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Years Later, Miss Indian America Pageant Winners Reunite

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The women who were crowned Miss Indian America are reuniting this weekend in Sheridan, Wyo. The Native American pageant ran from 1953 to 1984 and attracted contestants from across the country. Originally, the pageant started as a way to combat prejudices against Native Americans.

Wahleah Lujan, of Taos Pueblo in northern New Mexico, who won the title in 1966, was very shy at the time. In one of her appearances right after she was crowned, she told an audience: "The most important thing in my life is the preservation of our ancient pueblo and the Rio Pueblo de Taos."

Forty-seven years later, Lujan is proud that she helped preserve her people's land. The retired elementary school teacher attributes her success, at least in part, to her days as Miss Indian America.

"My greatest concern was to show the world that we have a wonderful culture, not just Taos Pueblo, but all the tribes throughout the United States," says Lujan. "And finally we were being given the spotlight and it was an extremely challenging and at the same time rewarding time for me."

The point of the pageant was to bring Native American people and culture to the rest of America. It was necessary, says historian Gregory Nickerson, because places like Sheridan in the 1950s resembled the Jim Crow-era South.

"There were these signs in Sheridan's downtown businesses that said things like 'No Indians or dogs allowed,' and the folks from the Crow Indian Reservation would come down and try and shop at these businesses and be forced out of the business," says Nickerson.

A group of civic-minded residents were looking for ways to change dynamics in town. They came up with the idea of a pageant for young Native American women. At first, Nickerson says, the focus of their contest was slightly different from that of the Miss America pageant.

"It was more about selecting someone who would have the ability to be a good public relations person," Nickerson says of the early competitions. "There wasn't ... a swimsuit section of the Miss Indian America pageant."

As the pageant announcers instructed the contestants: "Miss Indian America must first of all be dedicated to the cultural well-being of her tribe, she must have a comprehensive knowledge of her people and be dedicated to their advancement. She must have the appearance, personality, and poise to represent her people in the white community."

Winners spent a year traveling around the U.S., speaking about their respective tribes and Native American issues.

The pageant still relied on certain stereotypes. Contestants were asked to wear buckskin, with feathers in their hair, even if that wasn't part of their traditional attire. And for years, the judges were all white.

"It was kind of like they were saying, we know what the definition of a good upstanding Indian woman [is] ... and we should be the ones to choose that," says Nickerson.

Vivian Arviso was Miss Indian America 1960. Her year of service included a stint answering tourists' questions at Disneyland's Indian Village.

"The tourists really needed to be able to ask questions and not just watch Indians dance or do sand painting or do a textile weaving," Arviso says.

Although it might seem offensive now, Arviso considers her work back then important. "I was unknowingly called an activist. And I think that was before the term came up in later decades, but I tried to share what I knew," she says.

Arviso says the whole experience built her confidence. This weekend, she is reuniting with about a dozen other Miss Indian America winners. They each plan to share what they've achieved in the years since they were crowned in Sheridan, Wyo.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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