WINDOW ROCK, Arizona (Reuters Life!) - It's not your run-of-the-mill beauty contest, and not for the faint of heart.
But then the "Miss Navajo Nation" contest is not about America's next supermodel, or her aspirations to end world hunger.
"Miss America doesn't have to butcher a sheep to win. Our girls do," said Dinah Wauneka, director of the recently completed 2010-2011 Miss Navajo Nation competition. They (Miss America, Miss Universe) wear bathing suits, we don't."
The competition for this year's nine Navajo contestants, ranging in age from 19 to 25, was a celebration of the largely outdoor and agricultural-based lifestyle of the most populous tribe of Native Americans on the largest reservation in the country. The competitors built fires, cooked fry bread and slaughtered and butchered livestock.
The young women also showcased themselves in more conventional pageant-like events, such as a modern evening-gown competition and a talent contest.
Although several contestants gave decidedly contemporary performances -- one sang and danced to Michael Jackson's "Beat It" -- others flaunted a knack for more traditional pursuits. Notable presentations included grinding corn, weaving textiles, shearing sheep, spinning wool, and creating a fruit bouquet.
All the contestants were expected to speak the Navajo language fluently and demonstrate a firm grasp of the history of the Navajo, or Dine people, their culture and philosophies.
"We want to preserve our culture, our language," Wauneka said at the conclusion of the competition earlier this month at the Navajo Nation Fair. "It's very important that we do that."
For the butchering, always a crowd pleaser, the nine contestants were divided into three teams, each woman wearing a full-length apron to keep blood from spattering her carefully coordinated attire of moccasins, velvet or cotton skirt and matching blouse,
The slaughtering was conducted in front of scores of spectators who cheered as the sheep's throat was cut.
Wauneka said the sheep slaughter, aside from being a practical skill, was a symbolic reminder of the Navajo's "Long Walk" in the mid-1860s, when thousands were forced to trudge 300 miles on foot from Fort Defiance, just north of Window Rock, to Fort Sumner in east central New Mexico.
After the Navajo were allowed to return to their homelands in the late 1860s, the U.S. government gave each family several head of sheep and other livestock.
In addition to their role in preserving the past, recent title holders have been drawn to addressing contemporary social ills that have long-plagued the Navajo.
Those include unemployment rates of 50 percent or more, a lack of modern infrastructure and numerous health problems, such as a diabetes rate nearly triple that among America's non-Indian populations.
Outgoing Miss Navajo Nation Tashina Nelson of Round Rock, Arizona, used her title to focus on mental-health issues facing many young people on the reservation.
"Depression and suicide are growing problems," Nelson said. "And addressing it was very difficult, especially at first, because death is a very taboo subject ... here."
Nelson, 20, a nursing student at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, said despite initial resistance by some, she managed to overcome such taboos by explaining her view that the loss of a young Navajo life means a lost opportunity to preserve tradition.
"If I can teach somebody how to recognize the signs of serious depression and possible suicide, if I could save one life, that helps save our culture and traditions," she said.
To that end, Nelson teamed up with various medical facilities in Arizona in creating mental-health awareness and assistance programs in schools around the reservation.
Winifred Bessie Jumbo, 22, the newly chosen Miss Navajo Nation for 2011, said persuading young Navajo to continue their education will be the main emphasis of her reign.
"I would like to encourage more Navajo students to enroll and attend college, but to always remember our great Navajo Nation and Navajo language, culture and philosophy," said Jumbo, a recent graduate of the Ivy League's Brown University.
The pageant and the duties of Miss Navajo have come a long way since the first competition was held in 1952.
"The girls were just lined up in a rodeo arena, and a cowboy passed a hat of over each of the contestants," Wauneka said. "Whoever got the most applause was the winner."
Ida Gail Organick, 75, recalled that as Miss Navajo Nation in 1953, her official duties were to "smile and be beautiful."
Not all the young women at this year's Navajo fair were as caught up in traditional roles as the pageant contestants.
In the strip-mall shopping center a few hundred feet from the giant tent where Miss Navajo Nation was being crowned, the 13 "Women of the Navajo" featured on a 2011 calendar were signing autographs and schmoozing with admirers.
Few if any spoke Navajo -- it took three of them to help Miss July write the traditional Navajo greeting -- and none appeared stout enough to put down a sheep bare-handed.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Jerry Norton