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Indian women enliven Miss America pageant

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URBANA, Ill. ? For the once lily-white Miss America pageant, this is the year of the First Americans.

After disappointments for tribally enrolled contenders, the winner of the two-horned tiara Miss Illinois Erika Harold herself turned out to claim American Indian heritage. The mother of the multi-racial Harold, Donna Tanner-Harold, traces her ancestry both to black ex-slaves and to full-blood Choctaw and Cherokee great-great grandparents.

Robert A. Harold, father of Erika, told Indian Country Today that his wife had tried to learn her native genealogy from her family in Kentucky but had been frustrated by the lack of records. "She was asking her grandmother about it," he said, "but she didn't get any details."

In spite of the murky record, the new Miss America 2003 has made a reputation as a champion of her multi-racial background, to the point of challenging "politically correct" racial classifications. In fact, according to an interviewer for the conservative National Review, she doubted that she would win the Miss Illinois title, let alone Miss America, because of her pro-life Republican activism. In the Miss Illinois competition, Harold adopted a platform of teen-age abstinence.

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In the Miss America competition, Harold broadened her issue to the prevention of teen violence, and in a Sept. 24 interview on the Bill O'Reilly talk show spoke with still lively passion about suffering harassment during her freshman year in high school. Her father said that Pageant officials were still working out details of this campaign but that she would certainly be open to appearances in Indian country.

A 2001 graduate of the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana, Harold, 22, has been accepted to Harvard Law School, but said she would delay entrance while she carried out her one-year contract as Miss America. She told O'Reilly that she planned a career in the public sector and possibly a run for public office.

The best-known native face in this year's Miss America coverage, however, ultimately turned out not to be a competitor. Rebekah Revels, Lumbee, relinquished her crown as Miss North Carolina after a former boyfriend, Tosh Welsh, Eastern Cherokee member and tribal police officer, threatened to release embarrassing photographs. Revels won back the state title in a state court suit and in a separate suit obtained a court order for Welsh to turn over the photograph. A federal judge declined to compel her participation in the Miss America pageant, however.

Revels attended the pageant with about a dozen family and friends and drew a round of applause when she entered the auditorium.

Two other native contestants, Miss South Dakota Vanessa Short Bull, Oglala Lakota, and Miss Alaska Patty Willman, Inupiaq, fell short of the final cut but did receive fleeting air time in the national broadcast. Short Bull, a veteran of beauty pageants and the first Indian to win the Miss South Dakota crown, is another potential law school student. She attracted some attention in the interview segment of the pageant when she said that her goal was to become either a lawyer or a comedienne.