Late summer thunderstorms over Shiprock, New Mexico, set the tone for the 101st annual Northern Navajo Nation Fair, the oldest traditional event on the Navajo reservation.
The four-day fair, which began more than a century ago, coincides with the harvest season. This year’s fair runs Oct. 4-7, in downtown Shiprock.
“We’ve been hit a couple of times with thunderstorms,” said Harry Descheene, interim fair director. “The country is getting good and green, animals are getting good and fat, the produce is ready and people are rejoicing. Everyone is gearing up for this fair.”
The fair also runs in tandem with the Ye’ii Bi’ Chei ceremony, a nine-day sacred healing ritual. As carnival rides, rodeos and pageants get under way at the fair, masked dancers and medicine men participate in the Ye’ii Bi’ Chei. Other popular events include foot races, powwows, an Indian market and the crowning of the next Miss Northern Navajo.
More than 100,000 visitors attend the fair every year, with the biggest crowd gathering for the Saturday morning parade, which this year features 400 entries, Descheene said.
“People can expect a grand celebration this year,” he said. “We will have lots of produce, a long parade, good exhibits and a super ceremony.”
The fair offers the best of traditional and contemporary Navajo culture, arts and exhibits, said Russell Begaye, chairman of the fair board.
“The Ye’ii Bi’ Chei is an integral part of the fair,” he said. “It’s also about the harvest. In the old days, the fairgrounds were filled with melons, corn, livestock. People would travel by wagon for two, three or four days to go to the fair, then they slept in their wagons or pitched tents. Shiprock was the only place to go for the fair.”
Roughly 40 years after the advent of the Shiprock fair, the tribe started a similar event in Window Rock, Ariz., and half a dozen other communities followed suit. But the Shiprock fair still draws the biggest crowds, Begaye said. It also sets the tone for Ye’ii Bi’ Chei ceremonies across the reservation.
“If the Shiprock ceremony isn’t done properly, that sets off a chain reaction to all the other ceremonies,” he said. “If Shiprock goes wrong, the chain will break and other ceremonies are less effective.”
The fair draws visitors from across the country, including many from other tribes, Begaye said.
“Overall, this is a cultural event,” he said. “You see a variety of things, from the sacred ceremonies, to powwows, to gourd dances, to social song and dance. It’s a good place to see some of everything.”
The fair in recent years underwent a massive reorganization and a return to a governing board established by Navajo law in 1987. In 2010, accountability issues prompted Shiprock citizens to oust former board members and reorganize with help from the tribe’s executive office.
Many challenges were addressed during last year’s centennial celebration, Descheene said. That fair was the first in recent history to report a profit.
The Office of the President and Vice President is providing financial assistance to the fair. Navajo President Ben Shelly on Sept. 26 signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the fair board and made available a $100,000 line of credit. The memorandum outlined oversight expectations and put the Navajo Nation Museum in charge of finances.
“When I say transparency, I mean we have to make sure all the money is accounted for,” Shelly said in a prepared statement. “We want the fair to run smooth. This is the oldest fair on the Navajo Nation and is a very traditional fair. We need to make sure everything runs smoothly so our people can enjoy this time when we transition into fall.”
Although the fair takes place in Shiprock, it benefits the 19 chapters in the Northern Agency Council, a slice of land spanning the northwest corner of New Mexico and including portions of eastern Arizona and southern Utah. Representatives of each of the 19 chapters sit on the fair board and oversee all operations and personnel.
Begaye, a businessman also serving as a delegate on the Navajo Tribal Council, hopes to see a hefty profit by next year. He also is planning extensive improvements to the dusty fairground.
“If we take a business approach to running the fair, we will generate the revenue we need to significantly improve the fairground,” he said. “If you do it right, we can make money.”
Scroll down for more photos from past and recent Northern Navajo Nation fairs.