I decided to make MISS NAVAJO because growing up as a Native American in a very westernized way, I felt ambivalent about my heritage. I felt connected yet also disconnected and in wanting to make a film about my culture I really wanted to avoid the earnest, slightly reproving tone that almost inevitably seems to become the voice of a minority culture trying to be heard.
What inspired me about the beauty pageant was that here was a crossroads where the western competition met Native influences, and the result was something not gaudy and glitzy like most beauty pageants, but something beautiful and profound, something that really reveals the true essence of beauty and in so doing, I think, provides a compelling insight into what it is that both makes my culture and heritage unique but also relevant to today's world.
Above all what I learned from the experience of making the film was how beauty is an inner quality and one very much connected to identity. Crystal is beautiful from the outset but she only enters the competition as a kind of joke and feels embarrassed about it. Then as she goes through the competition she realizes how much she wants to win because she ultimately realizes that this pageant is all about her identity. She goes from being a girl to becoming a woman in the film. She embraces her identity. She knows with confidence who she is. Since my mother is in the film and was the winner of the Miss Navajo pageant back in 1966, I felt very connected to it and felt that I too became comfortable with who I was, and my ambivalence about my western life and my roots all became reconciled.
That’s just my personal takeaway from the film. I hope that everyone who watches it will get something out of it, and maybe it’s just that this idea of beauty isn’t really an external thing at all... it's every internal and profoundly connected to our identity and who we are. I think once we embrace who we are and are at peace with that, we all become beautiful!
People shouldn't watch this film out of a sense of obligation: “Oh there goes another culture and language into the dustbin of history.” No, this is a film about a beauty pageant and competition—and there's a winner and a loser. But sometimes—as in Life—the winners aren't always the winners and the losers aren't always the losers!
MISS NAVAJO is dedicated to the Navajo woman, which is what the film is all about. Navajo women wear the trousers in Navajo society. They work the land, they raise the kids, and they preserve the culture and traditions. And they butcher the sheep! So you can see they are so much more than just a pretty face. My film isn't just about them, it's for them.