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Film reveals inner beauty of Miss Navajo pageant

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PARK CITY, Utah - Filmmaker Billy Luther, Navajo/Hopi/Laguna Pueblo, was overcome with nerves as he waited in a crowded Sundance theater on Jan. 20; immediately after introducing his film to the audience, he left.

''I couldn't stay in that theater,'' Luther said. ''It was the first time anyone had seen the film. I was way too nervous.''

''Miss Navajo,'' Luther's first feature film, made its world premiere at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary examines the Miss Navajo Nation competition and uncovers the culture and history behind the crown and title.

''With this film we look at what is beauty and what beauty means to the Navajo people, and we do that in a pretty fun way through the beauty pageant,'' Luther said.

At 31 years old, Luther had heard his mother tell stories over and over again about her reign as Miss Navajo 1966. Luther said she kept pictures on the wall and spoke with pride about her days as ambassador to her nation as Miss Navajo.

''As a kid I would hear the stories and say, 'Mom, be quiet; I don't want to hear those stories anymore,''' he said. ''But about 10 years ago I started writing a script on my mom's life and I told my mom, 'Now I want to hear your stories; please tell me your stories.'''

Luther quickly put a hold on writing a script about his mother's life when he realized that he needed to make a film about the title of Miss Navajo.

''I was interviewing former Miss Navajos and the way they spoke about the pageant and the honor they felt for being Miss Navajo, I knew I had to put my project on the back burner and make this documentary.''

Most beauty pageants feature swimsuit and evening gown competitions, but the Miss Navajo competition judges beauty in accordance with the perception of the Navajo people. The event, which began in 1952, gives young women the opportunity to honor and strengthen the Navajo culture while exhibiting the characteristics of beauty in the traditions of the Dine' people.

''I wanted to make a film about the Miss Navajo pageant, but I didn't want it to be a historical look at the pageant,'' said Luther, who used the pageant in his film as a tool to examine the role of beauty and culture in the Navajo community.

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''I think the pageant aspect draws the audience into all these different things, so this film isn't about a beauty pageant: it's about so much more,'' he said.

The documentary was filmed over thre e and one-half years. Luther, who produced and directed the film, interviewed several Miss Navajo hopefuls to find one contestant that he could follow as she prepared for the pageant.

About six months before the 2005 Miss Navajo competition, Luther and his team began following Crystal Frazier.

''Crystal was the last person I interviewed,'' Luther said. ''I knew when I met her that she was who I wanted to follow. She's not the type of person you would expect to run for a pageant; she's a tomboy; she's a basketball star; she's so not pageant material, but she just demanded my attention.''

Frazier and the other 2005 contestants were tested on much more than pose and grace. The Miss Navajo Nation hopefuls are required to demonstrate skills that are important to Navajo daily life, including sheep butchering, frybread-making and rug weaving. In the documentary, Luther also focuses on the aspect of language, which is crucial in the competition.

''The main thing that we focus on is the language - and if you're going to be Miss Navajo, the ambassador of the Navajo people, you should be fluent in the language,'' Luther said. ''A lot of the contestants struggled with that.''

Frazier is currently employed by the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture as a field enumerator. She attends Brigham Young University, where she majors in pre-mechanical engineering with a minor in math.

''If you are familiar with the Miss Navajo pageant, you will know if Crystal won or not,'' Luther said. ''I say, just see the film.''

The film revisits Frazier a year after the competition to explore what she learned from the pageant. Luther said he hopes people understand the lessons that Frazier learned during the competition and how she adapted those values to her life as a Dine' woman.

''I know that for me, as a Native filmmaker, I don't want to make the 'victimization film' because there are so many of them,'' Luther said. ''This whole film could have been about the boarding schools, but I didn't want to go there. Other filmmakers can make those stories, but I want to make contemporary films: not about what we had taken away, but about what we have today.''