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United States, Navajo

Since the discovery of important oil fields on the reserve, the Navajo Nation enjoys territorial independence from the United States. The social life of the tribe is arranged around women, according to a matrilineal system, in which titles, names and properties are transmitted by female lineage. Every year since 1952, the contest of Miss Navajo puts in competition a dozen young Navajo girls. They will appear in front of a jury that will question them about their knowledge on the Navajo people.

Despite its name "miss", this contest rewards less the physical appearance than the anchoring in the Navajo culture and language. The number 4 is of almost divine importance in Navajo spirituality (4 directions, 4 colors, 4 seasons) which is based on the cult of nature, while following the rules of sacred harmony between Mother Earth and Father heaven. When a Navajo girl reaches the age of puberty, she has to go through a four-day ceremony called Kinaalda, which means the transformation of childhood into femininity. The ceremony is centered around the changing woman Navajo myth, the first woman on Earth to bear children.

Chelly Canyon. Spider Woman, one of the main Navajo deities, lives in Spider Rock. The pointed rock is said to be linked to the rest of the Canyon by a web made up of rainbows. The female deities are central to the creation of the Navajo people.

These women work in a coal mine located on the reserve. They are completely independent from a financial point of view. On the reserve women don't hesitate to choose a job that calls for the use of their physical strength, and it is not uncommon for them to return to school after having had children.

Since 1952, a “Miss Navajo” contest takes place in Window Rock, capital of the reserve. The Navajo Nation Fair brings together nearly 10,000 Amerindians, Apaches, Comanches, Cheyennes and Hopis, from all the reserves of the United States. They perform in parades in traditional dress, sing and compete in horse races and rodeos.

The ten Miss Navajo contenders officiate in front of nearly 400 people, including the President of the Navajo Nation and a medicine man. In spite of being called "Miss", this contest rewards not so much the physical appearance as the anchoring in Navajo culture.

In order to become Miss Navajo, young women must also show that they know the language, songs, dances and the spirituality of their community inside out. The winner will then be an Ambassador of the Navajo people for a whole year, and will have to promote her culture throughout the country. Winnie is getting ready.

Five women judges will assess them throughout the week and scrutinize each of their actions. The first test is to slaughter a sheep in public. Winnie starts by stroking and blessing the animal pledged to her blade and then kills it quickly, painlessly, with a flawless section of the carotid artery. An act performed under the eyes of a hypnotized, admiring audience and in an atmosphere of dust and the smell of blood.

Winnie just won the "Miss Navajo" contest. It is more honorific than a Western miss, which shines only thanks to her physical appearance.

Shoshana is celebrating her kinaaldá, which will mark the transition from childhood to puberty and allow her to join the world of women. Her long hair is carefully pulled up and tied with white cotton threads, a symbol of knowledge and wisdom. For four days and four nights, the teenager will grind the grain, knead the bread, and cut a lamb without ever touching sugar, salt or spices.

The family’s daughters help Shoshana stitch together corn husks in order to fashion the round wrapper, more than one meter in diameter, used to bake the corn cake, an exclusive women’s task.

Men are excluded from the ceremony surrounding the kinaaldá, except young boys and uncles of the family. Their mission is to dig a hole in the earth in front of the hoogan (the traditional Navajo house), where a corn cake will be baked.

Women insert the vegetable cover in the hole, to then pour the dough into it, and the whole is covered with ashes and earth. Shoshana then plunges four connected bamboo sticks into it, as a symbol of her weapons to fight off hunger.

First she washes her hair and her jewelry in water containing yaka, a purifying root, then walks around the hoogan from left to right, circling around the central stove. Leaving the house, she finally runs eastward till she’s breathless, followed by all of her older cousins.

The shaman gave Shoshana a sacred and secret name, which she will only use while praying, when introducing herself to the deities. From now on, every day she will pull out of a tiny leather pouch a few pinches of yellow corn pollen and hurl it eastward, where dawn begins. A gesture that symbolizes the power to give life. “Yá’a’tééh,” the young Navajo woman will say in a salute to the deities and feminine energies: the earth, the mountain, the corn pollen, and the water.

Following a night of rituals that took place in the hoogan, in the presence of a dozen members of her family and the shaman, Ricky, who in a hoarse voice recited tales of the Navajo universe, dawn sees Shoshana walking out. The cake is finally cooked and ready to be duged out of the earth.

Early morning after a long night of cooking, the corn cake is finally ready to be cut and generously handed out to the guests by Shoshana, minus its central portion reserved for Ricky the shaman. By this gesture, she learns the virtues of generosity and sharing.

Shoshana is blessed along with all that she touches, so all of the guests are seeking her contact, and place a personal item on a carpet. This is the moment where the hands of the young girl have a particular power in the eyes of the Navajo: they possess the gift of healing or relieving pain. Shoshana positions her hands on the head of a little cousin who suffers from migraines.

Throughout the 20th century, the federal government sent the Navajo to so-called boarding schools, an elegant way of referring to actual military camps where the Navajos were beaten if they dared to speak their language. As a result, half of them no longer speak it.

The Franciscans incorporated the Navajo spiritual vision into their worship, as shown by the Church of Our Lady of Fatima in Chinle, whose round shape recalls the hoogan, the traditional house. Many evangelical churches did the opposite, demonizing the indians’ ancestral beliefs.

Each time she gave birth, Candilaria Johnson kept the baby's umbilical cord with the purpose of giving the baby a lasting root. This is why, even if a Navajo leaves the reserve, he always comes back to his land.

Most young people want to preserve their roots while integrating the Western world. The lucky ones obtain scholarships to study in universities and then return to the reserve. They are mostly girls.

No Navajo woman likes to talk about the poverty of her people. She believes it can be changed, as Navajo philosophy taught her: “We may be deprived from a purely materialistic point of view, but our culture is an immense wealth which helps us come out of indigence."

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