Jason Ward kicked off his 2012 election in style, with a little help from Indian country's next top model.
Ward, a Crow tribal member, wanted the March 24 "Runway to Congress" fashion show fundraiser event in Billings, Montana to not only highlight his initial foray into the political arena, but showcase how one could use Native heritage as a source of strength and inspiration. Ward, a Democrat, aims to replace Republican Denny Rehberg in the U.S. House of Representatives. Rehberg is running for the U.S. Senate.
“I wanted to show that if you come from the reservation, that doesn’t mean there are limits. If you have a dream and want to step forward, you can do it,” Ward said. “A lot of people think that because you’re from a reservation, you have to be stuck there, and have a mentality that limits their dreams. Having a Native American run for U.S. Congress should inspire other people to follow their dreams as well.”
Among those also headlining the event and following their dreams were America’s Top Model Contestant Mariah Watchman (Confederated Tribes of The Umatilla Indian Reservation), LA Fashion designer Bethany Yellowtail (Crow and Northern Cheyenne), and fashion photographer Anthony “Thosh” Collins (Pima and Osage). Jeremy Stands Over Bull (Crow) organized and emceed the event.
“Jeremy told me how Jason Ward was Native and running for Congress," Watchman said. "And I had seen a couple of Bethany Yellowtail’s dresses on Facebook, and I loved them. So as soon as I heard Bethany was in on it, and it was going to be a fashion show and we were supporting so many different things, I just knew I wanted to be a part of it.”
Watchman is a rising star, an established professional model who has already inspired many young American Indian models with her (undeservedly brief) run on America's Top Model. Prior to the event, she tutored the local Native models who would later share the runway with her. “These young girls know of me, and know of Top Model, and know what I’ve done," she said. "I just want them to know that I’m here, personable and approachable, and I want them to know they can talk to me anytime. I‘m just trying to be a good teacher and pass along the experiences I've had.”
Stands Over Bull described the gathering as “probably the biggest fashion event to hit our area” and joked that the red carpet entrances had him thinking he was at a film premiere in Hollywood. It might not have been the most natural fit for the humble Ward—who describes himself as “just a regular guy” who grew up farming on the reservation while doing other jobs like road construction to supplement his income—but the show kept a distinct Montana feel. The first item raffled off was a rifle—a nod to Ward’s pro-Second Amendment stance.
Various speakers expressed their support for Ward, and an America’s Next Top Model episode featuring Watchman was shown. Along with Ward, another star of the evening was 23-year-old designer Yellowtail, who grew up in Wyola, on the Crow Reservation. She has worked for BCBG Max Azria and is headed to the design team for Baby Phat, and recently debuted her designs at the March 1 Reservation Economic Summit in Las Vegas. Most of Yellowtail’s comments were reserved for praising her colleagues, however.
“We’re lucky to have Mariah and ‘Thosh’ Collins here,” Yellowtail said. “They’re movers and shakers in Indian country, and especially in the modeling industry where it’s so hard to break out. Mariah Watchman is going to be one of the most iconic women in pop culture and Indian country. She’s always about representing Indian country.”
Native models showed off Yellowtail’s dress designs to much applause, with Watchman herself modeling the last one. In closing, both Collins and Watchman gave a brief speeches in their Native tongues thanking the events organizers.
“This is a dream that I’ve been working on for a real long time," Watchman also said. "For me, the only reason I wanted to be a Native American supermodel was to have a voice to create positive change across Indian country. We‘re all Native Americans making huge moves in the fashion industry, in pop culture, in mass media, and in the mainstream to let people know we’re here, and we‘re going to start pushing all the way completely!”
Ward concluded, “I hope that our guests here have shown you that you don’t have to forget about your heritage and the values of your forefathers to make a difference and move forward. You can be as great as you want to be. You just have to have the faith to move forward.”