When Cody decided to compete for Miss Navajo, her grandmother was supportive but anxious. Her Uncle James just snorted, "Dream on, chocolate mama." But it was "a childhood dream," she says, "and I love a challenge."
The week-long contest, held every September at the Navajo Nation Fair, requires contestants to perform traditional Navajo tasks, including butchering sheep. (Navajos don't do swimsuits.) With the knives sharpened and the animal's throat exposed, Cody says, "I was ready to fall over. I considered sheep my friends. At home on butchering day, I'd hide the knives and everybody would go looking for them. They'd say, 'OK, Millie, what have you done with them?' "
Cody got through the butchering and spoke flawless Navajo -- another contest requirement -- but after she beat six other contestants and won the title, resentment surfaced. The Navajo Times, for instance, ran a letter from Orlando Tom, a Navajo from Blue Gap, calling her a threat to Indian sovereignty. "There is a duty and responsibility to procreate within our own kind, so we can perpetuate our existence in the years to come," Tom wrote. "If we fail in this endeavor, within 200 years from now, there will be no Indian people. ... That is why inter-racial unions and the children it brings forth is nothing other than ethnic genocide. ... Miss Cody's appearance and physical characteristics are clearly black, and thus representative of another race of people."
Determined to prove the naysayers wrong, Cody kept a grueling schedule during her year as Miss Navajo, drawing crowds that were curious to see the woman behind the uproar. The spotlight also helped her singing career, giving her exposure not only to the Navajo people, but also to "other tribes, nations and cultures," she says. Her first album, Within the Four Directions, was released in 2000; one of its tracks is her rousing rendition of the national anthem in Navajo.
"Millie was good at the job," says Marley Shebala, a Times reporter who is also a High Country News board member. "Children flocked to her. She has star power and such a beautiful singing voice."
But throughout her reign, Cody hid a dark secret. She was enmeshed in a relationship she describes as abusive and violent, to the point where, she says, her boyfriend knocked her down and jammed a gun in her mouth. At times, appearing at Miss Navajo events with a black eye, she lied to audiences, saying she'd been in a car accident.
She'd met Darrell Dwight Bellamy, a black man in Phoenix, when she was 19 -- "the first time I really fell for somebody." She shrugs. "I was so naive."
She says she didn't realize Bellamy ran a major drug ring until after she moved in with him, three years into the relationship. By then, she'd become so weakened by his physical and emotional control over her that she couldn't leave. She stayed with him three more years, hoping he would change.
In 2001 -- the same year Cody opened the Native American Music Awards show with The Star-Spangled Banner -- federal prosecutors indicted her, Bellamy and 12 others on multiple drug charges. She pled guilty to misprision of a felony -- failure to report a serious crime -- and served 18 months in a minimum-security prison in Phoenix. (Bellamy got 32 years.) She admitted helping him package marijuana in Saran wrap and mixing in mustard, pepper and fabric softener to conceal the odor. She had also strapped cocaine to her body and walked it through the Phoenix airport. Her plea agreement acknowledged that her fear of Bellamy wasn't a complete defense, but said it had "severely affected" her decision-making.
'Diné in Shock Over Cody's Crimes,' said a Gallup Independent headline after her bust. Shebala says that in her 28 years in Navajo journalism, no other story stirred as much reaction as this one: Miss Navajo's involvement in drugs while preaching traditional values. "We weren't able to print all the letters we got. They just kept coming in."
Miss Navajo occupies a lofty perch in the tribe's matriarchal culture. She's considered a modern representation of Changing Woman, a deity from a Navajo creation story, says former tribal President Kelsey Begaye, who supported Cody through it all. "A lot of the people who backed her after she won Miss Navajo thought, 'Well, now she's gone and gotten herself into this mess.' People were ... wondering what kind of role model we had."