Report: Miss Indian World: The Original All-American Girl; Face Paint, Eagle Feathers, Deerskins, Drums and Dancing. Welcome to the World's Biggest Powwow Where 50,000 Native Americans Gather to Celebrate Their Heritage and Crown This Year's Queen

The Mirror (London, England), June 28, 2003 | Go to article overview

Report: Miss Indian World: The Original All-American Girl; Face Paint, Eagle Feathers, Deerskins, Drums and Dancing. Welcome to the World's Biggest Powwow Where 50,000 Native Americans Gather to Celebrate Their Heritage and Crown This Year's Queen


Byline: Graham Ackroyd

In the Kiva Centre, Albuquerque's conference and exhibition hall, drums are booming, men are chanting and 400 dancers - from teenagers to 80- year-old grandmothers and grandfathers dressed in traditional costume - are making their entrance. They dance in file, four abreast, slowly circling the arena, the beat of the drums leading their feet. For two days, 50,000 Native Americans, some who've travelled thousands of miles to be there, will attend The Gathering of Nations, the biggest powwow of the year.

Despite the best efforts of white settlers and the US Cavalry during the 19th century, three million Native Americans survive in the USA and Canada. The 400 tribes left now live on reservations given to them by treaties. They are allowed to move away whenever they wish - a right denied them in the USA until the 20th century. But although some choose to live in cities across the USA and Canada, many stay on the reservations where the land is cheaper and they are among friends.

Wherever they live, their heritage is with them and in recent years Native Americans have been celebrating their culture more vocally with powwows, where tribes meet to dance, sing and trade. The Gathering of Nations, now 20 years old, is held over two days every year in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the highlight is the crowning of the new Miss Indian World.

Melonie Mathews, director of the event, is emphatic it's not a beauty contest. Her father, Derek Mathews, started the powwow and it's very close to Melonie's heart. `After taking over the event nine years ago I consciously moved it away from that,' she explains. `Miss Indian World's role is an ambassadorship. She travels as an envoy between different tribes.'

The contest has none of the strict rules of some pageants. There is no upper age limit (although contestants tend to be in their twenties) and no single-girls-only policy. The only condition is the winner must be free to act as a delegate and representative of Native Americans.

This year, 34 Miss Indian World contestants have travelled from all over North America. They have to compete in a variety of categories and are questioned about their upbringing and their knowledge of Native American history and issues by the judges. They also have to write an essay on an aspect of Indian life.

The day before the powwow starts, the Miss Indian World contestants take part in a presentation of traditional Native American culture. During the afternoon the girls, decked out in their favourite costumes, rehearse. Violet Olnay of the Yakama Nation from Whiteswan, a small town in Washington State, explains hers. She has what she calls `nuckshies' fashioned from otter skins attached over her hair braids. Her dress is deerskin and intricately decorated with beads. Violet made her outfit herself: `Decorating the dress took a whole year.' Her friend Lena Tucker of the Mississippi Choctaw giggles:`My cousin made mine. I'm too lazy!'

That evening 2,000 people pack into the auditorium. There are a few `white eyes' but the crowd are mainly Native Americans. Each girl is introduced by name and tribe and whoops announce the location of her tribal supporters. But not everything goes to plan. Carol Melting Tallow, a Blackfoot from Canada, has trouble with microphone feedback. As she regains her composure the fire alarm goes off, followed by a tannoy announcement that it's a false alarm. Carol struggles on with dignity until the final straw when a baby starts to cry.

Mostly though, the girls make their presentations without interruption. Some talk of the cultural significance of their costumes, others tell tribal legends, some dance and one tells us of how her tribe turns moss into food by slow cooking it for a couple of days. This, apparently, is a delicacy.

The next day is the grand opening in the basketball arena of Albuquerque University - the loudest college arena in the country, handy for amplifying small drums. …

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