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Hokti Miles of Salt Lake City was born into a family where her mother is Navajo and her father is white. Her mother speaks both Navajo and English, but her father speaks only English. Because of this, Navajo was not spoken much at home. Consequently, Miles never learned the language. But, her mother did try to teach her what she knew about the traditional Navajo way of life and the culture.
Miles was crowned Miss Utah Navajo in September 2007 and passed on her crown to another young woman in September 2008. Winners of the Miss Utah Navajo pageant typically are full-blooded Navajos and speak the language. But, Miles’ experiences and blend of cultures helped her connect with younger Navajos who do not speak the language. Because of the respect that comes with the crown of Miss Utah Navajo, she was also able to help older people understand what they can do differently to help children learn the language and culture.
After being crowned, Miles met Jonathea Tso, the 2007 Miss Navajo Nation, at a Veterans Day event. Tso invited her to go to a leadership conference for Miss Navajo pageant winners where Tso and other Navajo Nation leaders taught the girls how to behave as representatives of the Navajo Nation.
“You’ve got to learn to be reserved and got to watch what you do and watch what you say,” Miles said. “You’ve just got to act with respect and dignity at all times.”
As Miss Utah Navajo, Miles participated in several programs representing the Navajo Nation. She taught about the culture, promoted good health and living, and the traditional Navajo way of life. She felt it was very important to inspire Navajo children and teenagers who do not know the language to start learning it because they can learn so much about themselves and their culture.
“I would stress the importance of knowing your elders, like your grandparents, before they pass on to another world,” Miles said. “And all the lessons that they can teach you, it’s just amazing. You can become such a good person just from learning from them.”
Sharee Varela, a graduate student in the University of Utah’s Department of Languages and Literature, who teaches Miles Navajo, said, “One of the Navajo philosophers who was one of my teachers back home on the tribal reservation…says that in order for the youth to regain their identity and self-respect again in society, in both western society and Navajo society, is to retain the language and the traditional teachings of Navajo.”
Since she holds this knowledge, Varela feels that it is her responsibility to pass it on to the kids. “Only if they want to learn it though,” she said. “I tell my kids, if you really want to know, if you really want to learn, I’ll teach you, but only when you are ready.”
During her reign, Miles felt the need to tell parents and grandparents they have a responsibility to teach their children the language and Navajo traditions. She often related to them her own experiences.
Her grandparents were never a major part of her life because they died when she was very young. “My mom didn’t teach me much Navajo and it is such a struggle now,” Miles said. “They look down on the younger generations because we don’t know Navajo, and yet it’s their fault that we don’t know Navajo.” When speaking to the elders she often encouraged them not to criticize young people, but to help them instead.
One experience Miles had where she felt criticized was at a charity event called Tip-A-Royalty. This is an event involving all eight royalties from the Navajo Nation. They served as waitresses at Earl’s Restaurant in Gallop, N.M., and all the tips they received were donated to help with the Special Olympics.
While waiting tables, a man asked her a question in Navajo. Miles said she understood bits and pieces of what he said but couldn’t quite comprehend everything. He asked her where she was from and when she told him he said, “Why don’t you know Navajo then? That area is full of culture!” Miles explained her situation, but the man replied, “You should still know.” Miles said in return, “I’m learning now, is that not enough?”
Miles said that was one of the worst experiences she had because she felt so bad afterward. “It was just rough to hear that from people,” she said.
Varela said the way this man spoke to her is appropriate in Navajo culture, especially if he is a close relative.
“An older person getting after you like that, culturally it’s appropriate, especially if they are related to you as an uncle. So, if he was related to her as an uncle he has every right to get after her like a father,” she said. “Navajo culture not only teaches respect but it also teaches you the roles you take in Navajo society. He took appropriate role as an uncle in going after her for whatever he felt he needed to say.” Varela said that culturally this is not being mean or rude. He is just telling her, in his own opinion, what she needs know.
Miles participated in several cultural events as Miss Utah Navajo, including: The Utah Navajo Fair, The Navajo Nation Parade and The Days of ’47 Parade. Some of her greatest experiences as Miss Utah Navajo came while speaking at different schools across the state. She said she loved going to elementary schools because the children all looked up to her. They respected her and would almost always sit quietly while she was speaking. Several have recognized her in other settings, such as while shopping. The children pull on their mother’s hand and whisper with a big smile, “That is Miss Utah Navajo.”
Before being crowned, Miles said she was not a very good person. She didn’t care much about her culture and traditions. But, because of her experiences with being Miss Utah Navajo she said she has became a much better person. She has more respect and love for her culture, language and people. She has also received the love and respect she felt she has needed from the older generations.
“A lot of the elders they would come up to me and call me ‘shideezhi,’” which means little sister in Navajo. “It just felt really great. It seemed like they really respected me for what I was doing,” Miles said. “I just wanted the other kids to know how great it felt to be loved by their elders and to be respected by them.”