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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

Many look forward to spending hours in a car with friends, relatives, and families to travel to Albuquerque, New Mexico. They drive long distances to spend days listening and watching to grand entries at the Gathering of Nations, rubbing elbows with other Natives from across the country, buying jewelry, attending concerts, experiencing the nightlife, and saving a spot with a blanket.

However, in a time of canceled powwows, “North America’s largest powwow” wasn’t going to happen.

One of their main events is to hold the Miss Indian World pageant. In 2019, the first Seminole in the pageant's 36-year history to win was Cheyenne Kippenberger. The 24-year-old of Hollywood, Florida, had already been crowned Miss Seminole.

Since the pageant will not be held in 2020, pageant organizers asked Kippenberger to extend her reign another year that would last into 2021. We caught up with Miss Indian World 2019 and 2020 who is sheltered in place at home.

Miss Indian World on the VIP red carpet of Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino's grand celebration of a new expansion in Tampa, Florida. (Photo courtesy of Miss Indian World, Emergence Productions)

So Cheyenne, how do you feel about being named Miss Indian World for another year?

“Having the opportunity to serve another year is an unexpected blessing amongst the chaos that is going on right now in our world,” she says in an email. “It broke my heart when Gathering of Nations was canceled because of this viral pandemic, but it was done for the safety of everyone. It may have happened in a very unanticipated way, but I believe that this is part of a bigger plan, more than I can understand right now. I have faith in the Breathmaker and believe, serving another year, is what was meant to be for me and I am honored. I am going to focus on the positives because that is the good medicine we all need right now.”

Looking back, what are some of your achievements in the last year?

“I knew serving as a cultural ambassador was going to have its challenges so I set my intentions early to work as hard as I could towards overturning stereotypes and stigmatizations of mental health within our communities and to gain quality representation in media. I had goals to travel, share, and learn as much as I could. I have been fortunate to have traveled to over ten different tribal communities within the U.S. and out of the country! With the help of my tribe, my family, Emergence productions, I was able to travel to Aotearoa [New Zealand] to visit our Māori relatives and experience an exchange of culture, policy, education, and life as Indigenous people.”

“It was important to me to be authentic and to show that even though I am Miss Indian World, I am not perfect. I was open about my struggles with my education, my mental health, and even my own identity and love for myself. I shared who I really am, a mixed Seminole and Chilean woman, raised on and off a reservation in the city, still learning her language and herself! Additional special achievements, which I humbly share, include; I brought the Miss Indian World title home to my tribe for the first time in history, danced in my first Powwow ever, had tea with the First Lady of Oklahoma, and I even had a day proclaimed in my honor [August 2nd is Miss Indian World, Cheyenne Kippenberger Day, start planning your celebrations aye]!”

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“I especially value that my perspectives have grown well beyond what they used to be. I have made friendships and connections all across the Indigenous world and I can truly and honestly say that I am proud of my past year as Miss Indian World. I am thankful for all the opportunities and am looking forward to continuing learning too!”

Alligators have been an integral part of Seminole culture and are harvested for their hides and meat. In the 19th century, alligator wrestling became a tourist attraction. The alligator shown here is protected and humanely cared for at Billy Swamp Safari, event promoters said. (Photo courtesy of Miss Indian World, Emergence Productions)
Cheyenne Kippenberger as a judge at the Three Affiliated Tribes youth talent show in New Town, North Dakota. (Photo courtesy of Miss Indian World Cheyenne Kippenberger)

What do you feel you can bring to the title this year in a changed world?

“I may not be able to travel and physically visit communities or events, but I still have the power to be present for our people. Our whole world is going through a drastic transition right now and I, with the support of the Miss Indian World program, do feel it is my responsibility to be adaptable and be right there with all of you. I am still going to be present and virtually visiting where I can and if that means recording a video every day or going live on social media outlets to connect and entertain, then I will do it. Until we can all come together again in person, I will continue to pray for our people’s health, safety, and comfort of mind. This is an extremely uncomfortable time for everyone, but I am going to try my best and bring light to wherever I can.”

How are the Seminole in general handling this pandemic?

“My community has been very proactive in keeping all our tribal members up to date with the status of COVID-19. Unfortunately, the virus has made its way onto our reservations and our health care departments, in partnership with our local hospitals, have been very great at taking care of our affected community members. We will all continue to pray for the individuals and the families affected and support one another during this uncertain time.”

What other things do you do in your day-to-day life?

“I wear many different hats day to day. Besides serving as your Miss Indian World, I proudly work with organizations like UNITY [United National Indian Tribal Youth] as a Peer Guide with the Healing Indigenous Lives Initiative, CNAY [Center for Native American Youth] and Generation Indigenous as an ambassador helping with many different initiatives focused on uplifting and empowering Native communities. I also am the founder and chairwoman of Healing the Circles in our tribal communities symposium which focuses on raising awareness of the importance of safe and healthy environments for Native people. When I am not tuned into a training, working on a project, or being an auntie, I try to decompress and disconnect by sewing, doing yoga, spending time with my dogs or gardening. I ultimately strive to live a healthy life physically, mentally, and spiritually through centering my culture and traditional teachings in all that I do.”

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Sandra Hale Schulman, Cherokee, has been writing about Native issues since 1994. She is an author of four books, has contributed to shows at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and has produced three films on Native musicians.