When Miss Hozhoni is crowned Saturday, it will mark her first day as a leader and a cultural ambassador.
Over the last three weeks, the four contestants spent hours demonstrating knowledge of their tribes’ culture, explaining traditional practices and foods and answering tough questions about what they would bring to the highly visible role.
The annual pageant is organized and hosted by the previous year’s royalty. It culminates at the Hozhoni Days Powwow, organized by Wanbli Ota, a club that promotes cultural diversity on the Fort Lewis College campus, now in its 52nd year. The pageant attracted contestants who are active in their communities, lead or founded clubs on campus and want to represent the Fort Lewis Native American community.
“I have seen the change that they can make,” said Ferrari Arviso of pageant royalty.
For example, Monica Maes, a Southern Ute, Jicarilla Apache and Chicana contestant, wants to bring together the Native American and Latino students on the Fort Lewis College campus through events.
She thinks the Native American Center and El Centro de Muchos Colores, a group that represents Hispanic students, could work together more, especially for those students who are both Hispanic and Native.
“One is not more important than the other,” she said of the cultural identities.
To vet the contestants, three panels of judges grilled the students – one panel for each of the three events.
In the opening interviews, the contestants were presented with potential scenarios they could face, including what they would do if an elementary school teacher asked them to give a presentation on Thanksgiving.
“I would like to break that stereotype of pilgrims and Indians,” Arviso, a Navajo contestant, told the judges. But she said she would work with the teacher on an appropriate presentation.
The students also were asked to address the high rates of suicide and violence against women in Native American communities.
A contestant from the Winnebago and Omaha tribes in Nebraska, Maya St. Cyr told judges she knew Native American women who had gone missing and they are in more danger than women from other backgrounds.
“Because of colonization, they are silenced,” St. Cyr said.
The tribes have limited jurisdiction and cases must be passed along to the federal government, but oftentimes, cases are lost in transition and not prosecuted.
“A lot of people don’t even want to talk about it because they know that nothing is going to happen to the perpetrator,” she said.
The judges asked Maes to explain why the use of Native American headdresses in fashion and mascots such as the Washington Redskins are harmful.
“It’s discouraging to our youth. ... It’s devaluing to them as human beings,” Maes said.
In two practical portions of the contest, the students brought their traditional and contemporary skills – such as weaving, roping, beading and cooking – to the stage.
St. Cyr performed the Lord’s Prayer in Omaha – also known as Umonhon – sign language. Sign language was used for inter-tribe communication, but it is an uncommon skill now, she explained.
She is not fluent in sign, but she has passed along the Lord’s Prayer to others. “There is only a handful of us that learn,” she said.
Valerie Calabaza, who is Navajo and a Santo Domingo Puebloan, learned to inlay turquoise from her grandparents and showed the crowd photos of her award-winning jewelry.
It’s getting harder to make because the mines are running out of the turquoise.
“It’s really hard to get the actual stones,” she said.
Maes grew up in Denver, and her family doesn’t know their traditions, she said. But she recently learned to introduce herself in Jicarilla and the traditional skill of beading.
“I took the initiative to learn about who I was as an indigenous woman,” she said.
When one of the four women is crowned as the next Miss Hozhoni on Saturday, it will be her turn to lead, teach and inspire.
The reigning Miss Hozhoni, Nicole Lovato, co-hosted the Hozhoni Nights radio show on KDUR with her first attendant, spoke to the freshmen at convocation, visited the Montessori school in Ignacio, and encouraged several contestants to compete this year.
The next Miss Hozhoni will be the 37th crowned since 1966, and even for those who don’t win, it is a sisterhood, St. Cyr said.
“The pageant really does kind of bond us together,” Arviso said.