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No swimsuit competition for Miss Indian World

No evening gowns, either, but maybe some archery at the 30th annual contest to find the Native American woman who best represents her culture at the world’s biggest powwow

New Mexico
Indigenous Peoples
Indian Country

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Back in the Native village of Napaimute in southwest Alaska, Megan Leary drives a snowmobile, can fix the engine on a boat, and carries a bolt-action .243 Winchester rifle when moose hunting.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, she’s a potential pageant queen.

The 23-year-old Leary had arrived in New Mexico last week for the 30th annual Miss Indian World pageant, along with 23 other contestants representing tribes in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. 

Megan Leary at the Miss Indian World competition last week. She currently holds the title of Miss World Eskimo Indian Olympics.
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The pageant unfolds against the backdrop of the Gathering of Nations Powwow, which since its start 31 years ago has become the biggest powwow in the world, bringing in an estimated 112,000 people each year and up to $21 million in economic impact to the area.

Leary, who is so proficient with that Winchester that her father no longer bothers to hunt moose if she’s around, already holds one title: Miss World Eskimo Indian Olympics. But she liked the idea of representing Alaska’s tribes in a national setting.

“It’s a cultural pageant,” she said. “It’s not about beauty, it’s not about your regalia, it’s about what you know about your culture, what you know about your traditions and your people and your history. It really pulls something out of you that you didn’t know that you had.”

Since the pageant’s inception in 1984, indigenous women have traveled to Albuquerque to compete for the title of Miss Indian World. While the event has roots in such mainstream pageants as Miss America, Miss Indian World deviates by promoting a competing concept of beauty. In place of swimsuits, the occasion endorses cultural competency. Instead of eveningwear, language proficiency.

The result: an exotic Native American spectacle in the form of a beauty pageant and marketed as such by event organizers, while at the same time providing a cultural space for indigenous women to challenges stereotypical notions of the “Indian maiden” or the disappearing Indian.

Danielle Ta’Sheena Finn pulls an arrow from the quiver on her back and sets the projectile in her bow.

“There was a time when the Lakota Oyate, the Lakota people, depended on wakinyan, the arrow, and itazipa, the bow, for everyday survival,” said Finn as she drew back the bowstring and loosed the arrow across the stage to its target.

The Miss Indian World talent competition was well underway, and Finn was onstage, armed, and the crowd loved it.

Danielle Ta’Sheena Finn represented the Standing Rock Sioux tribe from Bismarck, North Dakota, and during the talent competition demonstrated the history and performance of archery of the Sioux people.
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“Along with hunting, the bow and arrow was used for protection and in warfare, and although the men were the primary providers and fighters for the tiošpaye, for the family or camp, there were several women warriors, and these women warriors went alongside the men and fought for the people if need be,” yelled Finn as she loosed another arrow.

The auditorium was full, almost all Native, and the audience cheered every time an arrow hit its target with a loud THUNK! They cheered with every traditional story told by the competitors. They applauded after songs were sung, and whistled after each cultural presentation — from doll making to skin sewing. Besides a short dance competition, the talent portion is the only thing audiences get to see of the Miss Indian World pageant, as the rest is conducted behind closed doors.

“The Miss America pageant that started in the 1920s really starts as a nationalist impulse to promote a particular notion of the nation,” said Wendy Kozol. “The feminine ideals of the nation and the notions of whiteness, gender privilege and, really, a particular notion of feminine beauty too.”

Kozol is a professor of comparative American studies at Oberlin College and author of the paper “Miss Indian America: Regulatory Gazes and the Politics of Affiliation.” According to her, since the first part of the 20th century different immigrant and ethnic groups in the U.S. have celebrated their communities through various festivals, as well as adopting the idea of a pageant queen.

Miranda Tonantzin, a member of the Chichimeca/Mexica Nation, during the dance competition on April 25 at the Miss Indian World competition.
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“They pick up some of the same ideals about feminine beauty and certain very narrow notions of beauty often, but the pageantry often shifts into different expectations,” said Kozol. “In native pageantry and some ethnic communities that do pageants, the talent show is really to draw on the cultural traditions of that community.”

Contestants come from all over the country. They have different traditions, speak different languages and have very different cultures, making the competition difficult to judge on a universal scale.

“The things that are universal are how much do they know about their native traditions and their native story,” said Larryl Lynch, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, owner of Albuquerque the Magazine and a judge for the competition. “You can sort of tell, too, that some of the girls have really put effort into the pageant for that night and that performance, but on some of those you can tell they just live it. You can tell they’ve been doing whatever they’ve been doing for a long time.”

An estimated 25 judges participate in the Miss Indian World competition, but their names are withheld from the press, as well as their judging criteria and many of the actual events competitors get scored on, such as a personal essay or interview.

“You’re looking for a young woman who personifies everything about her tribe, her culture, her language, her region, her family, her ancestors,” said Lynch.

Chelsea Tailfeathers wore a blue jingle dress, two eagle plumes and red lipstick. Taylor Thomas carried an eagle-feather fan, a dress adorned with elks’ teeth that made clack-clack sounds when shook, and a pair of moccasins with orange and red flowers beaded on them. Miranda Tonantzin wore a brightly sequined and beaded shawl in red, white, yellow, blue and black, crowned by a headdress of feathers gathered from brightly colored tropical birds.

All smiled and showed off their beauty-queen wave as they circled the powwow ground, otherwise known as the floor of the University of New Mexico’s basketball stadium, referred to locally as “the Pit.”

Each year thousands converge on Albuquerque at the Gathering of Nations powwow, to either watch or partake in the spectacle of the dance contests, where tribal members compete in categories with titles like men’s Northern Traditional, women’s Fancy Shawl or teen boys’ Grass Dance. All categories come with cash prizes for those with the skills to win.

The nonprofit Gathering of Nations Limited puts on the powwow and Miss Indian World competition each year. However, spokespeople for the event could not confirm that anyone with the organization was tribally affiliated or how revenues were used to “promote and highlight American Indian culture and traditions” or “promote positive lifestyles for Native Americans” as described as the group’s purpose in its IRS tax forms.

Still, each year, more people come to Gathering, both those curious to see Native culture and the Indian Country community itself. Friendships are reaffirmed with hugs and jokes. Families travel together to support one another and for a quick vacation. Academics, thinkers and writers from Native communities descend to experience the event and weigh in with support or deride the whole spectacle, and for one weekend the single Native scene gets a lot bigger. 

Each night at Gathering, all dancers, in full regalia, come out for Grand Entry. With over 3,000 dancers coming together, the floor of the basketball arena quickly turns into a sea of feathers, face paint, jingle dresses, beads, glitter, bells, buckskin, bustles, braids and black hair. As the largest powwow in the world, it can be both beautiful and overwhelming, and on Saturday, directly after Grand Entry, Miss Indian World 2013–2014 passed her crown.

“We’d like to say congratulations to each one of these young ladies, they all did a wonderful job,” yelled an announcer. “They’re beautiful, intelligent, and they represent their people well. Let’s give them a great round of applause, all the contestants for Miss Indian World.”

Taylor Thomas, center, holding a bouquet and her trophy, is the newly crowned Miss Indian World. To her left, first runner-up Megan Leary.
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The audience cheered, and the crowning began.

Second runner-up: Danielle Ta’Sheena Finn, representing the Standing Rock Sioux.

First runner-up: Megan Leary from the Native village of Napaimute.

The new Miss Indian World: Taylor Thomas of the Shoshone-Bannock.

Then contestants were paraded around the arena one more time, and whisked away.

“I came to spread awareness,” said Miranda Tonantzin, a member of the Chichimeca/Mexica Nation. “[I want] people that are representing other indigenous groups from different parts of America to run. It’s for indigenous people, so anyone can apply.”

Miss Indian World has yet to crown an indigenous woman from south of the U.S. border or from any other country, for that matter.

The 10-year-old sister of Thomas was still starstruck as she waited for her newly crowned sibling to fill out paperwork to begin her reign.

“She’s the first to win this in our tribe,” said Myke Moore, who said that she wants to run for the position her sister holds herself someday. “Our grandpa, he’s all, like, really excited for her, and I want him to be excited for me.”