radmilla cody, february 1998
in february 1998 i spent 3 days following radmilla cody who had been elected to represent the navajo nation as miss navajo nation. though a talented singer (called the navajo whitney houston), radmilla's tenure was marked by navajo people who didn't like a half black person representing them even if she was raised by her traditional grandmother, speaks navajo, can butcher a sheep and knows the culture. they wrote letters of outrage to the navajo times editorial page expressing their disappointment. they'd ask questions like "...what's become of our people and our tradition when a person who looks black is representing us?"
for every letter opposing radmilla, there were at least 2 letters supporting her as miss navajo nation. this dynamic created fodder for the newspapers and the controversy ran weekly for about 6 months. curious as to how she was being received at ground zero in the community, i followed radmilla + her assistant from the navajo nation office of miss navajo as radmilla sang and spoke to assemblies of students, girls in shelters and to elders. it was an honor to get this behind the scenes look into the responsibilities of miss navajo nation.
radmilla was a pillar of strength and integrity as she greeted these groups. though aware of the controversy, it didn't define her. she was the strong navajo woman her traditional grandmother taught her to be. everyone i saw at the assemblies loved her.
after a difficult period in her life upon concluding her tenure as miss navajo nation, radmilla is up for the first native american grammy tonight (since the categories at the grammies were revised a few years ago).
here's to you millie, with love...
radmilla getting her hair tied into a traditional bun before speaking to students
radmilla with her assistant, diana, before addressing elders at the shiprock senior center
radmilla at a home for girls. the girls in the shelter had been removed from their homes by social services for various reasons from abuse to drugs, alcohol and violence in the home. having come from a similarly challenging background where her mom was an alcoholic, radmilla was raised by her traditional grandma which is how she learned to speak navajo, herd and butcher sheep and everything about the culture.
but even in that space with grandma on the rez, there were relatives who teased her harshly for being 1/2 black. she was able to share her personal story with people in such a way that they knew she understood them.
radmilla joking with a grandma after speaking at the shiprock senior center