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, a woman’s hair bun, she wears a velvet top, silver concho belt, long satin skirt, and leather moccasins—the markers of traditional Navajo femininity.As she expertly slits the sheep’s throat to begin the arduous process of dissecting the animal, her skirt remains spotless: Not a drop of blood touches it.Sheep butchering, a traditional Navajo art of subsistence, constitutes the first part of the Navajo Nation’s annual Miss Navajo pageant.
Onlookers cock their heads to listen more closely, and they hear for the first time the singer who will become known as the “Navajo Whitney Houston.” The crowd responds ecstatically; Radmilla, a twenty-one-year-old from Grand Falls, Navajo Nation, is publicly crowned the forty-sixth Miss Navajo Nation, 1997–1998.
When I introduced myself in Navajo to Radmilla in 2011 at a CD signing (for I had long been a fan of her music), she seemed amused to hear an Anglo, a speaking her language.
She joked that we try performing some skip dance songs together in a perhaps improbable duo—a white woman and she, a half-black, half-Navajo one, performing old Navajo standards.
As she autographed a glossy poster for my friend’s nine-year-old niece, who is of mixed Navajo, Korean, and French descent, she wrote in flowing cursive: “Beautiful you are! Always remember that, and walk in beauty.” Radmilla dramatically broke the mold in more ways than one.
There was, most obviously, her distinctive, hybrid singing at the intersection of Navajo tradition and African American rhythm and blues; that style reflected Radmilla’s own mixed heritage: she was the child of a Navajo ( (2010), she recalled being singled out as a child living on the Navajo reservation for her African American appearance, being perceived as different from other Navajos.