Flagstaff, Ariz. • The Miss Navajo Nation pageant is parting ways with fry bread, the fluffy, golden brown delicacy that’s become a symbol of Native American culture but is rooted in oppression.
Women vying for the crown this week in Window Rock will prepare traditional Navajo foods instead, like blue corn mush or a cake made at puberty ceremonies.
Outgoing Miss Navajo Ronda Joe said the tribe’s new ambassador must know the history of those foods and speak about them in Navajo.
“We need to educate our people to utilize plants as food that are tied to our land, culture and beliefs,” she wrote in an email.
The change aligns with a movement in Indian Country to refocus on traditional foods and reinforce native languages.
Fry bread was born out of government rations given to Navajos on a forced relocation to eastern New Mexico in the 1860s. Traditional Navajo breads or cakes would be made of corn and cooked on hot stones or in the ground, not in a cast-iron pan filled with oil.
Fry bread can be found across the Southwest in Indian tacos, slathered in honey or powdered sugar, or broken off in pieces and used as a spoon for stews. The exact ingredients vary and everyone claims “mom” makes it best.
Despite being removed from the tribal pageant, fry bread offers lessons in survival, being a contributor and creating something out of nothing, said Jocelyn Billy-Upshaw, Miss Navajo 2006-07. She remembers her mom saying she’d never get married unless she knew how to make bread.
“For a married household, where there’s a man and a wife and the man is traditional, yeah, you have hot bread for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she said. “In my time of growing up, you were honored for that.”
Fry bread was judged for its color, texture and taste, but Miss Navajo contestants also were critiqued on their ability to build a fire and keep the grease warm. Navajo grandmothers would comment on the technique, down to the strike of the match, said Jennifer Wheeler, Miss Navajo 1990-91.
“If your bread comes out sticky and doughy, or it comes out the opposite and you burnt it, then you’re probably not a good fit for their grandson,” she said. “That’s what escalates the outcome, that’s what makes it exciting to watch.”
Brian Yazzie, a Navajo chef who focuses on precolonial foods in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was drawn to the Miss Navajo contest while growing up because of the endurance and style displayed in the sheep butchering contest. He praised the switch from fry bread to a traditional food presentation.
“It encourages and inspires youth to step up and take a challenge of ancestral knowledge and ancestral roots,” he said. “It makes my heart happy to see that.”
Wheeler recalled the fry bread competition being added to the pageant about 20 years ago, when some contestants found speaking Navajo difficult.
Fairgoers won’t be deprived of chances to see fry bread makers in action. Dozens of people from Navajo Nation, other tribes and non-Natives compete for cash prizes in a separate contest. Coordinator Yolanda Ellis said she’s trying to make the bread healthier by eliminating salt, using vegetable oil and setting out wheat flour.
Former Miss Navajo Sunny Dooley said Navajos socialize around food and might be a bit disgruntled not to see pageant contestants fashioning dough and watching it sizzle in hot oil.
“Like if you took Spam, corned beef, tortillas, people are going to say, what are we going to eat, what’s left,” she said. “They don’t realize what’s left is what our ancestors ate.”