Enjoy the spirit of the Navajo people at the premier annual event billed as “The Largest American Indian Fair in North America.”
Laughter is in the air, and people smile and exchange warm hellos and ya’at’eehs. This is Navajo Nation and its biggest celebration of the year: the Navajo Nation Fair.
As I enter the fairgrounds in Window Rock, Arizona, it feels like a state fair, one that’s rich with Navajo culture. Crowds of Native American fairgoers in all kinds of attire — some in traditional regalia, others in Westernwear, many sporting fantastic silver and turquoise jewelry — are out to enjoy the annual gathering.
I walk past the tempting smells of fry bread and make my way to the agricultural pavilion. When I first walk in, it seems like the land of giant produce: Row after row displays corn, huge pumpkins, mutant-looking squash, beans, chiles, and more. Red, white, and blue ribbons are placed on winning traditional Native produce. More ribbons are being handed out nearby, where children have been getting their prized sheep and pigs ready to show. Cute factor: 10-plus.
There’s so much to take in, so much to do and see, but as a New Yorker, I’m naturally drawn to the fashion show. Showcasing everything from traditional clothing to unique modern adaptations, it’s a wonderful merging of styles. One of my favorites is a classic sheath dress adorned with Native design embellishments that would be a hit at a chic event back home in New York.
In other parts of the pavilion, artisans sell all kinds of Navajo jewelry, clothing, and art. The pottery stops me in my tracks, and a black-on-white bowl practically calls my name. Thinking of attempting to pack it for my flight home, I force myself to walk away. But, of course, I don’t escape the pavilion empty-handed. Much more packable: a contemporary lapis and silver-beaded necklace for me, and for my husband, a silver cross and leather bracelet by the same designer (who, by the way, sells to the Amangiri Resort in Utah). Beautiful pieces and fairly priced.
Later I stop in at a couple of competitive events for the Miss Navajo Nation contest. This is a beauty pageant like no other. Based on the idea of inner beauty and knowledge of traditional skills — butchery, weaving, the Diné language, and much more — the competition shows serious dedication among the competitors. Most of the contestants are in their early to mid-20s; they cannot be married or have children (they also must be at least 18). They conduct business interviews and present a platform of how they would encourage holistic health, promote the Diné language and songs, advocate for victims of domestic violence, and bring awareness to the crisis of murdered Indigenous women. I observe many of them taking notes and studying.
Over at the powwow grounds, family members dance in their finest regalia. The participants move in rhythm around the hot, dusty arena to the beat of an elder drummer as they’re judged. The mesmerizing display strikes me not just for its beauty, intricacy, and athleticism but also for the sight of children and elders participating together in the traditional dance contest.
Saturday morning is the day of the big parade. I’m up at dawn to secure a coveted parking spot before the roads close. Families and their pets line the main street to watch floats pass by. Children race to scoop up candy tossed into the crowd from handcrafted themed floats filled with smiling and waving riders young and old. Current and former pageant queens prove popular with the young girls who want selfies with them. The boys are more interested in the cowboys on horseback and an old Wells Fargo stagecoach. All along the parade route, food stalls serve up mutton stew, tacos, fries, and typical fair food.
On day two, after a long morning of photographing, I can no longer resist the smell and sneak in a tasty Navajo taco for lunch. Rarely do I eat fried food, but this hot circle of fresh fry bread topped with beef, beans, gooey cheese, and tomatoes is a decadent treat, and I don’t feel one bit guilty eating it.
Afterward, I head for the hot, dusty rodeo, where the events are just getting started. The 4-H winners parade their prized ducks, rabbits, calves, and sheep through the arena, enjoying the applause of the crowd. Two cowgirls ride in at full gallop holding an American flag and the flag of the Navajo Nation. I’m due to fly out too early to catch the wild horse exhibition, so that will have to wait for a return trip.
Walking back to my car from the fairgrounds, I’m as maxed-out as my camera’s memory cards — filled with unforgettable images and gratitude to the Navajo Nation community for being so welcoming and creating memories I’ll treasure.
The 2019 Navajo Nation Fair takes place September 2 – 8 at the Navajo Nation Fairground in Window Rock, Arizona. Schedules aren’t written in stone, and times can and do change. For more information, visit navajopeople.org. See more of Julien McRoberts’ photography at julienmcroberts.com.
Photography: (All Images) Julien McRoberts
From the August/September 2019 issue