After a week of events that put three young Navajo women to the test in Navajo culture and tradition, a new Miss Navajo Nation has been crowned. The 2021-2022 titleholder is Niagara Rockbridge.
“It’s definitely a surreal feeling to know that you’re Miss Navajo Nation and that you carry the weight of the nation on your shoulders,” said Rockbridge, who’s from Pinon. “But I’m very excited and I welcome this new year as Miss Navajo.”
Shandiin Yazzie was named the runner-up and Miss Congeniality, and Oshkaillah Lakota Iron Shell was the second runner-up.
Rockbridge, 22, accepted the crown on Saturday from outgoing Miss Navajo Nation Shaandiin Parrish at the Navajo Nation Museum in front of a large online audience and a small group of in-person guests, including her family. The online video of the coronation event had more than 24,000 views as of Monday.
Parrish wore the crown for two years after the pageant was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic. The competition this year was completely virtual and not open to the public.
Rockbridge was dressed in traditional Navajo women’s attire, including a velveteen long-sleeve shirt and a three-tier dress that was a sparkling dark green. She was adorned in turquoise jewelry, including a squash blossom and bracelets.
“My platform is preserving our Diné way of life through utilizing the concept of family unity and hope to harmonize our people again,” Rockbridge said.
“I just felt right now with the pandemic, it’s important to strengthen that kinship and that k’é, what we know it as, so that we can use those teachings through kinship to strengthen our stance and to let our people know that they are not alone,” she said.
Parrish placed the new Miss Navajo Nation crown on Rockbridge.
“I’m so excited for Niagara. I watched Niagara grow up and I know she’ll do an excellent job as Miss Navajo Nation,” Parrish said. “I’m very excited for her continued partnership and what she’s going to bring for our people.“
Newly designed crown
The crown is a completely new design. Rather than a headpiece with one side adorned with designs and stones, the new version is more modern, with designs encircling it.
The artist is Matthew Charley, and Parrish said the Office of Miss Navajo Nation is really happy with the design he presented.
“When Matthew and I were talking about the crown, we wanted to create something that was unlike anything else because we’ve noticed how the other crowns across the Navajo Nation tend to start to replicate each other,” Parrish said.
Parrish said Miss Navajo Nation holds such a high office and responsibility that they wanted to change it up.
“We’re in a new era after COVID and we wanted to really depict that rejuvenation for our people,” Parrish said. The crown’s themes represent all the female Navajo deities, including Spider Woman and White Shell Woman.
Parrish said for the crown’s design, they wanted to “showcase an elegance that is translatable to the Western society too because it looks a lot like Miss Universe or Miss America crowns.” But this one has a Navajo style to it.
Rockbridge also won Miss Photogenic, Best Butcher and Best Essay. She is from Pinon, and her clans are Kinyaa’áanii, born for Hashk’ąa Hadzohi.
“Winning these different categories feels like it’s a representation of my ability to maneuver within both societies that we live in, within the traditional aspect and within the modern aspect of living,” Rockbridge said. “I feel like I’ve really accomplished what I set out to do and made my family proud.“
A traditional upbringing
Rockbridge said her upbringing was very traditional. She was raised with livestock and tended to a cornfield, but she also attended ceremonies whenever she could.
Being raised surrounded by traditional teaching, Rockbridge said she feels that’s what she is able to bring to the title.
She has always dreamed of competing for Miss Navajo Nation, and she’s held various titles throughout her years. Her previous title was Miss Indian Arizona.
After her time was done there, Rockbridge said she felt that it “was important for me to come back to represent my people in that manner.”
The Miss Navajo Nation pageant is usually held every year during the Navajo Nation Fair, where people from various communities gathered to watch the event. This is the first time the pageant has been held entirely online.
“This competition has proven to represent the beauty of our culture, language, and tradition,” the Office of Miss Navajo Nation website states. “Miss Navajo Nation has provided a leader, a role model, and an advocate for culture and language.”
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez applauded the work each of the contestants put into the competition during the coronation.
“You saw a whole week of these three young ladies share their way of life,” he said.
Nez said the contestants represent their families throughout the pageant, not only the family living today but their family before them.
“From one generation to the next that teaching was handed down,” he added. “These young ladies were taught well.“
Nez talked about how, even though the contestants went through a lot of pressure throughout the week, they never wavered and each of them did an outstanding job in each of the competitions.
First Lady of the Navajo Nation Phefelia Nez said that being crowned Miss Navajo Nation is one of the highest honors, and she hopes families will encourage their children and grandchildren to vie for the title.
“I hope to see in the next few years 10 to 15 young ladies competing for Miss Navajo,” she added.
Butchering a sheep, preparing food
The pageant kicked off with a traditional butchering and foods contest. The three contestants had to showcase how to traditionally butcher a sheep and how to prepare traditional food.
The competition is separated into three categories, each assigned an allotted time, and contestants are asked questions throughout the process by judges. The first category was a one-hour general butchering of the sheep, followed by a 30-minute intestine cleaning, and finally a 20-minute meat cutting.
Rockbridge was named best butcher, a title she was happy to get. She worked with a volunteer during the butchering and was able to get the neck cut and her sheep hung in about the first 30 minutes of the competition.
Once she hung the sheep, Rockbridge moved on to gutting and meat cutting. She finished within 50 minutes of the hour allotted for the competition. She was the first to finish.
“This whole week has been very exciting, but also very stressful in a way because you are competing to become Miss Navajo,” Rockbridge said. “It’s a very humbling experience.”
During the coronation, Rockbridge received an apron naming her best butcher and new utensils to help with future butchers.
Yazzie, one of the other contestants, said the butchering contest was a lot of fun for her, even though she ended up walking away from the event needing five stitches after cutting her finger.
“I still stuck it out and went through it,” she said with a smile.
She feels the entire week was amazing but intense. She went to the hospital again for heat exhaustion during the week, but overall she really enjoyed her experience.
“I’m really happy, it was a good week. it went by smoothly,” she said. “I always wanted to be Miss Navajo, if not, I always wanted to run because a lot of my friends are former Miss Navajos.”
Yazzie said she really admires her friend and former Miss Navajo Radmilla Cody, who she said is an amazing advocate for the Navajo people.
Yazzie feels that Miss Navajo is a ray of hope for the Navajo people, and she sees that in the newly crowned Rockbridge.
“She just embodies beauty and resiliency as well as what it looks like and what it means to be a strong, independent Diné woman,” she added.
‘They were all a joy’
Carletta Benally, program supervisor for the Office of Miss Navajo Nation, said there were 21 judges throughout the competition, and all of them were new to the pageant.
“I’m really pleased with their decisions and with who they selected,” she added. The judges were responsible for scoring the essays, butchering and traditional food competition, business and traditional interviews, and the contemporary and traditional talent showcase.
Besides the actual pageant events, the contestants also got to experience a self-defense demonstration hosted by the Navajo Nation Police Training Academy and they spent a day in the life of Miss Navajo Nation with Parrish, so they could experience what the schedule is like in real time.
The self-defense demonstration was hosted by Sgt. Robert Williams with the training academy. He taught them how to recognize threats, force delivery, body mechanics, pressure points, and shielding.
“The contestants were excellent students who quickly learned the basic maneuvers,” officials said in a news release.
On the day the contestants spent with Parrish, they visited about nine different chapter houses and ending with a meet and greet.
Parrish was really impressed with the contestants throughout the week.
“They’re all very unique and bring their own experience,” she said. “They were all a joy. I was super excited to have a diverse group of girls, and I hope they enjoyed themselves.”
Parrish gave her farewell speech before the crowning and talked about how hosting the pageant this year is a form of revitalization for the Navajo Nation in terms of the pandemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has not been easy on any of us and I hope that this pageant is a reflection of rejuvenation and reflection,” she said.
Benally believes that hosting the pageant completely online was a success. On the first day of the competition, there were over 50,000 views.
She received a lot of positive feedback from the contestants and others involved, noting that many enjoyed how they were not distracted by the jeers of a crowd.
Benally said her goal was to be able to provide a platform for the contestants where they were comfortable enough to provide their best performance during the pageant, and she believes they were able to do that.