Radmilla Cody's crowning as Miss Navajo Nation in 1997 triggered an outcry and a conversation about what it means to be Native American. Now she's featured in a museum exhibit showing the rarely told history of African-Native Americans.
By Cynthia Gordy
"Red/Black: Related Through History," a new exhibit at Indianapolis' Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, illuminates this rarely told story. Since the first arrival of enslaved Africans in North America, the relationships between African Americans and Native Americans have encompassed alliances and adversaries, as well as the indivisible blending of customs and culture.
"It's not received a lot of attention because it's not the dominant culture's story, although it's very important to the dominant culture's bigger view of the past," says James Nottage, curator of the exhibit, which includes narratives of enslaved blacks who traveled the Trail of Tears with their Native owners; slaves who intermarried into Native tribes as an escape from bondage; and the largely African-featured members of the Shinnecock tribe of New York, as well as shared traditions in food, dress and music.
Radmilla Cody, 35, a Native American Music Award-winning singer and anti-domestic violence activist, is also featured in the exhibit. The daughter of a Navajo mother and an African-American father, Cody was raised by her grandmother in the Arizona Navajo community, initially speaking only the Navajo language. In 1997 she was crowned Miss Navajo Nation, sparking controversy from some members who refused to accept her.
As one disapproving letter to the editor of the Navajo Times put it, "Miss Cody's appearance and physical characteristics are clearly black, and thus are representative of another race of people. It appears that those judges who selected Miss Cody have problems with their own sense of identity."
Cody, also the subject of a 2010 documentary, Hearing Radmilla, talked to The Root about growing up both black and Navajo, and how she handles frequent "Wow, you don't look Indian" comments.
The Root: The experience of having your Miss Navajo Nation reign challenged calls to mind the debate over the Cherokee Freedmen. Is this a common issue across the Native community, of African-Native Americans having trouble finding acceptance?
Radmilla Cody: I grew up having to deal with racism and prejudices on both the Navajo and the black sides, and when I ran for Miss Navajo Nation, that especially brought out a lot of curiosity in people. It's something that we're still having to address as black Natives, still having to prove ourselves in some way or another, because at the end of the day, it all falls back to what people think a Native American should look like.
I don't think that either side has been given a fair chance to explore both races. On the east coast, mid atlantic states especially.. you were either white or black. No one spoke of any american indian heritage until a resurgence of the late 80's when everyone wanted to be INDIAN...Neither side has really sat down and looked at the similarities that each side has. They both danced in sacred circles, they both honor MOTHER NATURE.. And they both were deceived my a certain group of human beings..Blacks dont like indians and indians dont like blacks.. thats what we were taught and who taught us? The same ones who have come and "CONQUERED" both peoples. We are the two most resilient people in the world.. and we all need to realize that if our skins were peeled back.. we would really look the same. I love/embrace my double identity.. and really dont care if the next person has a problem with it.. Because it would be THEIR problem.
Radmilla Cody.. My family loves you and appreciate what you stand for.. and one day.. maybe soon.. both peoples can and will dance in the sacred circle together as one family.. brothers and sisters celebrating life and honoring MOTHER EARTH..Many Blessings to all..
p.s. funny how we will accept "Them" more openly than ourselves..
This sort of discussion is crazy, really. I mean, it reminds me of the San who, when visited by a Japanese anthropologist, considered him "human", as opposed to the whites and blacks. (In pretty much the way a lot of peoples use the term "human" to refer to their own people, not others.)
Of course, it's still arbitrary, and really, that Japanese anthropologist was just as related to the man he was interviewing as any other non-African, but appearances (in this case, the epicanthic fold) count, apparently.
But really, did the Navajo think straight hair made you Navajo before Columbus? Because a lot of people have straight hair, and a lot of people who don't, use hair products.
For more on the subject, see:
An Unusual Miss Navajo
The arrival of a half-black baby didn't sit well with some in her family, Cody recalls. They warned that she'd be an outcast and a source of shame to her family, never accepted or loved on a reservation where, at least for some, old ideas still held. Classmates tormented her, pushing her to tears, and even some of her uncles echoed the treatment.
"It came out when they were drunk," she says. "I remember sitting at the table and Uncle Elmer hitting me on the head with a spoon and calling me a black pig."
In the film, recalling how he treated his baby niece, her Uncle Marcus says: "This is what I thought: 'What's this fucking n--- doing here?'"
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