Pageant contestants show off cooking skills
Miss Northern Navajo and Miss Northern Navajo Teen competitions continue this week and winners will be crowned Friday
SHIPROCK — The five contestants for the Miss Northern Navajo and Miss Northern Navajo Teen titles prepared and cooked Navajo foods in the first round of competition today.
Onlookers gathered around the shade house at the Northern Navajo Nation Fairgrounds to watch as the two Miss Northern Navajo contenders showed off their skills for making chiichin, a pudding from sumac berries, and da’iist’aaz, which are tortillas cooked over a fire.
Autumn Mike, 18, of Lower Fruitland, and Alexandria R. Holiday, 18, of Table Mesa, captured the audience's attention as they demonstrated skills that included grinding berries into a powder as the main ingredient for chiichin.
Mike and Holiday worked alongside the three teen pageant contenders, who were preparing blue corn mush and frybread.
The audience also reacted when some contestants used traditional cooking methods, such blending ingredients for chiichin and blue corn mush with ádístsíín, which is the Navajo word for stirring sticks.
The competitions for both Miss Northern Navajo and Miss Northern Navajo Teen continue on Wednesday and Thursday. Winners will be crowned on Friday.
Among the teen contestants, Noellani Buck, 17, of Shiprock, had a look of concentration as she applied lard to a cast-iron skillet as part of the frybread making process. She sat near the fire pit while waiting for the lard to melt.
"I was nervous, but I think I did pretty good," Buck said in an interview after the competition.
Buck, who is a senior at Shiprock High School, said this is her third attempt to secure the crown. She said practiced her preparation and cooking skills each day.
"I feel very prepared and confident this year," she said.
In the spot next to Buck, Ariana Roselyn Young, 17, of Teec Nos Pos, Ariz., carefully shaped her frybread dough while keeping an eye on her fire.
Young, who is a senior at Farmington High School, said her platform is K'é and restoring teaching to communities.
"I believe that the K'é comes from the Northern Agency because we're a family. We have more of the planting season than the other agencies," Young said.
For the last two years, Kailiah Lee, 17, of Shiprock, thought about vying for the title, but this was the first year that she entered the pageant.
"My aunties were former queens and princesses, and they inspired me to do this," Lee said in a interview after cleaning her work space.
The Kirtland Central High School junior said she physically trained by building fires outside her home and trained herself mentally by learned how to block out the audience and focus on her work.
"I didn't listen to anyone around me, I focused on what I was supposed to do and I got it done. It was very exciting," Lee said.
Throughout the competition, three judges — including Miss Northern Navajo 2013-2014 Megan Badonie — observed and asked questions to each contestant.
Pageant coordinator Lynnelle H. Washburn said judges evaluated several criteria, including speed, technique and presentation.
As smoke rose from the cooking area, Alyssa Chavez, who held the Miss Northern Navajo title from 2007 to 2008, briefly shared her memories of completing the first round of the pageant before sharing words of encouragement with this year's contestants.
"I'd like to say good luck to all the contestants this year and that you're doing a really good job. We look forward to tasting your food," Chavez said.
In an interview afterward, Chavez said she was proud the fair has continued the tradition of including the Navajo food competition.
"I feel nervous for them because I know how it is to be under the watchful eye of the crowd," she said.
Nenahnezad residents Larry and Carm Lowe watched the three teen pageant contestants as they worked today.
The couple said they enjoy watching this round because it provides insight to how the contestants conduct themselves and the skills they use during food preparation. There is a difference in how each one cooks and whether they use modern or traditional skills, Larry Lowe said.
"They have to know their tradition because it's all going away," he said.
His wife was impressed by Young, who measured ingredients without using measuring cups and spoons and identified which pieces of firewood would quickly ignite to start a fire.
"She measured out her flour with her hand and even getting the shortening out of the box with her hand and putting it into the pan. You know, that's old style. It was good to see the old teachings," Carm said.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.