FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Navajo singer Radmilla Cody has been nominated for her first Grammy. She will likely turn heads at the ceremony Feb. 10 in Los Angeles in her traditional Navajo dress and moccasins. But the former Miss Navajo has never been afraid to stand out in a crowd.
Cody’s grandmother raised her on the Navajo Nation amidst the rust-colored plateaus and sagebrush.
"You have all this land around you," Cody said. "I had to find entertainment. I would go out and herd the sheep and sing to them and sing to the saltbushes and the rocks. I mean everything had life."
It was here where Cody rode horses, carded and spun wool, lived off the land and discovered her voice.
It was during this time she dreamed of becoming Miss Navajo. In 1997 she achieved that goal and became the first biracial woman to hold the title. She went on to pursue her next dream -- a Grammy. But getting to this point has been rough at times.
Growing up half African-American on the reservation, even her relatives called her names.
"My uncles were not too fond of having a biracial child in the family," Cody said. "They would make it known that was how they felt by basically belittling me, demeaning me."
Years later when she ran for Miss Navajo Nation some tribal members protested because of her dark skin. Because of her own struggles with racism, Cody is working with educators to replace a derogatory Navajo word for African-American people with a more respectful one.
"I sat down with a medicine man and asked him about coming up with a new name," Cody said. "‘What name can we come up with so we can empower our children?’ And he said to me in our ceremonies we call them “Naahilii.” And so I sat there and repeated it. And I felt a big difference I felt that empowerment."
Cody also works to empower victims of domestic violence. A survivor of an abusive relationship herself, she speaks out about reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. The current version of the bill would give tribal courts the jurisdiction to deal with non native offenders. She quotes frequently cited statistics, such as one in three Native American women will be raped.
"This is very important because in the end it's about protecting our communities and our women who are sacred and give life," Cody said.
Cody’s own violent relationship almost tore her life apart. About 10 years ago she was arrested and served 18 months in federal prison for her involvement in an international drug-dealing ring led by her abusive boyfriend.
"I knew even while I was doing time I needed to get to a place of balance, a place of harmony, a place of understanding, a place of inner peace before I could go out and help others," Cody said.
It was traditional Navajo music that helped her through that difficult time.
If Radmilla Cody’s name is called on Sunday, she knows she will also have to thank her grandmother Dorothy Cody, who gave her the strength to carry on. She passed away last year. When Radmilla got the call that she was nominated, the young singer immediately looked toward the sky and said: "What are you doing up there? Are you in cahoots with Whitney Houston?"
After the Grammys it’s on to her next dream: getting her Master’s degree in sociology and putting a new spin on traditional Navajo music, maybe even adding African drums.
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