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Miss Navajo pageant documentary film set to air on PBS

WASHINGTON - A documentary film closely examining one woman's journey to become Miss Navajo will soon air on PBS. The film, titled ''Miss Navajo,'' premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and has since been watched by audiences worldwide. The PBS television channel will air the film Nov. 13.

Miss Navajo's creator, Billy Luther, calls the film ''a powerful and exciting story of one young Navajo woman and her quest to win the Miss Navajo Nation crown.''

PBS will air the film in its Independent Lens series.

''Miss Navajo'' tells the story of Crystal Frazier, a tomboyish Navajo girl from Table Mesa, N.M., who decides to run for the title of Miss Navajo. The pageant is similar to American pageants in many ways - girls compete against one another in question and answer segments; they must have a talent to perform; and in the end, they receive a crown, a title and a yearlong responsibility to represent their people and culture.

However, the Miss Navajo pageant is as unique as the Navajo people themselves. The pageant has evolved in its 50-plus year history to require contestants to speak their traditional language (a requirement many contestants struggle with), answer questions about Navajo history, make frybread and, as the film portrays in graphic detail, skin a sheep.

''I'm sure it terrifies a lot of people to butcher a sheep,'' a woman comments in the film. ''I mean, it's quite a traumatic event. [But] it is a part of our culture. Sheep is life to the Navajo people. We use every aspect of that sheep from spiritual purposes all the way to signs of family wealth and success and it also teaches a lot of discipline.''

Luther, who is Navajo himself, said reactions to the film since its premiere have differed.

''Some people feel it's a film about language preservation,'' he said. ''Others feel it's a film that explores Navajo women. I also get that people feel it challenges the whole notion of what beauty is. I never tell people what to think when they see the film.''

Native language is a natural theme of the film, and the young women competing for Miss Navajo are all at different levels of fluency. In the film's opening sequence, we see Frazier sitting before a panel, being asked a question in the Navajo language.

Looking uncomfortable, Frazier asks if the question can be repeated in English.

According to the Miss Navajo Nation Council, ''The most important qualification for the Miss Navajo Nation Pageant is to be fluent in the Navajo and English languages. ...Unlike most beauty pageants throughout the world, the Miss Navajo Nation pageant is of beauty 'within' one's self.''

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The pageant contestants portrayed in the film are all unique themselves, from their appearances to their backgrounds. Still, some issues that are discussed or portrayed in the film are common problems throughout Indian country - such as the story of one contestant's alcoholic father - and Native audiences will be able to relate in many ways. With the PBS broadcast, many tribes will have easy access to the film.

''I hope young people can see the film and it inspires them to take risks,'' said Luther. ''With Crystal's story, it's pretty cool to see a young Navajo do something so out of her element. I think she was really brave to not only run but to have us film her journey.''

Frazier allowed cameras into her home after she made the decision to run for Miss Navajo. She calls herself introverted but speaks enthusiastically about her hobby of chicken farming. She talks with ease about her family and her surroundings (her home, she said, has no running water yet, though electricity was brought in a few years ago) but viewers see her standoffish side when she arrives at the pageant headquarters.

''I know that we live in a world where there are not a lot of stories of Navajo people on film or television, so I think people will take Crystal's journey as being a representation of all Navajo girls,'' said Luther. ''But, that couldn't be farther from the truth. She represents her story, and even the contestants who competed against her have different stories.''

Luther was inspired to film ''Miss Navajo'' by his own mother, a former winner of the pageant who also appears in the documentary.

''Of course, I wanted to make a film that people could relate to as well,'' Luther said. ''Not just with another's

culture, but the struggles and challenges we all face in life. I never wanted to hit people over the head with a history lesson or a cultural education; that's not my way of storytelling. I feel that there are so many Native documentaries that try to educate and force political messages in your face. I appreciate those filmmakers and films, but that's not me.

''It's so great we have many different visions and ways of approaching stories,'' he added. ''My whole inspiration in making documentaries is to entertain and show contemporary life of Native people.''

With the new exposure his film will receive from the PBS broadcast, Luther isn't letting himself get too excited. When he arrived at the Sundance Film Festival for the film's premiere, Luther said he hadn't let himself have any expectations. Since then, the film has been shown at the Sydney Opera House and at an ice cinema in Norway.

''I've traveled a lot this past year,'' Luther said. ''But I am still the same Indian guy who's trying to find funding for my next film and watches 'The Golden Girls' every night before bed.''

Luther is presently developing two other documentaries on the other tribes he belongs to: the Laguna Pueblo and Hopi.