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.