?

Mr. LUTHER: They really responded well to - pretty much everybody was in the same line of thinking and in terms of women in government. And, you know, there was one woman judge on that particular panel so, you know, nobody was turned off by that.

MARTIN: Well, Sarah Luther, I did want to ask you, though, that, you know, this whole beauty pageant ideal is very much discussed in a lot of communities about whether this is — is this just a good thing for society? You know, how do we feel about all this? And I have wondered if you ever feel any ambivalence about the idea sort of pre-pageant being the vehicle by which the culture was presented.

Ms. LUTHER: I never ever really felt like we were trying to showcase our women as that of the Miss Universe or Miss America. Beauty, superficial beauty is never the emphasis and just knowing the culture and being able to represent their people is what their main focus is on.

MARTIN: Billy Luther, what would you like people to take from your film?

Mr. LUTHER: Well, I hope people see how much the Navajo culture embraces women and respects women. And I feel like I do that without, you know, hitting people over the head. But I do hope people walk away with the film wanting to give their mother a call or grandmother a call and just say thank you or I love you because it's really a tribute to them.

MARTIN: Billy Luther is director of the documentary "Miss Navajo." He joined us from Los Angeles. We were also joined by his mother, Sarah Luther. She is a former Miss Navajo. She joined us from member station KERA in Dallas.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. LUTHER: Thank you for having us.

Ms. LUTHER: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: "Miss Navajo" airs tonight on the PBS program, "Independent Lens." Check local listings. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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