Miss Utah Navajo

by CADE SORENSEN

  • See a slideshow of Hokti Miles (best viewed in full-screen mode)

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.”

Navajo rug sale supports American Indian elders

by JAMIE A. WELCH

Life on the Navajo reservation and in traditional hogans made people strong. Years of following sheep around the desert, watching children move away from their homes and weaving together strand after strand of coarse sheep’s wool to create hundreds of rugs in a single lifetime has given the elders at the 19th Annual Navajo Rug Show and Sale their dedication to each piece.

The rug show took place Nov. 7-9, 2008 in Deer Valley Resort’s Snow Park Lodge in Park City, Utah.

Rug weaving is a historic Navajo, or Diné, tradition and is honored in the show that was formed specifically to support the Adopt-A-Native Elder Program (ANE).

This program, created to benefit Navajo elders, began in the 1980s through the efforts of Linda Myers, a Park City woman who was impressed by an early display of Navajo rugs from elders in northern Arizona. Soon after that event, Myers got involved in collecting and distributing medical, food, and hygienic supplies to elders living on the Navajo reservation in southern Utah and northern Arizona.

A group of supporters eventually joined Myers and the Adopt-A-Native Elder Program was established. Mary Phillips, one of the many volunteers at the rug sale, said it is “an honor to work with Linda. The program’s success is truly inspiring and shows Linda’s devotion not only to the elders themselves, but to the Navajo tradition [of rug weaving.]”

According to the program’s Web site, there are more than 2,500 people involved in the program today. Most are from the United States but some are from other countries as well.

Rosita Van den Berg is one such volunteer. Rosita is from Holland and became interested in the program while visiting a fan site of American Indian actor Jay Tavare. 

Tavare, an avid supporter of ANE, has information regarding the program on his personal Web site and on his Facebook and MySpace pages. Van den Berg, who attended the event this year, created a painting to honor American Indian people and donated it to be auctioned off with its proceeds going to the program.

Tavare, known best for his roles in the TV miniseries “Into the West” and films “The Missing” and “Cold Mountain,” has supported ANE for seven years. He has attended the rug show for the past three years. “It definitely brings awareness about the culture of Native Americans,” he said. He hopes his support can act as “a symbol to reach across nations and get the message as far out as possible.”

Another supporter at the show was author Rose Johnson-Tsosie of “Finding Helen – A Navajo Miracle.” Tsosie was born on the Hopi reservation of northern Arizona in 1950 but she and her twin were taken from her biological mother at birth and were placed for adoption. The siblings were raised by a white family, Albert and Wilmont Johnson, in Cache Valley, Utah, where they grew up never learning much about their American Indian heritage. Tsosie said all she was aware of was that “growing up Navajo in a white society was different only because I knew my skin was different.”

In 1983, Tsosie reconnected with her biological mother, a Navajo, while serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Arizona Holbrook Mission. Through tears Tsosie said, “there are many exciting times in my life but this is the ultimate dream when I got to hold my mother and my mother got to hold me.”

Since then, Tsosie has been actively involved in the American Indian communities of California and Utah. She now travels around the country promoting her books and speaking about and on behalf of American Indians.

Attending the ANE rug show gave Tsosie a chance to show the reason she says she loves being Navajo: “learning the tradition of my heritage.” Tsosie also said, “I do respect my heritage. I am still learning about who I am, about where I am going and where I have been.”

About 28 weavers were featured in this year’s rug show. Their ages ranged from the early teens to nearly 100 years old.

Patrina and Diana Furcap, ages 13 and 12, are sisters. They learned to weave from their mother at about 6 years old. Each sold one hand-made rug on the first day of the show. “I think it’s important to keep the tradition going from one generation to the next. We shouldn’t lose it because it’s art,” Patrina said.

Most of the weavers present were women. However, four men also participated. William Whitehair, who has been weaving since he was 7, said gender differences might be rooted in history. When European settlers arrived, they brought with them their traditional form of household with women at home doing domestic activities and men outside working in farms. Although the American Indian way is matriarchal, many Native people adopted the European style and over time, weaving became primarily a female activity. Still, Whitehair said, he weaves because he’s “always enjoyed the art.”

At the show, rugs were sold at prices ranging anywhere from $150 to several thousand dollars. Prices are indicators of the quality of each rug and the amount of labor involved.

Linda Myers explained, “It’s not about the weaving itself. It’s about how when you go up and feel these rugs and you feel the hands of the weavers…that’s one of the gifts of purchasing the Navajo rugs all woven by hand. All these rugs carry that beautiful spirit of the weaver and their hands and the patterns.”

Designs range from the simplistic “Diamond” pattern (a single shape woven throughout a rug) to the intricate “Tree of Life.” This rug is a story, beginning with a “wedding basket.” At the bottom of the rug is the basket, usually woven in yellow or brown, which symbolizes the beginning of a family. From the basket grows a tall corn stalk with many branches growing from both sides. Birds of all colors are perched on the branches, each representing older generations of the family. There are also birds in flight on either side of the stalk, which stand for the younger generations. At the top is the “tassel” of the corn which holds the pollen. In Navajo tradition, corn pollen is offered with prayers, giving significance to the tassel being the tallest point on the Tree of Life. This rug can be woven in any color assortment ranging from rich dark colors to pastels.

Proceeds from the rug sales go to support the ANE program in buying food, firewood, and other items for Native elders. Individuals also could purchase balls of yarn in various shades to donate to elders for use in weaving. Some customers chose to sponsor a specific elder and invited him or her to choose the colors they liked the best. Additional donations can be made at the Web site.

The Adopt-A-Native Elder program has been a success for more than 20 years. One weaver has been a part of the program since its inception. Weaver Grace Smith-Yellowhammer of Teesto, Ariz., feels blessed to play a part in ANE and is proud of the international community involved. “We are all connected,” she said, “One voice, one prayer, one heart.”