Radmilla Cody's crowning as Miss Navajo Nation in 1997 triggered an outcry and a conversation about what it means to be Native American. Now she's featured in a museum exhibit showing the rarely told history of African-Native Americans.
In a 1920 edition of the Journal of Negro History, Carter G. Woodson observed, "One of the longest unwritten chapters in the history of the United States is that treating of the relations of the Negroes and the Indians."
"Red/Black: Related Through History," a new exhibit at Indianapolis' Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, illuminates this rarely told story. Since the first arrival of enslaved Africans in North America, the relationships between African Americans and Native Americans have encompassed alliances and adversaries, as well as the indivisible blending of customs and culture.
"It's not received a lot of attention because it's not the dominant culture's story, although it's very important to the dominant culture's bigger view of the past," says James Nottage, curator of the exhibit, which includes narratives of enslaved blacks who traveled the Trail of Tears with their Native owners; slaves who intermarried into Native tribes as an escape from bondage; and the largely African-featured members of the Shinnecock tribe of New York, as well as shared traditions in food, dress and music.
Radmilla Cody, 35, a Native American Music Award-winning singer and anti-domestic violence activist, is also featured in the exhibit. The daughter of a Navajo mother and an African-American father, Cody was raised by her grandmother in the Arizona Navajo community, initially speaking only the Navajo language. In 1997 she was crowned Miss Navajo Nation, sparking controversy from some members who refused to accept her.
As one disapproving letter to the editor of the Navajo Times put it, "Miss Cody's appearance and physical characteristics are clearly black, and thus are representative of another race of people. It appears that those judges who selected Miss Cody have problems with their own sense of identity."
Cody, also the subject of a 2010 documentary, Hearing Radmilla, talked to The Root about growing up both black and Navajo, and how she handles frequent "Wow, you don't look Indian" comments.
The Root: The experience of having your Miss Navajo Nation reign challenged calls to mind the debate over the Cherokee Freedmen. Is this a common issue across the Native community, of African-Native Americans having trouble finding acceptance?
Radmilla Cody: I grew up having to deal with racism and prejudices on both the Navajo and the black sides, and when I ran for Miss Navajo Nation, that especially brought out a lot of curiosity in people. It's something that we're still having to address as black Natives, still having to prove ourselves in some way or another, because at the end of the day, it all falls back to what people think a Native American should look like.
But there's been many times when people have said to me, "Oh, my great-great-grandmother was an Indian." I'll ask them if they know what tribe, and they don't. It's very important because in order to be acknowledged as a tribal member, you have to be enrolled. So I can see where Native people are protective about defining who's a tribal member, and are questioning of people claiming Native ancestry.
TR: What motivated you to enter the Miss Navajo Nation pageant?
RC: I've known since I was in the seventh grade that I wanted to run for Miss Navajo Nation. We had a day at school where we were all dressed up in our traditional attire, and I remember seeing the woman who was Miss Navajo at that time. I thought she was so beautiful, and thought it was so neat that she represented the whole Navajo tribe.
Our society, as most Native societies, is matrilineal. Miss Navajo exemplifies the essence of First Woman, White Shell Woman and Changing Woman, which are deities in our culture. From that point it became a goal of mine, and I talked about it all the time. When I got older, I spent the summer before the pageant preparing for it.
TR: What does that preparation entail, exactly? I understand it's not a typical pageant.
RC: Basically you're tested on your knowledge of the Navajo government, the culture, the stories, the songs and the Navajo philosophy of life. You're tested on butchering a sheep and making fry bread and other traditional foods of the Navajo people. It usually lasts about a week. What separates our pageant from the Miss USA pageant is the bikini -- we don't have a swimsuit category!
TR: What was the overall reaction in the Navajo community when you won?
RC: As soon as I was crowned, it was in the newspapers. But every negative newspaper article that came out about me holding the title of Miss Navajo was outnumbered by support letters for me. The people who disagreed with me being selected were a small group of individuals, versus the majority of the Navajo people who were in favor and looked past the color line. They decided that I was able to represent our people because of the knowledge that I had.
TR: Were you surprised by the backlash that you received?
RC: I wasn't surprised. I knew it was going to happen. Right before I left to go to compete in the pageant, my grandmother sat down with me. She said to me, "My child, I just want you to know that there are going to be some people who are not going to be accepting of this."
Growing up, I was taunted at school with racial slurs and would come home in tears. My grandmother would be there, waiting to console me. She always said, "Let 'em talk. You are a Navajo woman. This is your land. This is how I raised you. You be proud of who you are." Every time, that's what she would say.
So this day before the pageant, when she cautioned me about people who wouldn't be accepting of me participating, I turned around and told her, "Let 'em talk, Grandma. I'm a proud Navajo woman, remember?" She had a big smile on her face. I think she felt content that I was ready for what I was going to be challenged with.
TR: Do you have any connection to African-American culture and community?
RC: I spent more time in the Navajo community growing up because my grandmother raised me. When I would come into town in Flagstaff, Ariz., to see my mom, who had black friends, and my dad's relatives, I was in the black community more. I went to high school in Flagstaff, and one day a friend was wearing a T-shirt with a big "X" on it. I said, "That's cool! I should get one that says 'R' for Radmilla!" I didn't know anything about Malcolm X. He told me to join the black student organization. I had a lot to educate myself about and embrace, because I come from two beautiful cultures.
In the black community I also had my challenges. I was always told, "You think you're cute because you got that long, fine hair," and I would have to stand up for my Navajo side because of stereotypes placed upon the Navajo. When I'd go back to the Navajo community, I would have to stand up for my black side because of stereotypes.
It's a challenge sometimes, but I've gotten past the initial state of frustration and just use those opportunities to educate people and let people know about my culture as a Navajo woman. I think this exhibit at the Eiteljorg Museum is a wonderful opportunity for people to gain some understanding about black Natives. We exist, we're here, and through this exhibit we have an opportunity to be acknowledged and recognized.
"Black/Red: Related Through History" runs through Aug. 7 at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.