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An Unusual Miss Navajo


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?' "

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."

In prison, Cody cleaned toilets during the day and wrote songs at night. Several of them made it onto another album, Spirit of a Woman. The Native American Music Awards -- the so-called Indian Grammies -- named her the best female artist of 2002. She's released four albums in all, and last year National Public Radio featured her in its 50 Great Voices series, which showcases singers around the world.

"I'd love to open for Merle Haggard," she says.

A racket outside interrupts her tale. Other members of the family are arriving, and Bailey and Renfro, two orphan sheep in a nearby pen, enthusiastically greet them: "Baaaaaah!"

The sound reminds Cody of getting out of prison: She went directly to her grandmother's corral, she says, picked up sheep manure, sniffed it and blessed herself with it. The ritual proved that she'd made it home.

The biggest change associated with her incarceration came with her discovery, in the prison library, of a book on domestic violence. "I read parts of my life in its pages. That's where my education on the subject began."

In the six years since her release, she's become an activist, giving speeches on domestic violence to assemblies in Navajo schools -- part of her Strong Spirit Campaign -- and in rallies at the state Capitol and elsewhere. Often she sings as well. "She has such a powerful presence," says Elizabeth Ditlevson, deputy director of the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Ditlevson has accompanied Cody on her school appearances, which focus on preventing teen dating violence, a growing problem on the reservation. Teenagers sit on the edge of their bleacher seats when Cody is speaking, says Ditlevson. "If teenagers have violence in their families, it helps them realize they're not alone."

Cody still finds it hard to trust anyone. "I have times when I cry -- something will trigger a memory and I have to let go. But those days are fewer."

She's now enrolled in college, studying sociology and public relations, but for reasons of privacy and safety, she asks me to withhold the name of her school.

The kitchen fills with family, each new arrival sending Cody back to the frying pan to whip up another breakfast. Dorothy, now 95, is here, along with Marcus, who's hobbling on a cane, recovering from an accident. At a recent family screening of the documentary, he asked Radmilla for forgiveness.

"I said, 'Marcus, I forgave you a long time ago,' " says Cody. "I told him his role in the film was very important. It'll make people think about their attitudes."

Marcus, who long ago learned to treasure his niece, bellies up to the table, calling over his shoulder, "This bacon is reeeeal good, Millie. Now you should make a cake!"

Margaret is here, too -- tall, lively, talkative. After her wild teenage years (she says she drank too much to take care of a baby), she became a weaver. Today, she sells her rugs at Garland's Indian Jewelry, a top Native outlet in Sedona. Now 16 years sober, Margaret sees parallels between her life and her daughter's. "We've both gone through things that made us tough," she says. "Natives have a tendency to crawl under a rock when things go bad. But Millie's come back strong. Look what she's doing with her domestic violence work. Look what she's done with this film."

First-time filmmaker Webb had started out to do a documentary about beauty queens. Her determination to portray all the characters as authentically as possible took the film in unexpected directions. "Nobody is all good or all bad, and I wanted to show those complications," says Webb. "It was a challenge to keep the focus on Radmilla because everyone in the film -- Marcus, the dad, Margaret -- could have a documentary about them."

Cody hopes that Hearing Radmilla conveys the message that anyone can make serious mistakes and recover from them, and that it's OK to be different. In her talks to schoolkids, she urges them to banish from their vocabularies the Navajo word zhinni -- a slur for black person -- and replace it with naahili, which roughly translates as "the dark ones who've come across to live."

"I want people to hear about domestic violence from a survivor," says Cody. "For me, a lot of this has been about taking back power."

The documentary also shows that family love rarely moves in a straight line. If you hang in there, however, the road will always lead home.

"The experience of doing this picture has brought us closer together as a family," says Cody. "My mom tells me she loves me now, but she couldn't do that before unless she was drunk."

After breakfast, Margaret goes off to feed the horses. Jamie, Cody's 14-year-old sister, chases the orphan sheep across the flats. Cody, who spent her childhood doing the same things, plans to settle down here when the time is right.

"This is where I'm going to build my life," Cody says, looking around at the basketball hoop, the outhouse, the sheep pen and the long plateau leading out to the Little Colorado River. "Some day I'll settle down here and have my own herd of sheep. But right now I'm still ripping and running, (hoping) this documentary ... changes some attitudes. I really think it can make a difference."

Postscript: Since Hearing Radmilla premiered on the Navajo Reservation last September, it's been screened in theaters and film festivals around the Southwest and as far away as New York City and Germany. On February 26, 2011, it won the Director's Choice award at the Sedona International Film Festival. It's planned for DVD release later this year. For more information, go to http://www.radmillacody.net/

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.

Leo W. Banks covers the Southwest and the Mexican border, for publications ranging from the Tucson Weekly to the Wall Street Journal, from his base in Tucson. He’s also written or been a co-writer of seven books about Arizona’s history, culture and landscape.