Grand Falls, Arizona
Radmilla Cody knows the way home. It's not an easy journey. The dirt roads are canoe-shaped and gouged by rain. They curl around hills and plunge into deep draws, finally bringing us to the family homestead near Grand Falls, on the Navajo Reservation.
Cody grew up on these lonesome sage flats. Her Navajo mother, Margaret, took off to Georgia shortly after giving birth to Cody at age 18. Her father, Troy Davis, was a 43-year-old black man who worked as a driver for a Ford dealer in Flagstaff. Her grandmother, Dorothy, raised her the Navajo way.
Out here, without running water or electricity, Cody learned rug-weaving and sheepherding, and began to sing -- first to the sheep in the corrals, then, at the age of 7, in her grandmother's Christian church. In junior high, at Leupp Boarding School, she decided to make a career of it, influenced by her Uncle Herman, a musician, and her grandfather, Archie Cody, a medicine man.
She needed all her Navajo skills to win the title of Miss Navajo in 1997, at age 22 -- the reservation's first bi-racial beauty queen. Then her life took a sharp downward turn. She became entangled in an abusive relationship with a drug dealer and ended up in federal prison.
In 2004, after her release, she came back here for a ceremony to cleanse her spirit of that painful experience, seeking to free herself from the shadow of domestic violence. Now, she's back again, on this overcast morning in July, to touch her roots and share her story with a journalist. Some of the talk is about a recently completed documentary titled Hearing Radmilla, made by Angela Webb, a substitute teacher in Burbank, Calif. It takes a tough-minded look at Navajo racism and Cody's personal struggle.
"I have to keep moving forward," Cody says, "because that's how change happens."
On the front porch, we wade through chickens to reach Cody's grandmother's kitchen, where Cody begins making a Navajo breakfast (heavy on bacon), dressed in Nike running shorts and a sleeveless blouse, her hair tied back.
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?' "