When Shaandiin Parrish was crowned Miss Navajo Nation in 2019, she didn't expect to win. She also didn't expect to be carrying the honor two years later and through the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit Black, brown and Indigenous communities at a deadlier rate through 2020. When President of the Navajo Nation Jonathan Nez declared the pandemic a public health crisis in the tribe, Parrish's role as Miss Navajo Nation changed.
"Nobody really tells you how to be Miss Navajo in general, let alone how to be Miss Navajo Nation during the pandemic," Parrish told NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro.
"We really took a hands-on approach and I'm very fortunate the president included me in the conversations and also in the food distributions to be on the front lines with him," Parrish said.
They were so focused on the work, Parrish says, they lost track of time and organizing the pageant in 2020 was not a focus. She ended up staying Miss Navajo Nation for another year.
"We were so focused on our work that we didn't realize it was August, and usually the pageant takes place in September, so with little time, we didn't prioritize the pageant. And we really wanted to prioritize the health and wellbeing of our people," Parrish said.
Parrish says the work involved food and water distribution, visiting parts of the Navajo Nation that had no running water and providing hand sanitizer. She had to make personal sacrifices, too, choosing to self-isolate away from her family in 2020 while doing the work so she wouldn't put them at risk of contracting the virus.
"Being isolated, that definitely takes a huge toll on your mental health and just your wellbeing in general but we really stuck together as a team. We're very fortunate to have kept each other safe," she said.
The Miss Navajo Nation pageant is different than what most people might think of when they consider a pageant event. The event takes place half in English and half in the Navajo language, and contestants have to show a deep knowledge of Navajo culture and heritage.
One of the rounds of the pageant includes showing how to properly slaughter a sheep and prepare the cuts of meat in the traditional way, to prove Miss Navajo Nation's ability to take care of her family and her people, and pass on the traditions to the next generation.
Now, Parrish, a graduate of Arizona State University and a former staffer in the state's senate, is able to pass on the title. The 2021 pageant took place in September this year and Niagara Rockbridge was named the new Miss Navajo Nation.
"I am excited for her," Parrish said. "I am very excited to see how she will help our people."
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The annual Miss Navajo pageant is normally a big, robust event where young Navajo women compete to showcase their deep knowledge of their traditions. Shaandiin Parrish was crowned Miss Navajo Nation back in 2019, but as the pandemic ripped through the country and disproportionately impacted Indigenous, Black and brown people, she was asked to stay on in the job to help her tribe get the resources they needed. Shaandiin Parrish joins us now.
Thank you so much for being with us.
SHAANDIIN PARRISH: Hello, everyone. Good to be here. Thank you so much.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Walk us through what you have to do in the competition because this is not like a Miss Universe or Miss USA.
PARRISH: The Miss Navajo Nation pageant consists of several different competitions. It is a six-day process where as a Navajo woman, you're tested on your abilities, your traditional knowledge, your Navajo language fluency and also your ability to remain poised, calm and collected during the entire pageant. One of the first competitions you have to compete in is butchering a sheep from the moment it enters the arena alive, all the way to specific cuts of the meat to prepare stews and other traditional foods for later competitions.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: While calm and collected.
PARRISH: While calm and collected, correct.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) sounds hard. That sounds hard. Tell me the purpose of this. I mean, it sounds like it's a way to really keep the traditions of the Navajo Nation alive.
PARRISH: Sure. Butchering sheep is a huge component of our culture and our traditions. As Navajo women, we're expected to know how to do this so that we can provide for our families. And as a young Navajo woman in the competition, you're being tested on this skill and ability so that you can display that you know how to take care of your family and ultimately take care of the Navajo Nation.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the pandemic hits, and they asked you to stay on in the role. Explain to me how that happened and how your role changed after that.
PARRISH: Well, nobody really tells you how to be Miss Navajo in general, let alone how to be Miss Navajo Nation during the pandemic. When the president of the Navajo Nation, Jonathan Nez, declared the COVID-19 pandemic a public health emergency for the Navajo Nation, we really took a hands-on approach. And I'm very fortunate that the president included me in the conversations and also in the food distributions to be on the front lines with him. And while we were distributing the supplies that our people needed, we kind of lost track of time. And that's really how we were so focused on our work that we didn't realize it was August. And usually the pageant takes place in September. So with little time, we didn't prioritize the pageant, and we really wanted to prioritize the health and well-being of our people.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So can you describe some of the work that you were doing in the community? And also, how did the pandemic affect you? I mean, it really did, as we know, devastate some of the, you know, First Nations all over the country.
PARRISH: So as Miss Navajo Nation, you make plenty of personal sacrifices. And one of the sacrifices that I had to make was staying away from my family most of 2020 because I wanted to keep them safe. And the reason why I had to isolate myself was because the president and I visited all 110 local governments on the Navajo Nation. And we traveled to all parts of the Navajo Nation two times during the year of 2020 so that we could distribute water to those that didn't have running water, so that we could distribute hand sanitizer to those who didn't have hand-washing stations and ultimately preventing the spread of COVID-19.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that must have been really hard for you.
PARRISH: It was. It was. Back to being isolated, that definitely takes a huge toll on your mental health and, you know, your - just your well-being in general. But we really stuck together as a team and very - we're very fortunate to have kept each other safe and not contracted the virus during our time serving the people.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And was your family OK, too?
PARRISH: Well, the virus on the Navajo Nation began in my home community, so it was very difficult for me personally to watch the spread of the virus begin in my home community and spread throughout the nation. So personally, it was very difficult to worry about my family and their well-being while still trying to help the rest of the nation.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I understand a new Miss Navajo Nation has been crowned.
PARRISH: Yes, Niagara Rockbridge was crowned Miss Navajo Nation 2021-2022 on September 11.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How does it feel to be passing the crown after such an intense experience? And what advice do you have for her?
PARRISH: I'm excited for her and excited for all of the future Miss Navajos because the position of Miss Navajo is a very unique opportunity for our young Navajo women to step into leadership and to learn about how our government and our people, our community members work together to maintain our sovereignty as a Navajo Nation. So I am very excited to see how she will decide to help our people, and I'm excited for the future Miss Navajos to come.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Shaandiin Parrish is the former Miss Navajo Nation.
Thank you so much.
PARRISH: Thank you. (Non-English language spoken). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.