Nineteen-year-old April Yazza wants to spend the next 12 months encouraging Native women to take care of their joints.
Yazza, who was named Miss Native American USA on August 1, said she grew up watching women sew, cook and clean. When she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis seven months ago, Yazza decided more people needed to know about the disease.
“As Native people, sometimes we use our hands a lot,” she said. “In many Native households, women are very hands-on with cooking and sewing. So things like carpal tunnel or arthritis, those are probably present.”
Yazza, who is Navajo and Zuni, competed against eight other young women during the third annual Miss Native American USA pageant, held in Tempe, Arizona. She demonstrated traditional knowledge and contemporary skills in front of an audience of about 300 people.
That combination was exactly what judges were looking for, said Tashina Atine, director and founder of Miss Native American USA. Contestants participated in four categories: backstage interview, evening wear, traditional or contemporary talent, and impromptu question on-stage while dressed in traditional wear.
Yazza, the youngest contestant yet to earn the Miss Native American USA title, had the personality and confidence of a leader in Indian country, Atine said.
“Our judges are looking for someone who is responsible, someone who is dedicated, someone who can serve as a role model and demonstrate overall health and wellness in Indian country,” she said. “They have to be an advocate for the youth and other Native American women. Most of all, they have to want to give back to the community.”
Yazza spent the first six years of her life in Mentmore, New Mexico, a small community near Gallup. She graduated from West Mesa High School in Albuquerque in 2013, and began studying graphic design at Fort Lewis College, in Durango, Colorado, last fall.
Just as she was settling in at college, she discovered stiffness in her joints. Chalking it up to nerves, she ignored the symptoms until December when she could no longer grip her clothes as she got dressed. During the winter break, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic, inflammatory disease of the joints.
“That was a big awakening for me,” Yazza said. “Before that, I didn’t exercise, didn’t watch what I ate. I realized I had to make changes, and now I really want to promote that among Native people.”
Although arthritis is not caused by inactivity or poor diet, exercise and good nutrition can help treat it. Most people with rheumatoid arthritis are treated for the disease throughout their lives. Yazza wants to encourage people with joint pain or stiffness to seek medical help. She hopes to use her role as Miss Native American USA to promote awareness.
Arthritis didn’t stop Yazza from showing off Native skills during the pageant. Racing against a four-minute time limit in the talent competition, Yazza described the significance of the Navajo cradleboard then wrapped a child into the board while singing traditional songs. The demonstration earned her “outstanding talent,” she said.
“I have 11 nieces and nephews, and each has been through the Navajo cradleboard,” she said. “There were a couple of pregnant women in the audience, so they really enjoyed that.”
Yazza tapped into her Zuni heritage for the traditional wear competition, sporting a dress her family helped make. She also excelled during the interview and impromptu question competitions—skills she said she picked up through her education and professional experience.
“I think the pageant says a lot about what it means to be Native,” she said. “As Native Americans, we live in two worlds. We have our professional lives, but we also need to know our culture.”
Yazza will serve as Miss Native American USA for the next year. Her first attendant is Nicole Johnny, of Crystal, New Mexico, and her second attendant is Lynnelle Washburn, of Shiprock, New Mexico.
The Miss Native American USA pageant is open to Native women ages 18-27 who live anywhere in the United States. Contestants must be unmarried, childless and have at least a quarter Native American blood.