Radmilla Cody panel at the EiteljorgIn February, I shared how I’d planned to follow the upcoming presentations for the Red/Black: Related Through History exhibit at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian & Western Art in Indianapolis. Well, this past Saturday, the joint venture between the Eiteljorg and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian invited Circle City residents to stop in for a lecture and documentary presentation dedicated to Radmilla Cody, Hearing Radmilla.

I remember learning about Radmilla Cody’s coronation as the first Miss Navajo Nation of African-American/Navaho descent in 1997 and the subsequent controversy that followed. I recall reading about the backlash she received at the hands of the very community that raised her, as well as the vocal defense of her right to wear the crown from people who never knew her name before that day.

Cody’s story is a unique, but familiar one and the wonderful documentary directed by Angela Webb is a credit to them both. It also serves as a great gift those who may identify with her struggle. Why? Because the documentary is not just about Cody’s heritage and path to the Miss Navajo Nation crown. It’s also about a young woman’s attempt to define herself in a world where many feel it is their place—no, their right—to do so for her. In many ways, we can all empathize with that journey, regardless of ethnicity, gender, orientation or faith.

I found the documentary inspiring without feeling too cloying or predictable. Even though Hearing Radmilla plays like an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music, it never feels overly dramatic. And trust me, there’s plenty of drama. From Cody’s reconnection with her estranged father to her turbulent relationship with a violent, abusive boyfriend to her time spent in a correctional facility thanks to her boyfriend’s drug trafficking operation, Cody is clearly a woman who’s been places and seen things, and not all of them are pretty.

Cody signing autographs after the presentationBut there are lighter moments in the film. The audience can’t help but chuckle when her uncle affectionately calls her “his chocolate mama” or when images of Navajo girls in the stands at community events begin dancing in a style normally reserved for a family barbecue. It’s true that the documentary gives you a peek into this other world of a reservation-bound Navajo lifestyle, but it also allows you to feel a sense of kinship when faced with attitudes, beliefs and behavior not too different from our own. For better or for worse, much of the reaction to Cody’s most difficult trials were met with statements in the Navajo community that sadly mirror the world beyond the reservation.

Thankfully, Cody doesn’t let that get in the way of rebuilding her life after so much pain and struggle. Today, she has a lucrative singing career, and she tours different schools around the nation speaking out against domestic violence and the dangers of teen dating violence (a growing phenomenon in America’s high schools). She continues to be heavily involved in Sacred Circle: National Resource Center to End Violence Against Native Women as well.

During her lecture following the documentary, Cody shared how she went through a long process of learning to love herself again, despite the knowledge that she’ll probably be in counseling for the rest of her life. But don’t think for a moment that she’s a woman trapped in a neverending cycle of self-pity. No. Cody is actively encouraging a change in behavior within her community and the world around us. She’s even gone so far as to spearhead a change in the use of the Diné word for African American. The word she grew up with as a child was synonymous with the dreadful term “nigger.” So, along with a group of elders and mentors, she began using an old term for Blacks in America that is far more respectful to people of African descent: “Nahi’híí.” (I’m sure I’m not spelling that correctly.) The use of the old-but-new-to-you word is becoming more widespread and accepted by younger generations of Navajo men and women.

Radmilla Cody listening to others sharing their experiencesAlthough Cody’s film concentrates largely on her Native American upbringing in the small community of Leupp, AZ, she never gives anyone the impression that her lack of immersion within the African-American community was a conscious decision. She manages to convey a heartfelt commitment to her African-American cultural heritage, while constantly praising her Navajo grandmother’s fierce devotion to her even before Cody was born. It seems Cody’s grandmother was often confronted with pressure to deny her granddaughter, insisting that she’ll never truly be accepted and how she would never be “one of us.” Her grandmother wouldn’t hear of it. To this day, Cody has a very close relationship with her 96-year-old grandmother who stood by her and taught her everything she knows about the Navajo way of life.

Overall, the event was another reason to applaud the Eiteljorg’s decision to co-produce this amazing exhibit. I was pleasantly surprised to see such a large and diverse crowd in attendance on Saturday. The documentary presentation was standing-room only. I suppose the only down note about the film is that it’s not yet available on DVD. But Angela Webb, whose foresight guided her in reaching out to Cody as a documentary film subject, insists that a DVD release is on the way sometime in 2011.

I can only hope the documentary receives enough attention that a DVD release date arrives soon rather than later. Radmilla Cody’s story is both heartbreaking and heartwarming, but the subject matter is at the same time unique and empathetic. Saturday’s audience happily joined in celebrating the life of this fascinating young woman, and I believe many more would leap at the chance to do so as well.

Hearing Radmilla Trailer from Angela Webb on Vimeo.