Throngs of people gathered under a tent to watch young women butcher sheep. It was a warm day but it was sweltering under the tent where some campfires burned. The smoky cedar masked the smell of raw mutton. Seven young women worked quickly in teams to decide who cuts the sheep’s throat, who removes the stomach and who quarters the carcass.
The crowd screamed as one petite woman struggled to lift an enormous, slippery stomach out of her sheep. Contestants sweat under traditional Navajo dress of velvet, satin and layers of turquoise jewelry. They wore aprons and wrapped their moccasins in plastic to protect themselves from blood. Judges circled, scrutinized and made notes on their clipboards. Immediately after the girls finished, they had to answer impromptu questions in Navajo like what are you supposed to do with the sheep’s head.
A contestant struggled with the Navajo, then said in English, "wrap the head in foil and put it on the fire."
The audience booed and the judge passed the microphone to an audience member who had the chance to win a sack of flour in exchange for the correct answer.
The right answer is you burn off all the wool in the fire, slow cook the head underground and eat the cheek meat and part of the eyeball.
The contestants then were instructed to quickly move onto making fry bread -- a Navajo staple of flour, lard and milk -- which they must cook in skillets over an open flame.
Contestant Wallita Begay had her black hair pulled back in a bun. Begay said the event proves they can multi-task, stay calm under pressure and -- most importantly -- prove their understanding of Navajo customs.
"It’s an essence of who you are, who your family is, who your community is," Begay said. "And you’re not just representing yourself, you’re representing your community and once you get the title you’re representing an entire nation."
Begay said she’s been butchering sheep with her grandmother since she was 12. For her speaking Navajo is the hardest part of the competition. Most of the contestants grew up speaking English because their parents knew little Navajo. Many had to attend government run boarding schools and were pushed to assimilate into American culture.
"This whole entire generation, our parents generation they were raised to think Navajo was bad to speak," Begay said. "They tied the language and reservation with failure."
More people today realize that the language is a part of their identity, said contestant Charlene Goodluck.
"When a grandmother when she uses terms of endearment with her child," Goodluck said. "It means my granddaughter or my daughter or my child. It gives that child a sense of belonging."
Goodluck said that since she grew up off the reservation in Albuquerque, she felt distant from her culture.
"And a lot of our youth today are experiencing that loss of not having anywhere to go or having a home," Goodluck said.
Goodluck’s own grandmother taught her, ‘if you don’t know who you are, you don’t know where you’re going. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re lost.’ Her grandmother always wanted her to be Miss Navajo. And Goodluck’s family has sacrificed a lot of time and money for her to compete. This is her third attempt at the crown.
"Oh my gosh I want it so bad I can taste it! I’m starting to visualize it," Goodluck said. "I have a lot of advice from formers they’ll tell you y’know tell yourself you’re Miss Navajo. Look in the mirror and say, ‘I am Miss Navajo!’"
In addition to the sheep butchering and language skills, contestants compete in both contemporary and traditional talent contests.