'My hands were shaking'
Huge crowd turns out for Miss Navajo sheep butchering contest
By Noel Lyn Smith
WINDOW ROCK, Sept. 9, 2010
(Navajo Times - Leigh T. Jimmie)
Their knives, hammers, and bowls lay at the ready. Each had put an apron over her traditional dress and wrapped plastic around her moccasins to protect them from the blood.
This year's contestants are Winifred Bessie Jumbo of Two Grey Hills, N.M.; Crystalyne Curley of Black Mountain, Ariz.; Tanya Lister of Shiprock; Lynnelle Washburn of Shiprock; Ginger Rae Nez of Tselani, Ariz.; Aretha Jake of Pine Hill, N.M.; Charlene Goodluck of Shiprock; Mikayla Dan of Oaksprings, N.M.; and Ambra Sue Nez of Leupp, Ariz.
Sheep butchering became a required category in the pageant in 1995, when the preservation of traditional culture gained emphasis.
Sheep butchering is unique to the competition and draws more spectators than any event aside from the coronation of the new Miss Navajo.
This year's audience did not disappoint. Every available seat was taken and some people had to sit on the ground or squeeze into any available space.
Divided into teams
The nine hopefuls were divided into groups of three to butcher a sheep. They drew numbers to determine which portion of the sheep would be their responsibility.
Curley, Goodluck and Ambra Sue Nez were the first team to carry in a sheep from the trailer parked next to the pavilion.
With a steady hand, Goodluck cut into the sheep's neck as the audience broke into cheers and applause.
The next group to begin butchering was Jumbo, Lister and Washburn, followed by Dan, Jake and Ginger Rae Nez.
Lister was quick but careful at removing the skin but when it came to breaking off the sheep's front hoof, she spent time moving it back and forth at the joint until it separated naturally from the leg.
Standing across from Lister was Jumbo, who also struggled to detach the hoof and finally started tapping the joint with the back of her knife to hasten the process.
The tapping continued until Jumbo succeeded.
The women worked together to skin the carcass, raising it to a hanging position as they worked the fleece loose from the belly around to the spine.
Curley, Goodluck and Nez were first to hang up their sheep as the audience clapped and cheered. After tying it securely, they continued to remove the skin from the sheep's back. Once that was removed, Goodluck laid the hide flat on the ground, wet side up.
Then she went to work removing the arms, keeping them connected by the shoulder muscle as is the Navajo custom (that way they can be easily hung over a line to cure). After that was done she held up the arms to show the audience, which again cheered with approval.
Meanwhile Jumbo, Lister and Washburn removed their sheep's head and then raised it into the air to start the meat cutting process.
"Come on girls, you can do it," someone from the audience shouted to the third team, Dan, Jake and Nez.
Their first attempt to lift their sheep to a hanging position failed when it dropped to the ground, but the second attempt was successful.
Former misses give encouragement
Throughout the competition, the contestants received encouraging words from former Miss Navajos in attendance, including Dolly Manson, Audra Etsitty Platero, Sevaleah Begay Tsosie, Josephine Tracey, Marla Billey, Jannalee Atcitty and Jocelyn Billy. Each took the microphone to greet the audience and to offer advice.
"I know how hard it is and it is nerve wracking but you can do it," said Tracey, Miss Navajo Nation 1996-97.
Also given the opportunity to speak was Miss Teen Navajo Allie Joe.
"I hope to be standing in your shoes one day," Joe said before talking about her dreams to run for Miss Navajo Nation when she turns 18.
At times it was difficult to keep track of the action as contestants moved around the sheep. All the commotion did not faze Washburn, who was cleaning the small intestines while her teammates continued separating the meat.
As the hour-long competition drew closer to the finish, some contestants paused to drink water while others began cleaning the organs.
With three minutes remaining, Dan, Jake and Nez were still removing the inner organs while Curley, Goodluck and Nez were cleaning the small intestines and Jumbo, Lister and Washburn were cutting meat and cleaning organs.
"Stop what you are doing, we are done," said master of ceremonies Paul Jones.
"Good job, ladies," someone from the audience shouted.
With the butchering over, the competition moved into the question-and-answer session.
Contestants were asked why the gall bladder is removed and what is done to the horns before cooking the head, in addition to identifying parts of the sheep.
Last year, Miss Navajo Tashina Nelson was in their shoes.
"I remember my hands were shaking as I was cutting the throat," Nelson said. "I had to take a deep breath. Then I finally slit the throat and from there it came natural."
Watching the butchering competition was both exciting and bittersweet for Nelson, who will pass on her crown Saturday night.
She took time before the contest to tell the nine women to be strong and to try their best.
As she looked on, Nelson said she remembered being asked to identify the ribs in Navajo, which caused her some nervousness.
"You have to calm yourself and keep telling yourself that the crowd isn't here and focus on yourself," she said.
Besides keeping calm, practice also helps.
That was the case for Curley, who spent a year practicing for the butchering contest.
"The most important thing that I was looking forward to was the butchering because I knew that was the most challenging," she said afterward.
Curley, 24, was surprised that her team was the only one to finish butchering, but another highlight was learning new techniques from her teammates.
Despite preparation, many contestants cannot help feeling uneasy especially when it feels like the entire world is watching.
"I was nervous because I definitely was not expecting this big of a crowd," Jumbo said.