Newly crowned Miss Navajo Nation ‘thrilled’ and ‘humbled’ to become ambassador for her community

Taking over from her predecessor, who had been a vital public health advocate during the pandemic, Niagara Aveda Chanel Rockbridge will focus on the broad platform of “Preserving Our Diné Way of Life.”

(Jacob James | Special to The Tribune) Niagara Rockbridge of Piñon, Ariz., was coronated as Miss Navajo Nation for 2021-2022 at a pageant at Window Rock, Ariz., Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

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Window Rock, Ariz. • From her emerald velveteen dress, which was designed by her father and sewn by her mother, to the cultural knowledge of how to grow corn to the proper way to butcher a sheep, Niagara Aveda Chanel Rockbridge needed deep knowledge of her community and family support to win Miss Navajo Nation.

Last Saturday, it all came together for Rockbridge, who will hold the title for the next year. She won the 2021-22 Miss Navajo Nation title over Shaundiin Yazzie, first runner-up, and Oshkaillah Lakota Iron Shell, second runner-up.

“I was raised, like every other rez kid out there,” Rockbridge told The Tribune. “Playing in the dirt and you know, doing everything that we usually do, herding sheep and having to work on the cornfields and the animals.”

COVID-19 changed the contest this year. For the first time ever, the event was held virtually and streamed to tens of thousands online in accordance with the Navajo Nation’s strict public health orders to mitigate the coronavirus. Only the contestants, organizers for the pageant and the media were allowed in the Navajo Nation Museum, where Rockbridge faced a mostly empty room when she donned her reign with a new $30,000 crown.

(Jacob James | Special to The Tribune) The crown for Miss Navajo Nation before the 2021-2022 coronation pageant at Window Rock, Ariz., Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

Diné jeweler, Matthew Charley, 29, of Breadsprings, N.M., stamped the silver crown with his signature designs he adorned with pearl stones to represent matrilineal Diné deities, Changing Woman and White Shell Woman, turquoise stones, and spider webs to represent Spider Woman, another matriarchal deity in Diné culture.

“It’s definitely surreal, like a surreal feeling. I’m thrilled for this opportunity. But I’m also humbled,” Rockbridge added. “Because, you know, feeling the weight of the crown and feeling the sash over me now, it’s like you are now truly the ambassador for the Navajo Nation. You feel the weight of the people with you. And you understand how important this job is. It’s not a princess title.”

The pandemic also forced the pageant to take a year off in 2020. Outgoing Miss Navajo Nation Shaandiin Parrish, of Kayenta, Ariz., who gave the title to Rockbridge on Saturday, ended up serving for two years and became a vital part of her community’s fight against COVID.

A pandemic leader passes her crown

Normally, the Miss Navajo Nation pageant coincides with the annual Navajo Nation Fair, which draws hundreds of thousands of people to the tribal capital in early September. When COVID came to the Nation in spring 2020, it forced leadership to cancel social events like the fair and pageant in an effort to control the COVID curve.

In the early days of the pandemic, the Navajo Nation at one point had the highest per capita of coronavirus cases in the U.S.

Because of the high death rates from COVID, Parrish was asked by the Office of Miss Navajo Nation and its administrator Carletta Benally to serve an additional year. She is the first titleholder to serve two years under the Office of Miss Navajo Nation, which officially became part of the Navajo Nation government in the late 1980s.

This extra year required her to take on a public health advocacy role, such as creating videos and social media campaigns pleading with the Diné public to wear masks, how to sew masks, use hand sanitizer, and social distance from each other.

For many Diné, Parrish became the face of the government response.

With Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer, she also provided COVID relief in the form of food, water, and other survival needs to about 175,000 Diné people at various drive-thrus that took place at all 110 Navajo Chapter governments across the 27,000-square mile territory. Parrish is now known as the only Miss Navajo Nation to visit each Navajo Nation community at least twice, and some of them three times more.

“My reign as Miss Navajo has been a bunch of surprises,” Parrish said. “I knew that our people needed us, needed to be vigilant, to be out there, to be seen. It was pertinent for me to be with my people as much as possible.”

Serving as Miss Navajo Nation requires strength, resilience, compassion and love, explains Parrish, who had invited the contestants to a community outreach event in Coyote Canyon, N.M., during the week of the pageant.

Parrish says community events are part of daily life as Miss Navajo Nation, even as the delta variant continues its surge.

This year, the Navajo Nation is in a much better position on coronavirus. With the strict public health orders from the Navajo Department of Health to mask-up and the generally high vaccination rate among Diné citizens, the Office of Miss Navajo Nation and Parrish decided it was safe enough to host this year’s pageant.

“Love who you are. Accept who you are. You are worthy,” Parrish told the thousands of online viewers watching the coronation ceremony last weekend in her farewell speech.

(Jacob James | Special to The Tribune) Niagara Rockbridge, center, was coronated as Miss Navajo Nation for 2021-2022 at a pageant at Window Rock, Ariz., Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

Lambs and tiaras

Rockbridge didn’t just win the pageant, she won Best Butcher as well.

Sheep butchering is a crowd-favorite and contestants are judged on the cultural sensitivities of their techniques. That includes everything from the sacrifice prayer for the sheep, the texture of the meat, and the ability to field impromptu questions judges throw at them in Diné Bizaad, the name of the Diné language, about the anatomy of a sheep.

During the traditional skills and talent day of competition, Rockbridge demonstrated her knowledge of growing corn in accordance with Diné teachings, prayers and song. Considered one of the most fluent Diné speakers of the three contestants, she even tackled more impromptu questions in Diné Bizaad.

Rockbridge also won Best Essay, Best Traditional Food, and Miss Photogenic.

As Miss Navajo Nation, Rockbridge, will focus on the broad platform of “Preserving Our Diné Way of Life” through family unity, or through the kinship principle of K’e.

For Rockbridge that means representing her clans, a core part of Diné identity that people often use when introducing themselves to show who they are and where they come from. Rockbridge is Kinyaa’áanii and born for Hashk’ąa Hadzohi. Her maternal grandfather is Naakai Dine’é, and her paternal grandfather is Tó'áhani.

“Everyone has kinship. Everyone has a mom or dad or grandma, someone who has raised you, your brothers, sisters who have taught you, who have guided you through life and who have gotten you to the position that you’re in today,” Rockbridge said. “And during this time with a pandemic, I feel like it has really been challenged as we have faced a lot of tragedy.”

“I’m happy and glad that she got what she wants,” her father Gary Rockbridge said. “What she always wanted, which is to help her people. It really matches her. She’s known as White Shell Woman” in pageant circles.

“This is probably her biggest goal and a goal that she’s always wanted to accomplish,” her mother Deborah Rockbridge added. “We support her and she really stands for the youth.”

‘I’ve learned how to love myself’

(Jacob James | Special to The Tribune) Niagara Rockbridge, left, of Piñon, Ariz., is coronated as Miss Navajo Nation for 2021-2022 at a pageant at Window Rock, Ariz., Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

The first runner-up and Miss Congeniality of the pageant, Shandiin Yazzie, is the first publicly out queer candidate in the pageant’s 69-year history. She said she, Rockbridge and Iron Shell, the third-place finisher, became close during the competition.

“[Rockbridge] is just an amazing teacher, an amazing knowledge holder and just a really good advocate, too, for a lot of other concerns,” Yazzie said immediately after the crowning. “To be honest, this is one of the most intense things that I’ve ever done in my life.”

Yazzie was happy with her performance throughout the week — although she sustained stitches during the sheep butchering.

As for Iron Shell, she learned early in the competition the need to learn more of the Diné language. During parts of the competition, she was seen carrying around a Diné-English dictionary to help with the translation of impromptu questions. She also knew that the pageant would come down to Rockbridge and Yazzie.

“It’s really been hard for me. I’ve learned how to love myself, how to accept myself. To mentally, physically, and spiritually accept that,” Iron Shell said. “As a Diné person, I did not grow up with these things.”

According to Crystalynne Curley, public information officer for Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and also a former Miss Navajo Nation herself, the virtual pageant had about 190,000 viewers.

One of those viewers is Eleanor Rogers, who is originally from Monument Valley, Utah and lives in Crownpoint, N.M., who enjoyed the virtual streaming of the pageant. Before the pandemic, Rogers would be in attendance at the pageant, encouraging the young women with, “Yeego! (Let’s Go!)”

“I’ve been watching the pageant ever since it started,” Rogers said. “It’s so beautiful and I cried. I sat there enjoying it, holding my phone or computer. I think it’s really nice if they hold it virtually nowadays because of the pandemic, and we need to continue wearing masks.”