The Root: The experience of having your Miss Navajo Nation reign challenged calls to mind the debate over the Cherokee Freedmen. Is this a common issue across the Native community, of African-Native Americans having trouble finding acceptance?
Radmilla Cody: I grew up having to deal with racism and prejudices on both the Navajo and the black sides, and when I ran for Miss Navajo Nation, that especially brought out a lot of curiosity in people. It’s something that we’re still having to address as black Natives, still having to prove ourselves in some way or another, because at the end of the day, it all falls back to what people think a Native American should look like.
But there’s been many times when people have said to me, “Oh, my great-great-grandmother was an Indian.” I’ll ask them if they know what tribe, and they don’t. It’s very important because in order to be acknowledged as a tribal member, you have to be enrolled. So I can see where Native people are protective about defining who’s a tribal member, and are questioning of people claiming Native ancestry.
TR: Were you surprised by the backlash that you received?
RC: I wasn’t surprised. I knew it was going to happen. Right before I left to go to compete in the pageant, my grandmother sat down with me. She said to me, “My child, I just want you to know that there are going to be some people who are not going to be accepting of this.”
Growing up, I was taunted at school with racial slurs and would come home in tears. My grandmother would be there, waiting to console me. She always said, “Let ’em talk. You are a Navajo woman. This is your land. This is how I raised you. You be proud of who you are.” Every time, that’s what she would say.
So this day before the pageant, when she cautioned me about people who wouldn’t be accepting of me participating, I turned around and told her, “Let ’em talk, Grandma. I’m a proud Navajo woman, remember?” She had a big smile on her face. I think she felt content that I was ready for what I was going to be challenged with.
TR: Do you have any connection to African-American culture and community?
RC: I spent more time in the Navajo community growing up because my grandmother raised me. When I would come into town in Flagstaff, Ariz., to see my mom, who had black friends, and my dad’s relatives, I was in the black community more. I went to high school in Flagstaff, and one day a friend was wearing a T-shirt with a big “X” on it. I said, “That’s cool! I should get one that says ‘R’ for Radmilla!” I didn’t know anything about Malcolm X. He told me to join the black student organization. I had a lot to educate myself about and embrace, because I come from two beautiful cultures.
In the black community I also had my challenges. I was always told, “You think you’re cute because you got that long, fine hair,” and I would have to stand up for my Navajo side because of stereotypes placed upon the Navajo. When I’d go back to the Navajo community, I would have to stand up for my black side because of stereotypes.
Read the rest of the interview here.
Image credit: unieketrouwringen.nl