From football and basketball, to winning contests and pageants, 10-year-old Nizhoni Ward, Navajo, has a lot going on. Wowing judges since she was only 8 months old, she has already had her share of success. Her reign as the 2013-2014 American Indian Center Junior Miss Indian Chicago was recently replaced by her new title as the 2015-2016 Illinois Royalty Queen in the Pre-Teen 10-12-year-old division, where she also received The People’s Choice award.
Nizhoni’s most recent title was won through her first non-Native pageant. LeAnn Hascon, Nizhoni’s mother told ICTMN. “We went on Saturday not knowing what we were getting ourselves into.”
Questions were asked by a panel of judges while the other contestants watched. “Nizhoni answered really well,” her mother said. “They asked her what it is like living here in Illinois versus Arizona, because she wrote on her application that she feels more free on the reservation. They also asked about her turquoise jewelry, and her name. That was it for the first round.”
Courtesy LeAnn Hascon
Nizhoni Ward graces the cover of a local newspaper while returning home from the pow wows.
For the athletic round, the dainty ten-year-old wore her football jersey, cleats, and her hair in a Navajo bun. “The requirements were different than the Native pageants,” Hascon said. “I usually make her outfits with Native patterns, but here they had to have an evening gown. A lot of the kids were wearing dress shoes, but Nizhoni wanted to wear her moccasins. While we were getting dressed in the back, the other girls came up to talk to her. They were intrigued. They never saw a Native girl at the pageants before.”
Nizhoni’s father, James Ward reserves bragging rights about his daughter, “The spotlight is always on her, even in the grocery store. Wherever we go, she knows somebody.”
That spotlight also seemed to have caught the eye of filmmaker Marcel Jolliff, a recent film school graduate of Chicago’s Columbia College. Jolliff’s goal is to make inspirational and motivational videos for youth in inner cities. While filming a documentary on Chicago Smoke Dancer Soleil Strickland (who won third place in the Gathering of Nations Smoke Dance Competition), Jolliff met her little tag along, Nizhoni.
“She was doing so much stuff, and I thought her story needs to be told,” Jolliff said. “Then I met Nizhoni through Soleil, and I was like, oh my gosh, she is like a little Soleil! Nizhoni not only touches hearts, she inspires young and old. My goals are to make this world better and making a documentary about her came to mind as soon as I met her,” he said.
During the last round of the Chicago competition, Nizhoni wore an evening gown. While the other girls wore dress shoes, Nizhoni had other ideas. As her mother wrapped her moccasins and attached the squash blossoms, Nizhoni said, "I wish my family from Arizona was here and great masani (grandmother) Nez Bancroft could see me."
Courtesy LeAnn Hascon
LeAnn Hascon makes all of her daughter, Nizhoni Ward's outfits.
At home in Arizona, Nizhoni and her sister Lilliana, attend pow wows and maintain their traditions. LeAnn Hascon, Nizhoni’s mother, believed she won last year's AIC title because she was the only girl in the Chicago pageant who introduced herself in her language. “She has been introducing herself fluently in her language since she was three years old, “ Hascon said. Nizhoni also loves to jingle dance. She and her sister are looking forward to spending the summer with their grandmother in Tuba City, Arizona. They will also attend the Indian Summer Festival in Wisconsin, where Hascon and Nizhoni headline as clothing designers. Nizhoni has been designing clothing since she was five years old.
Hascon would like to acknowledge Nizhoni’s clans of the Zuni Edgewater (maternal clan), Caucasian (paternal clan), Start of the Red Streak People (maternal grandfather), and Oklahoma Choctaw (paternal grandfather).