Steamboat Canyon native named 60th Miss Navajo Nation

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, September 13, 2012

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(Special to the Times – Donovan Quintero)

TOP: Miss Navajo Nation first runner-up Verrica Livingston, left, speaks to newly crowned 2012-2013 Miss Navajo Nation Leandra Thomas, middle, as second runner up Charlene Goodluck listens Saturday night in Window Rock.

SECOND FROM THE TOP: A tearful Leandra Thomas from Steamboat Canyon, Ariz., looks forward as she is crowned the new 2012-2013 Miss Navajo Nation Saturday night in Window Rock.

F rom beginning to end, crowd favorite Leandra Arsha Thomas, of Steamboat Canyon, Ariz., whose nickname is "Abby", dominated the competition of the 2012-2013 Miss Navajo Nation pageant, with her skills, talents and command of both the Navajo and English languages.

When MC Earl Tulley announced her as winner of the Miss Navajo pageant on Saturday evening in front of a large audience at the coronation ceremony, it came as no surprise.

After all, she had won the Best Butchering award, a designation that usually determines who will be a new Miss Navajo. She also won the best interview and best traditional talent and skill categories during the weeklong pageant.

"I am happy, joyful and blessed to be your 2012-2013 Miss Navajo Nation," said Thomas in her 15-minute bilingual acceptance speech. "It's a tough job but I am up to the challenge."

As Miss Navajo Nation, Thomas plans to do her best in reaching out to the youth by teaching them Navajo teachings of the elderly, the backbone of Navajo culture, language and society.

"As your ambassador of the Navajo Nation, I will do my best to talk to your children the way a sister, a grandma and a mother would talk to a child with kind words, and support that I got from my family," Thomas said to the hundreds of spectators in the crowd and thousands who watched online.

"To our elders, I will visit them," she continued. "For it is because of our elders, their teachings, it will be them that I will visit for the children that are carrying on the language and culture. It is them that I will talk to. Both sides, it feels, the two are inseparable."

Thomas is the daughter of Anderson and Bernice Thomas. She is Naakai Dine'é (Mexican People Clan), born for Tsi'naajinii (Black Streak Wood People Clan). Her maternal grandfather is Kinyaa'áanii (Towering House People Clan) and her paternal grandfather is Honághaahnii (One Who Walks Around Clan).

She has three older brothers - Andy, Arlo and Leander.

"I'm just so proud of her, with all the things she's done," Bernice Thomas said seconds after her daughter had won the title. "I have confidence in her."

"Were just happy," added her father. "It's a good feeling."

"My nali won," said Peggy Cornfield, Thomas' paternal grandmother, in Navajo. "She learned my teachings. Ayoo shil ya'at'eeh."

In addition to thanking her parents and grandparents for instilling in her their teachings and the principle of "Táá hwo ají t'éego", Thomas also thanked her older brothers.

She recalled how they would treat her as a little brother by putting her on sheep to ride or putting her on their backs so they could buck like bulls during her childhood and how those experiences made her into the strong woman she is today.

"It was their way of making me strong," Thomas said, as the crowd offered her more applause.

"She's a very tough woman," said Arlo, 31. "What we taught her, she picked up. I'm very honored to be her brother."

"I'm proud of my sister," added Leander, 27. "She deserves it!"

To win the title, Thomas had to best six other contestants.

Verrica Livingston, of Twin Lakes, N.M., was named first-runner up and Charlene Goodluck, of Shiprock, was second runner-up.

The Miss Congeniality and Best Essay awards went to Wallita Begay, of Monument Valley, Utah, and Krystal Parkhurst, of Fort Defiance won the Miss Photogenic award.

Begay, Parkhurst, Brittany Hunt, of Shonto, Ariz., and Seri Sophina Maryboy, of Montezuma Creek, Utah, received honorable mention.

Contestants were evaluated for their responses to a panel of interviewers, their butchering and frybread making skills, and command of contemporary and traditional talents and skills.

During the contemporary talent, Thomas performed a skit of how to harvest prairie dogs. She pretended to be driving home from school in Flagstaff, listening to "Reservation Road" by Stateline, until she came across a prairie dog to hunt on the side of the road.

"Prairie dogs are one of my favorite wild animals to eat," she said during the competition on Sept. 6, as the crowd responded with a loud ovation of cheers and whistles. "It tastes pretty good."

In addition to her talent, Thomas demonstrated how to rope, vaccinate, ear tag, and brand a calf for her contemporary skill.

Dressed in cowgirl attire, she roped the makeshift cardboard calf on her first throw, exciting the crowd and five panel judges with her ranching skills.

"Animals taught me a lot," she said. "My other teachings come from horses, cattle, chicken and donkeys."

For her traditional talent and skill, where everything is Navajo and in the Navajo language, Thomas dominated the competition with her fluency in the Navajo language and knowledge of Navajo teachings and philosophy on life.

She performed two Blessing Way prayer songs, and explained the importance of the stirring sticks Navajo women acquire, which, she said, is used to keep monsters like hunger, laziness, sickness, and other vices away from the household.

Thomas said she chose these skills and talents to emphasize the importance of Navajo teachings, which has clearly paved a positive path in life, as seen by her many accomplishments.

Unlike most other Miss Navajos, she is probably the first Miss Navajo ever to be a student-athlete at the collegiate level. Prior to attending Northern Arizona University, Thomas ran cross-country and track on a scholarship for Central Arizona College. At CAC, she was a member of four junior college national championship teams during the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons.

"With my background as a runner, I plan to also promote a healthy lifestyle," Thomas said adding that she would like to organize 10k and 5k footraces.

Following her two-year athletic scholarship, Thomas transferred to NAU, where she eventually graduated with a bachelor's of science in Elementary Education. She recently started her master's program in Bilingual and Multicultural Education also at NAU.

As a second year Navajo culture and language teacher at Puente de Hozho, a trilingual school in Flagstaff whose mission is to build bridges of beauty between the rich languages and cultures of the American Southwest, Thomas said she became inspired.

"The main thing that made me run was my teaching from my students, my confidence level and the language taught…at Puente de Hozho," Thomas said. "A lot of the other inspirations and encouragement came from the teachings of my parents and grandparents. All of that built up inspired me."

Besides promoting the importance of Navajo culture and language, Thomas also plans to raise money for the Audra Etsitty Platero Scholarship for next year's recipient, as one of her many projects this year.

"More of what I will do will come after sponsorships, partnerships, and collaboration with different departments," she said in an interview on Monday. "From there my platform will fall into place on it's own."

Asked how she felt about being the 60th Miss Navajo ever to win the coveted title, she said, "It's sinking in. For the most part, it's surreal."