Wealth of experience marks Miss Navajo contestants

By Alastair Lee Bitsóí
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, August 15, 2013

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(Special to the Times)

The 2013 Miss Navajo Nation contestants have been announced exclusively to the Navajo Times. The contestants include Joni Pino (Twin Lakes, N.M.), Wallita Begay (Monument Valley, Utah), Brittany Hunt (Shonto, Ariz.), Cherish Tso (Chinle), Darian Isaac (Hard Rock, Ariz.), Natasha Hardy (St. Michaels, Ariz.), Versheena Dempsey (Lukachukai, Ariz.) and Lailauni Moore (Wheatfields, Ariz.). The pageant will kick off with the sheep butchering and bread-making contest on Sept. 4 in Window Rock.

A lthough she just handed off her crown as Miss Inter-tribal Indian Ceremonial and still holds the title of Miss Bahastl'ah Veterans' Princess, Joni Pino is anxious to add "Miss Navajo Nation" to her résumé."

After all, it's "the mother of all" tribal pageants, according to the Twin Lakes, N.M. resident, who is also a former Miss Tohatchi High School and first attendant to Miss Northern Arizona University.

Pino probably has the most pageant experience among the field of eight young women eyeing the crown soon to be relinquished by Leandra Thomas, but unlike three of her rivals, she has never run for Miss Navajo Nation.

Two contestants - Wallita Begay and Brittany Hunt - competed with Thomas last year. The others are Cherish Tso, Darian Isaac, Natasha Hardy, Versheena Dempsey and Lailauni Moore.

The Fort Defiance and Western Agencies each have three representatives, while the Central Agency has two hopefuls. There are no contestants from either the Eastern or Northern Navajo agencies.

The Navajo Times was able to interview half the hopefuls.

Pino's stance is "self-determination to do things that make me stand out and speaking for those who can't speak," she said.

Issues she will address as a hopeful Miss Navajo center around bullying, the elderly and youth, education and self-confidence.

"There are so many reasons why I'm running," said Pino, who is a teacher assistant at Gallup Head Start.

With experience competing in previous pageants, Pino is confident she will do well.

"One big thing that pushed me was having the experience, my knowledge and public speaking," she said. "I love public speaking."

Pino, who holds a bachelor's degree from NAU, is Nóóda'í Dine'é (Ute People Clan) and born for Ta'neeszahnii (Tangle Clan). Her maternal grandfather is Hashk'aa hadzohí (Yucca Fruit-Strung-Out-In-A-Line Clan) and paternal grandfather is Tsenabahilnii (Sleep Rock People Clan).

Begay comes into this year's pageant with experience, having competed with Thomas for the 60th Miss Navajo Nation crown. She won the Best Essay and Miss Congeniality awards.

The Monument Valley, Utah-native plans to promote health and wellness as part of her platform. Her platform corresponds with her aspirations of attending medical school after completing her undergraduate career in bBiology at Southern Utah University.

"Everything you do starts with health," the 25-year-old said. "There has to be a balance with everything in life - spiritual, mental, physical."

She added, "If you're not feeling healthy then, the things you do and thoughts you have are disruptive."

Running for the Miss Navajo title for a second consecutive year is a way for Begay to promote her message of health and wellness.

"I wanted to be able to make a difference now, and I felt Miss Navajo was a way to do that," she said.

Begay said she would reintroduce traditional Navajo methods of wellness by recommending all facets of Navajo society to consider running in the mornings at dawn to greet the sun - one of several examples of wellness imbedded in Navajo culture.

With one year of pageantry experience under her belt, Begay is also hopeful this time around.

"I learned a lot about myself," she said of last year's performance. "It was really tough for me because I'm new to the pageant world. I'm just excited and happy to be doing it again."

Begay is Bit'ahnii (Within His Cover Clan), born for Táchii'nii (Red Running Into the Water People Clan). Her maternal grandfather is Tódích'íinii (Bitter Water People Clan) and paternal grandfather is Tl'ízí lání (Many Goats People Clan).

Along with Begay, Hunt, of Shonto, Ariz., and Hardy, of St. Michaels, Ariz., are previous Miss Navajo contestants. Hunt received honorable mention in last year's pageant.

Moore, 19, is one of the five first-time contenders for the crown.

Originally from Wheatfields, Ariz., Moore plans to promote language and culture among Navajo youth.

"I want to run because I'm into my tradition and culture, and I want to teach our younger generation why it's important," she said. "It's our responsibility to ask our elders about history."

She added that understanding the Navajo language is also important to learning about lineage and origins collectively as a people.

"I want to teach the young kids that the sky is the limit," she added. "Holding that title is honorary and a huge responsibility."

Moore, who has held royalty titles from grade school to junior high, currently attends Diné College in Tsaile, majoring in business administration.

She is Ta'neeszahnii (Tangle People Clan) and born for Ashiihí (Salt People Clan). Her maternal grandfather is Tódích'íinii (Bitter Water People Clan) and paternal grandfather is Naakai Dine'é (Mexican People Clan).

For Dempsey, 20, of Lukachukai, Ariz., running for Miss Navajo only makes sense.

It's Dempsey's next step up from holding royalty titles from grade school to high school, which includes being a former Miss Many Farms High School and Miss Central Teen.

"It's been my dream since I was a little girl," Dempsey said of being Miss Navajo. "I think this is my calling this year."

From her involvement with the Office of Diné Youth over the last 10 years, it also only makes sense for Dempsey to advocate for youth as a Miss Navajo hopeful.

"I would organize youth conferences targeting substance and abuse and teaching them tradition and culture," she said. "You get to teach them (the youth) from head to toe your teachings."

Dempsey, who attends Navajo Technical University's Chinle branch (formerly known as Navajo Technical College), is Ma'ii Deeshgiizhinii (Coyote Pass People Clan) and born for Naakai Dine'é (Mexican People Clan). Her maternal grandfather is Bit'ahnii (Within His Cover Clan) and paternal grandfather is Ta'neeszahnii (Tangle People Clan).

Isaac is from Hard Rock, Ariz., and Tso is from Chinle, Ariz.

With the Best Essay and Miss Photogenic competitions already closed for judging, the path for these hopefuls to become the next Miss Navajo begins on Sept. 3, with check-in for competition at the Quality Inn in Window Rock.

"I'm hoping the next Miss Navajo that comes in does a good job and takes it seriously," said Thomas. "It is a cultural pageant. They will be expected to know their language and culture."

Contact Alastair L. Bitsoi at 928-871-1141 or email at abitsoi@navajotimes.com.