Butchering contest kicks off Miss Navajo Nation pageant

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, September 6, 2012

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(Special to the Times – Donovan Quintero)

TOP: A freshly made frybread is put into a large bowl after being cooked Tuesday during the Miss Navajo Nation sheep butchering and bread making competition in Window Rock.

SECOND FROM TOP: Miss Navajo contestants from left, Krystal Parkhurst, Leandra Thomas, and Charlene Goodluck team up as they butcher their sheep Tuesday in Window Rock.

THIRD FROM TOP: Layers of plastic protect a Miss Navajo contestant's moccasin Tuesday during the Miss Navajo sheep butchering and bread making competition.

FOURTH FROM TOP: A Miss Navajo contestant holds the hind leg of a sheep in place Tuesday during the sheep butchering and bread making competition in Window Rock.

FIFTH FROM TOP: Miss Navajo contestant Leandra Thomas skillfully cuts the meat away from the skin Tuesday during the sheep butchering and bread making competition in Window Rock.

SIXTH FROM TOP: Miss Navajo contestants prepare to butcher a sheep Tuesday in Window Rock.

SEVENTH FROM TOP: Miss Navajo contestants team up as they race against the clock to see who butchers their sheep first during the sheep butchering and bread making competition in Window Rock.

EIGHTH FROM TOP: A cloud of ash shoots into the air as Miss Navajo contestant Seri Maryboy from Red Mesa, Ariz. finishes making her bread during the sheep butchering and bread making competition in Window Rock.

O ne component that makes the Miss Navajo Nation pageant unique from most other royalty pageants is the sheep butchering and traditional bread making competitions.

Yesterday at the Hazel Yazza Pavilion, seven hopeful women vying to become the 60th Miss Navajo Nation began their journey of becoming the ambassador of North America's largest tribe.

This year's contestants are Wallita Begay of Monument Valley, Utah; Charlene Goodluck of Shiprock; Brittany Hunt of Shonto, Ariz.; Seri Sophina Maryboy of Montezuma Creek, Utah; Verrica Livingston of Twin Lakes, N.M.; Krystal Parkhurst of Fort Defiance, Ariz.; and Leandra Thomas of Steamboat Canyon, Ariz.

To become the tribe's ambassador, the women have to pass a series of tests including modern and traditional talent competitions – tenets that have become part of the Miss Navajo pageant.

And like most years, women had to showcase their skills they acquired from their families in front of a standing room crowd. Some fair-goers, including young children, had to sit on the ground to get in plain view of the butchering and bread-making skills of the seven hopefuls.

The one-hour sheep butchering contest, which became a required category in the pageant in 1995, when the preservation of traditional culture gained emphasis, began with the women building a fire in their respective fire pits.

Hunt was the first one to build her fire with no problem and even made her apron from a Blue Bird flour sack.

As soon as their fires were lit, the seven hopefuls were divided into groups of three to butcher a sheep. They drew numbers to determine which portion of the sheep would be their responsibility.

President Ben Shelly, Vice President Rex Lee Jim and the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority donated the sheep for the competition.

Hunt and Begay were the first ones to cut their sheep's neck, with Begay partially cutting off the head and Hunt holding a pan to capture the flowing blood. After a difficult time detaching the head, the duo moved to skinning the hide of their carcass.

The next group to begin butchering was Goodluck, Parkhurst and Thomas, followed by Livingston and Maryboy.

Goodluck, Parkhurst and Thomas were the first to hang up their sheep as the audience clapped and cheered. After tying it securely, they continued to remove the skin from the sheep's back. Once that was removed, Goodluck laid the hide flat on the ground, wet side up.

Then she went to work removing the arms, keeping them connected by the shoulder muscle, as is Navajo custom. After that was done she held up the arms to show the audience, which again cheered with approval.

"This is the sheep herder special," Goodluck said to a loud applause.

After Goodluck's procedure, Thomas went to work on the stomach, cutting all the internal organs from inside the carcass for preparation. As soon as she cleaned out the carcass, crowd responded with a loud ovation.

"Go Abby," someone said in the crowd, encouraging Thomas and her teammates, Goodluck and Parkhurst.

Meanwhile, Begay and Hunt kept at it. They started making progress after Hunt made an incision down the middle of the stomach to take out the intestines.

With about 10 minutes left in the competition, Livingston and Maryboy had finally skinned most of their carcass to be hung for the removal of the intestines and meat cutting process.

Following the butchering contest, the contestants gathered in a single-line formation for a question and answer panel in Navajo.

The questions, which were asked in the Navajo language by the panel of five judges, ranged from, "How do you prepare the blood from the neck of the sheep? How do you soften the skin before tanning the skin? How do you prepare the head after it's detached from the body? Why do put the sheep's head toward the east while butchering? What part of the eye don't you eat and why?"

The question, "How do you prepare the head after it's detached from the body?" drew jeers among the crowd mostly because the process to harvest a sheep head differed regionally.

When Livingston was asked the question, she responded in both Navajo and English, saying, "You burn the hair, wrap it in foil and bake it."

Similar to the other questions, the judged asked the crowd for validation and if Livingston's answer was correct.

The crowd echoed "No" in response.

One bystander, who was offered the chance to answer Livingston's question, said the norm in harvesting the sheep head included building a fire, singing the hair, making sure everything on the head is cooked from putting the head in the fire, and thereafter, place the head in a paper sack to be oven-ready and eventually roasted.

The bystander's response drew applause from most in the crowd.

Prior to the contest, current Miss Navajo Crystalyne Curley told the contestants not to worry about the crowd, who can sometimes be harsh, as indicative with Livingston's question.

"I know the audience is harsh," said Curley, who won the best butcher award in last year's competition. "But this is one of the things they're going to face as Miss Navajo, the reaction of the crowd. I just told them to do it the way they're taught and keep self-confidence."

After the question and answer, the contestants gathered around their fires to begin the traditional bread-making contest.

Goodluck was the first contestant to bring a stack of bread to the judge's table for judging.

In her opinion, Sadie Bitsoie of Naschitti/Narbona Pass, N.M., who was among the hundreds in attendance, thought the trio of Goodluck, Parkhurst and Thomas fared well against the other two teams.

Bitsoie said she was particularly fascinated with the way Thomas moved efficiently around her pit fire, to skinning the sheep to cutting the carcass down the middle to gut out the intestines.

"They usually tie the esophagus before hanging the sheep, and her group forgot to do that, but she got it," observed Bitsoie. "She was skilled with her left hand."

During the 30-minute traditional bread-making competition, in which the contestants have a choice to make tortillas, frybread, or even both, Bitsoie noticed how Thomas and Livingston sat on the ground making their dough and kneading it into a flatbread.

"I think the two girls that sat on the ground and sitting next to the fire, that's a plus for them, " Bitsoie added. "They reminded me of how my grandma use to make bread."

With the sheep butchering and traditional bread making contests behind them, the seven women now their focus to the contemporary and traditional competitions.

The traditional competition is today at 2 p.m. The traditional competition is on Friday also at 2 p.m. Both competitions will take place at the Navajo Arts and Crafts event tent.

The coronation for the 60th Miss Navajo Nation is Saturday at 6 p.m., at the Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise event tent.

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