Offerings to the Holy People

Former Miss Navajo Radmilla Cody takes speaking tour to Berkeley

By Jim Largo
Special to the Times

BERKELEY, Calif., March 23, 2012

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(Courtesy photo)

ABOVE: Radmilla Cody

An audience of 500, mainly women, applauded vigorously when Radmilla Cody finished her morning greeting song at the 2012 Empowering Women of Color Conference on March 3 at the University of California at Berkeley.

Explaining that it was a song to greet the day and "to give offerings to the Holy People," she added, "We thank them for life. We also request them for blessings so that we can get through our days with hope that all goes well."

Cody, 36, has produced 14 CDs of songs in Navajo, including "Shi Naasha," a traditional song a mother would sing to her baby. Some of her newer songs were composed by her uncle, Herman Cody.


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Cody's morning song began her speech at the women's conference. She spoke of her family, growing up near Leupp, Ariz., learning the Navajo way of life, serving time in a federal prison and traveling world-wide to talk about Navajo culture and to prevent domestic violence.

Racial taunts

She spoke of days when relatives yelled at her for being part black, when grade school students teased her saying, "Zhinii, zhinii. Cocoa puff."

Adults said she should stay out of Navajo affairs and blacks envied her for her "fine straight hair."

Through it all, she defended Navajos as well as blacks, both who were stereotyped and subject to prejudice.

She was raised by her grandmother, Dorothy Cody, now 97 years old. In the late 1970s, her teenage mother left her with her grandmother in Leupp.

She grew up learning Navajo, eating traditional food, herding sheep, learning Navajo songs, and singing to the sheep as she walked in the country.

She said her grandmother stood up for her when she needed it the most.

"I witnessed my grandmother go through verbal abuse by some of her children," Radmilla Cody said. "I witnessed my mother go through verbal abuse and domestic abuse and abusive relationship. It was a very difficult journey for me from the beginning."

She said her grandmother was asked once, "Why are you raising that black kid for? That black child will never be accepted among our people."

"My grandmother stood up and said, 'That black child is my grand baby,'" she said. "'And I'm going to raise her and love her. She has be loved and raised.'

"My grandmother is the cornstalk of my life," Radmilla Cody said. "She has nurtured and supported me throughout my life. She planted me with the Navajo language."

She told the audience to have compassion for one another.

"It tells a lot about you," she said. "We're all in this together."

Recently, she earned a bachelor's degree from Northern Arizona University and is continuing her education to get a master's.

"When you're walking the life, it's a small road," she said. "You walk this road to the best of your ability. When you fall off, you have to bounce back and start over again. That's the whole idea of walking this road, becoming a better person."

Miss Navajo

In the early '90s, Miss Navajo performed at her school. She said she saw a beautiful Navajo woman representing the Navajo Nation. It was then she decided to run for the title when she became of age.

After high school in Flagstaff, she practiced the Miss Navajo requirements during the summer, refreshing her knowledge of Navajo government, culture, cuisine, songs and general philosophy.

Her grandmother coached her and advised her that if she won, many people may not accept her.

She won the title in 1997 and reigned as the 46th Miss Navajo. She has won awards for her crusade against domestic violence.

In February, she was recognized during Black History Month with Initiative Radio's Black History Makers Award. She was noted for surviving racial discrimination, her performing skills, for speaking out against domestic violence, and for drawing awareness of biracial Native Americans.

In 2002, she won the Native American Music Award for best female artist. The same year, she sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Navajo at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in a ceremony honoring astronaut John Herrington. In 2010, she was the subject of the documentary "Hearing Radmilla."

At Berkeley, she introduced herself in the traditional manner by telling her clan - Tl'ááshchí'í, born for African-American - and her father's, grandmother's and grandfather's.

"Clans are very important," she explained. "It helps you to have a foundation in the right way and to also note who your relatives are.

"In our culture, you always never speak for yourself, you always speak for others," she said. "Whatever you do in your life is an exception to who you are. As a part of that, it also builds your self-esteem. It teaches you self-respect and gives you strong belief in traditional values and teaching."


Speaking of "my incarceration," she said she served 18 months in a women's prison beginning in 2003. She had pleaded guilty to knowing about a felony - drug activity by her boyfriend, Darnell D. Bellamy, in Las Vegas, Nev. - but not reporting it to authorities.

"I was in love with this man," she said. "It really opened a lot to me. It opened my eyes to myself, what I needed to work on as a person. I looked for a reason to the way I felt, going back to since I was a child."

She remembered the songs she heard and sang while walking with the sheep in the Grand Falls area near Leupp.

"My music allowed me to heal," she said. "It allowed me to be natural in ways that I was able to heal from."

In prison, she went to a sweat lodge regularly and sang her songs.

"I shared with them the songs and prayers," she said.

"Music is like a mother," she added. "It takes care of us. It's not just you. It's the story that lies in the music. There's a feeling. It helped me to get to the next stage of my life."

She has traveled across the globe, singing, speaking and performing.

"The one I found that brings us together," she said, "is the drum. It is the heartbeat of mother earth."