Powwow

By Clyde Ellis; Luke Eric Lassiter et al. | Go to book overview

KATHLEEN GLENISTER ROBERTS


8.
Beauty Is Youth:
The Powwow “Princess”

In his book The Rez Road Follies, Anishinaabe Jim Northrup reflects on the multifaceted quality of contemporary Native American powwows and comments on the powwow princess as a dubious “new tradition.” He writes: “First, why a Princess? Isn’t that a concept borrowed from the Europeans, the royalty ranking system that came from their world?…Are we so hard up for traditions that we have to use one of these discarded ideas? Who started the Princess contests anyway? It looks like a dead-end job being a Princess. I never hear of anyone going on to become a Queen.”1

The wry humor of Northrup’s statement is undeniable, yet if we delve more deeply into the symbolic value of the powwow princess, we may come to a different conclusion. This chapter examines the yearlong “life cycle” of a powwow princess, beginning with a contest and ending with a giveaway for a princess at the conclusion of her reign. Both events suggest that the powwow princess is unique. First, the contest discourse – present in the words of both the emcee and the contestants – distinguishes young Indian women as icons of their community, less arbitrary than the sign qualities of beauty queens in mainstream America. Second, the ritual aspect of the giveaway for the outgoing princess lends insight into the power of tradition in powwows as it crosses the boundaries of womanhood and gender. I begin with a discussion of the differences between Native and non-Native “beauty pageants.”

In our small world of Coca-Cola and congeniality contests, it is true that the once-”Western” phenomenon of the beauty pageant has been replicated and assimilated to fit cultures in every corner of the globe, large and small, national and local. In their book Beauty Queens on the Global Stage: Gender, Contests and Power, Colleen Ballerino Cohen, Richard Wilk, and Beverly Stoeltje illustrate that beauty pageants not only exist everywhere but are also powerful instruments of cultural contestation in and of themselves.2 Even when community values do not come into conflict, it is clear that they lie at the heart of all beauty contests and that the young woman chosen as the winner is the

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