Celebrating Leandra Thomas, the 2012-2013 Miss Navajo Nation

Celebrating Leandra Thomas, the 2012-2013 Miss Navajo Nation

Sunnie Clahchischiligi

While nerves can get the best of even the most cool of customers at the 60th Miss Navajo Nation Pageant when it comes time to showcase traditional talents and skills, Leandra Thomas remained calm. She welcomed the sheep blood on her warn moccasins, she answered questions of Navajo history, in Navajo, with poise.

“I kind of went the opposite way of the girls,” Thomas said. “They were more nervous for the traditional part of the pageant [on Friday, September 7], but, all together my favorite day was Friday, it was the traditional speaking, the traditional talent show, the evening gown, the skill, all of it…so all the speaking in Navajo was my favorite.”

Not only was it her favorite but her fluency in the Navajo language, tradition and culture won the hearts of both the Navajo people and the judges. She was crowned the 60th Miss Navajo Nation at the 66thNavajo Nation Fair held in Window Rock, Ariz., on Saturday, Sept. 8. Verrica Livingston was named first runner-up and Charlene Goodluck was second runner-up.

Sheep butchering during the Miss Navajo Nation Pageant at the 66th Annual Navajo Nation Fair

Thomas was quick to win the fans over with her sheep butchering skills, a unique skill that separates this pageant from others. She won the Best Butchering award, Best Interview and Best Traditional Talent and Skill awards, but it was the butchering that pretty much sealed the deal for her early in the contest.

The seven contestants this year were: Wallita Begay; Charlene Goodluck; Brittany Hunt; Verrica Livingston; Seri Maryboy; Krystal Parkhurst and Leandra Thomas.

Thomas is a Steamboat Canyon, Arizona, native and a graduate from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education.

The seven contestants went through a number of stages in the four-day pageant. The sheep butchering and traditional bread-making contest came first. In front of a large crowd, the contestants were placed into teams and together butchered a sheep, skinned it and took out the essential organs. Judges watched and asked each contestant questions. Afterward, each contestant was judged on their fry bread and tortilla making skills over an open wooden fire they had to start on their own.

Thomas said it was the event she had been looking forward to since she decided to run for the title.

“The butchering contest was the one I was looking forward to the most, and it was a monstrous, enormous sheep, the biggest sheep I’ve seen with the biggest covering of fat,” she said with a smile. “So it was a challenge, and it wasn’t easy, but I had confidence in myself and that’s what got me through.”

Livingston, 24, from Twin Lakes, New Mexico, said she practiced butchering sheep in the months leading up to the contest. She said her relatives volunteered her to butcher for people who they knew needed help, just so she could get some practice in.

“One thing I was worried about was the butchering,” Livingston said. “I started practicing a while back when I told my family that I was really going to do this, I already knew how to do it but it wasn’t like I was an expert, my uncles are the ones that really helped me.”

The modern talent show followed the next day, then the traditional skill and talent portion. For her traditional talent, Thomas sang a traditional Navajo ceremonial song.

She sang drumless in yet another crowd-winning performance. She said it was the most comfortable she was during the entire pageant.

“I sang it because...we need strength as people to move forward and it meant something to me, and I felt that it was my duty to share it with the people to give them strength to carry on with what they’re going through, family wise, relationship wise, all the struggles, it was a song for me to give to them to give them strength,” she said. “It made me feel confident, like speaking to my kids that I teach, so I felt like I was speaking to them…when I’m teaching it comes out in Navajo so it seems like it was natural for me.”

Winifred Bessie Jumbo, 2010-2011 Miss Navajo Nation, from Two Grey Hills, New Mexico, was present for the traditional skill and talent contest. The 24-year-old Brown University graduate said watching the contest brought back a lot of memories of her run.

“This was my first year returning to the fair...I was thinking of all the change that’s happened in the past 60 years, it [the pageant] has its status as one of the most respected cultural pageants across the world…60 years is a really long time, that just shows that there are young individuals across the Navajo reservation and off who have the ability to showcase their knowledge, the opportunity given to pretty much anyone, I think it’s really awesome that the opportunity is given.”

Thomas understands the opportunity that his been bestowed upon her. She said unlike many Miss Navajo contestants, she didn’t dream of the title most of her life, it instead came to her after she became a full-time teacher.

“From there it just felt like there’s something that I can do with the Dine language and being with little ones to the elderly,” Thomas said.  “My focus is the younger children, talking to them as well as the elders, because the children are the ones that are going to be carrying on the language, traditions culture...focusing on both, the two are inseparable the way I see it, the two need to be brought together.”

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