Not your average beauty queen


Note: This article appeared as a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Rachel Benally, recent runner-up in the Southwest Regional Miss Navajo Pageant, Internet surfer, and unflinching slaughterer of her grandmother's goats, lies in a reclining chair in her Aunt Sharon's living room.

She is recovering from last night's TV-watching marathon. Wrapped in a comforter, she is discussing things with me and her cousin, Heather Begay.

"I'm not into dating," says Rachel, who is 24 years old, with a round, serious face and long black hair. "No guys in high school. Even in college, all I ever did was study in my room. I'm not like Heather," she laughs. Heather, who is 12, is lying down on the floor wearing black, shiny sweatpants, a black Nike T-shirt and a large crucifix pendant. She retorts that Rachel is a "Jo Girl' - a girl who likes to speak Navajo. Heather can speak Navajo, too, but only does so when she has to, with her grandparents. "No one speaks it," she explains. "Only older people do; maybe people over 30 or 40 years old."

We are in the small town of Ganado, Ariz., in townhouse #1 of the blue housing complex built for the employees of Ganado Unified School District. Rachel and Heather call it Smurfville. I ask where they'd like to live. Rachel says she would like to be on the reservation, "near my grandma." She wiggles her feet, which are encased in fleecy slippers shaped like bears. She grew up in the tiny nearby town of Jeddito. Her mother, Lena, is a weaver who, along with her parents, husband and son, keeps a herd of 95 Churro sheep. Heather, whose mother is an elementary school counselor, grew up in Albuquerque and Flagstaff. She sits up, her long hair swinging, and dissolves into a riff of indecision: "New York! Jeddito! No, not Jeddito! Gallup! No, not Gallup! Flagstaff!'

I am here to see what it's like to be a young Navajo woman. The media suggest it's not great. Indians are twice as likely as blacks and three times as likely as whites to be victims of rape or aggravated assault, and Indian children are more likely to be abused than those of any other ethnic group. In 1998, the Navajo Nation - the largest and most populous reservation in the country, a sprawling swath of high desert with its own college system, newspapers and police force - had a murder rate four times the national average and nearly twice that of Los Angeles. Unemployment runs 50 percent on some parts of the reservation. Maybe half of the 200,000 Navajos here have graduated from high school. Twenty percent of Navajo families have running water. Gangs are on the upswing. The list goes on and on.

I wanted to talk to someone who could give me an idea of what it was like to grow up around these kinds of statistics. Someone far from the seat of power. A young woman would be perfect. That's why I'm here to interview Rachel Benally. I am ready for the worst kind of news.

But there isn't any. Rachel and Heather talk about the reservation's teenage mothers and gang members with the distance of a pair of anthropologists. "There are a lot of really young parents here," says Rachel, who once worked at the day-care center at the high school. Heather adds that the teenagers "drink, smoke, whatever they get their hands on - rubber cement, cheap whisky." As for the gangs, "There's Brown Pride, Cobras, and the West Side. They're just wannabes. Eentsy weentsy fights, but no drive-bys, no nothing."

If gangs are what the sociologists say - substitutes for inadequate families - then Heather and Rachel are at approximately zero risk of joining. They are part of a populous, warm-hearted, extended family. It has revolved around the four Begay sisters - Sharon, Alta, Lena and Alice. Lena lives in Jeddito with her immediate family, but just about everyone else lives here in the housing complex. Sharon and Alta live in townhouses #1 and #2, with Alta's partner, Terrell, and five children between them, as well as their nephew's wife, Marlene, her two children, and Rachel.

Sharon has long hair, a penchant for traditional velveteen skirts, and a gift for gab. She teaches Navajo language and culture at the elementary school. Alta, smaller and quieter than her sister, works as a counselor at the school. So does Terrell. Last night, I drove from my hotel in Window Rock to have dinner with Alta and Terrell. Alta's niece, 8-year-old Chamisa, crept under my arm and showed me photographs of her relatives while I ate spaghetti and three-bean salad. Kids flowed from Alta's house to Sharon's and back again, unchecked and happy and not doing anything remotely bad.

Alice, the oldest of the Begay sisters, died of cancer last summer at 55. She came home from Tuba City to die. She was a physician's assistant, famous among the girls for never marrying and for badgering them to finish school. She didn't mean high school, either. She meant graduate school. (-I'll be watching you," Heather remembers her saying.)

Today, we're driving to Jeddito to see where Rachel lived before she moved to Ganado this spring to nurse Alice through her last months. Heather gets in the back with her cousin, Marlene, and Marlene's baby, Selena. Rachel and I get in the front. We drive away from the blue townhouses, Rachel's Crazy Bones rap tape playing on the sound system. We pass Ganado's deli and gas station and drive into the windy red desert, discussing the merits of LeAnn Rimes and Garth Brooks. Finally, we pull off the highway onto a bumpy, dusty road and stop outside a scatter of buildings on a hill. A bunch of puppies streams more or less towards us. A very spruced-up, ready-looking maroon Isuzu Trooper dwarfs the house. It belongs to Rachel's 86-year-old grandmother, Mary Begay.

"She likes to drive around," says Rachel with what I'm realizing is a character-deep lack of irony. "She likes to visit her relatives. Grandpa goes, too."

We get out, and I wander into a stone building. Lena is sitting behind an electric sewing machine. She looks mildly pleased at having a total stranger walk in on her to chat. She weaves three or four woolen rugs a year. She also sews velveteen broomstick skirts to sell at a nearby trading post, and fleece teddy bears for Toys R Us and the Arizona Highways magazine's catalog. Two years ago, at its peak, her sewing business employed 25 people. Today, they're in the midst of a dry spell; there's barely enough work for Lena and one other woman, "so now we can sit and drink coffee just like Navajo tribal employees," Lena says with a sly smile. Her husband, Raymond, and son, Leland, are off for the day with the family's sheep.

Rachel comes in and finds me a chair, worrying aloud about whether there is a coffee cup for me. She seems happier expediting my conversations with other people than answering questions herself. Rachel, the individual, is hard to locate. But Rachel, the core sample of the Benally family, is easy to find. She's always surrounded by relatives. They do the talking while she takes care of things. In Ganado, she takes the kids to their dentist appointments, or drives the 60 miles to Gallup to do errands, like tint the truck's windows or find a washing machine hose. When I press her about what she'd like to happen in her future, her forehead strains quietly as if I'm asking her about a far-away country that she's never visited.

But Lena loves to talk about her daughter: Rachel is a talented seamstress; she can whip out teddy bears with the best of them. She recently sewed a saddle blanket she sold for $100. She can slaughter a goat. In fact, she wanted to butcher one for the talent show at the Miss Navajo pageant. But the judges declined, so she boiled wool to make felt instead. The Miss Navajo Pageant is a mystery to me, but Lena and Rachel quickly explain that it's different than the Miss America type of pageant. For one thing, there's no bathing suit exhibiting, a fact that killed a persistent image I'd had of Rachel in her bikini butchering a goat. For another, every entrant has to make a speech. "It's more about leadership," says Rachel. Lena snorts that the girl that won "barked out some Army commands' for her talent presentation. "I think the judges were members of her family."

Rachel says she'll enter the pageant again next year, but she doesn't appear either hopeful or scared at the prospect. She is as stoic about it as a Zen monk. She actually got the idea of entering from Heather, whose trophies for cheerleading, pow wow, and intermediate school princess sit on the shelves at her Aunt Sharon's house.

What makes this family work? The answer, Sharon tells me later, is women and sheep. Rachel's great-grandmother, Ahedebah, was famous for breaking tough horses. She married medicine man John Slim Nez. Medicine men were often polygamous, but Ahedebah (whose name means "split the enemy in half and ride between them') put an end to all that. The subsequent generations of girls were raised to leave the boys alone and tend to their educations.

But the family had its problems. Goldtooth - a one-time railroad worker - and Mary drank quite a bit in the "60s and "70s, mostly, family wisdom goes, because all of their children were taken from them and put in boarding schools. But in the early 1970s, they saw an exhibit on Churro sheep, put together by livestock scientist Lyle McNeal.

Goldtooth was in his 70s when he saw McNeal's exhibit, but he remembered the breed from his childhood and was adamant: The family needed to get a Churro herd. When that happened, Sharon tells me, "A lot of the dysfunction stopped in our family, a lot of the drinking. We got 10 ewes. Each grandkid got a colored tag; every morning during vacation all the kids would be in the sheep corral, and they knew their colors. They'd go out every summer and herd the sheep; they'd be in constant contact with their grandparents. My sister Lena started weaving again. The other sisters tried it, and I began to spin, and we all got into making felt. We don't drink."

Rachel was born into this changed family in 1975. She doesn't carry the baggage of what came before. What she wants to do right now is go down to Jeddito Wash. "When I was 12 or 13, we had this real old truck," she says, easing the car over what looks like a miniature Grand Canyon in the middle of the road, "and me and Grandpa would coast all the way down here. I'd drive. Grandpa couldn't drive, because he had a bad leg."

Bitterbrush, juniper, yucca and orange globe mallow all wave on the wide, sagey range. There are low sandstone bluffs and mesas in the distance. The sky is an ecstatic blue. I'm suddenly strongly jealous of Rachel, who grew up with generations of family in this beautiful place. "We were never inside," she said, "always outside." She and her brother, Leland, and her cousins would rock climb on the buttes, and swim in the wash. "I'd just walk down here in the evenings. In Ganado, I walk around the track, or lift weights. But I sure got used to the quiet out here."

Rachel is the bearer of this particular matriarchy's gravity. She may well be Miss Navajo 2000, and she can talk away about Jennifer Lopez's recent romance with Puff Daddy, and discuss the pros and cons of perming one's hair, but she's not a frivolous person by any stretch. She'll probably go back to school (she's already done a year at the College of Eastern Utah in Blanding, Utah); she'd like to get a master's degree and run a nursing home or a day-care center. "I like kids," she says, "especially babies." That doesn't extend to planning to have any herself, though. I ask what she'd do if a man pursued her, and she smiles with an earnestness rarely found among runners-up of beauty pageants: "I'd probably run."

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