Having done our tourist duty – the Canyon is very grand indeed – we return to Flagstaff where I’ve arranged to meet Navajo singer Radmilla Cody at Flagstaff’s Greyhound Station. When the Hyundai pulls up a slim, golden skinned young woman is waiting. ‘Miss Cody?’ She smiles, shakes hands, suggests we go for lunch. Radmilla takes us into a stylish café and is recognised by several people. ‘Are you famous, Rad?’ ‘People tend to know of me, sure, but I wouldn’t say they were particularly interested in my music. Flagstaff’s a conservative town and I have three strikes against me. Firstly, I’m a felon. Secondly I’m a woman. Third strike, I’m Native and black.’
Brief resume: born of a teenage Navajo mother and African American father, Radmilla Cody was raised on the Navajo Nation Reservation by her grandmother, Dorothy Cody, initially speaking only Dine (as the Navajo call themselves – Navajo is a Pueblo Indian term bestowed on these people when they settled the South West half millennia ago – and their language). Across two albums recorded for Phoenix Native music specialists Canyon Records she’s marked herself out as a distinctive Native voice. Radmilla’s 2001 Canyon debut Seeds Of Life found her interpreting tribal chant songs. The simplicity of the music is its key, just voice and hand drum. There’s no attempt to dress up or synthesise the material, instead she simply sing-chants songs steeped in Dine tradition. At the time of recording Seeds Of Life Cody was still glowing from winning Miss Navajo Nation 1998. Then, as she bluntly says, ‘I had a run in with the law’ so spent almost two years incarcerated. Released, she returned to recording, issuing 2005’s Spirit Of A Woman. Again, she sings in Dine (pronounced ‘Din-eh’, it means “the people”) and employs traditional rhythms. This time there’s also acoustic guitar and English lyrics employed, shifting her closer to Buffy Sainte Marie-style Native folk singer.
Radmilla describes a childhood spent herding sheep on foot and horseback, carding and spinning wool, searching late into the night with grandmother for lost sheep and lambs. Sounds idyllic. Not so, says Radmilla. ‘’Things weren’t easy. My Mom was eighteen when I was born and was away living her life while my dad wasn’t ‘round at all. Being mixed race I attracted a lot of racial abuse. Kids were always teasing me about it; black kids doing war whoops and saying all Indians were drunk. Indian kids calling me “nigger”. I never took sides when people were rude; I stood up for Navajos and for African Americans. I’m not bitter about this. It hurt, yes, but I’ve put all these incidents behind me. My grandmother has been a great teacher. She raised me planting corn, shearing sheep, gathering water from the well. Living this life you take on tasks and responsibilities which teach you life lessons urban existence can’t.’
These lessons served Cody well: she entered the 1998 Miss Navajo Nation contest – the winner must exemplify the essence and characters of the Navajo deities First Woman, White Shell Woman and Changing Woman – and won. Where most beauty contests involve wearing a swim suit and uttering baubles about wanting to work with children, Miss Navajo Nation is judged on the entrants’ excellence in traditional technologies: butchering sheep, filleting the mutton, wrapping achee, carding and spinning, making tortillas, contemporary public speaking, traditional public speaking, fluency in English and Navajo. And appearance, attitude, bearing and conduct. But no swimsuits. ‘I learnt a lot from my year. When I won the title I knew how to weave and speak Dine and shear and butcher sheep but once I held the title and I was attending all these traditional ceremonies I began learning a lot more from our elders.’ Radmilla’s a natural beauty – skin glowing, eyes smiling – and recalling her reign she blushes with pride. Modelling and media attention and the Canyon recording deal followed the title yet Radmilla’s boyfriend, who she met whilst a student in Phoenix, made life difficult: running a drug ring across the South West, he employed savage violence to ensure clients, competitors and Radmilla did as he ordered. When the law caught up with him they also arrested Radmilla: she pleaded guilty to wiring him money knowing it would be used for illegal activities, so served a 21-month sentence. As Miss Navajo Nation Radmilla had visited Rez schools to warn children against drug and alcohol abuse; her trial and incarceration provoking condemnation.
‘There was an element of hysteria in the local media. The Gallup Independent tried to associate me with murders and all other kind of things I had no knowledge of. Even recently I played a Rez concert someone tried to stop ‘cos I’m supposedly this bad-ass ex-con. I apologise for the bad things I’ve done but it’s time to stop judging me by past mistakes. Personally, what hurt the most was disappointing the children I’d been working with. Yet kids are forgiving and my mom and my grandmother really supported me and Canyon stood by me. That helped me get through the sentence.’
What provided the attraction to the gangster life?
‘I was madly in love with this guy. Mad in the sense of sick: he employed violence to ensure I stayed with him. I had a pistol forced in my mouth. Got slapped upside my head with a pistol. Beaten black and blue. I didn’t know how to escape. I’ve since learnt that battered women often form a psychological dependence upon their partner even though they are risking their lives by staying with him.’
READ THE COMPLETE RADMILLA INTERVIEW IN MORE MILES THAN MONEY
Find out more about Radmilla Cody at http://www.radmillacody.net/