Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today
Cheyenne Eete Kippenberger took the responsibilities of Miss Indian World in stride.
The title took her around the world as an ambassador, visiting New Zealand, Alaska and tribal lands across the United States. She met dignitaries and movie stars, rock stars and politicians, but not Deb Haaland just yet.
And she emceed an alligator wrestling contest, looking on as a participant lost a finger and got it back again.
But the impact of the pandemic on her reign – and on other pageants across Indian Country – may have topped them all. Kippenberger will step down on April 24 after serving an additional year of what would have been a one-year reign, and she won’t be handing the crown off to anyone when she leaves.
The Miss Indian World title – the undisputed highlight of the Native pageants – will sit vacant until a new winner is crowned as expected in 2022.
Other pageants are adjusting, too. Miss Indian North Carolina, Kaitlyn Deal, Lumbee, will serve an extra year until February 2022. The reign of Miss Navajo Nation, Shaandiin Parrish, has also been extended an extra year through 2021.
(Related: Miss Indian World reigns a second year)
But Miss Indian World is the largest of the competitions, with the winner selected at the annual Gathering of Nations Powwow from Native winners across the globe.
The Gathering of Nations, billed as the largest powwow in the world, typically draws thousands of dancers from the U.S., Canada and Mexico to its annual events in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
But not this year. The upcoming powwow, set for April 23-24, will be live but virtual, with events taking place online. The Miss Indian World contestants will not be among them.
“The pageant is about building relationships and sisterhood over the week of the pageant,” according to a statement released by the Miss Indian World Committee and Gathering of Nations earlier this year. “Without being able to host such an event, it would not give the contestants their moment to shine and represent their tribes and themselves to the fullest.”
Whirlwind of activities
Kippenberger, 24, a citizen of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, is the daughter of Joe and Susan Kippenberger, and her family is of the Panther Clan. She got her Native name, “Eete,” bestowed upon her by her grandmother, Lawanna Osceola.
She was worried about the 2019 Miss Indian World competition, particularly the dance competition.
“We Seminole don’t really have ceremonial dances,” she told Indian Country Today in March, sitting at an oceanfront restaurant in Hollywood, Florida.
Instead, she wowed the judges and audience with a demonstration of how to create an elaborate, traditional woman’s hairdo – accomplished while walking the stage, narrating, and without looking into a mirror.
She won the competition over 18 other contestants, becoming the first Miss Seminole to win the top prize.
“The competition was exciting and a bit of a blur,” she said. “It was a big moment. The chairman called to congratulate me.”
Then the whirlwind began. Taking her agenda of mental health awareness throughout the world, she traveled and fulfilled a range of obligations.
One of the highlights was an alligator wrestling competition during the Seminole Tribal Fair in front of thousands of people and streamed live.
As she emceed the event, however, the unexpected happened – a seasoned wrestler got his finger bitten off. She was sitting ringside and knew it immediately.
“I said to the other commentators, ‘Yep, he just got it bitten off,’” she said. “They didn’t believe me until we saw another wrestler go into the ring and literally pull it out of the gator’s mouth. The medics reattached the finger and the guy was back at it the very next day.”
At the annual American Indian Arts Celebration in 2019 in the Everglades, she took part in a comedy sketch performed by the 1491s, a Native comedy troupe. The sketch featured a Native Dating Game with Kippenberger in full regalia - “We have a genuine Indian Princess!” - as the contestant.
The historic photo shoot was more elaborate. She sat as the subject of a portrait captured in the historic wet plate collodion process, using pure silver on glass, by Shane Balkowitsch at Nostalgic Glass Wet Plate Studio in North Dakota.
Wet plate collodion is one of the earliest forms of photography, invented in 1848. Although the approach died off in the 1880s, the process has seen a revival in recent years. But it can be difficult, timely, costly and unpredictable, and requires a high degree of commitment. They placed a clamp on the back of her head to keep her upright, she said.
“The process is challenging as you have to sit perfectly still for a while due to the long exposure,” she said.
The resulting photos look vintage and timeless, and one of the plates has been entered into the Florida Historical Society archives.
“I made the promise to Cheyenne that I would attempt to get a plate into her state’s archive,” Balkowitsch said. “It is important documentation for her, her Seminole tribe and the crown that she holds.”
When the pandemic hit, however, everything changed. Sitting in her room at home on Zoom, she found ways to remain involved, focusing on presentations that ranged from mental health checks to beadwork to Indian youth baking contests that drew hundreds of applicants. The Christmas baking contest was such a hit she held another for Valentine’s Day.
She is also chairwoman of “Healing the Circle in Our Tribal Communities Symposium” of the Native Learning Center organization and spends time teaching and sewing the traditional, colorful Seminole patchwork, as well as participating in language classes with reservation elders.
Finding new ways
Other tribal pageants have coped as well.
Deal, 21, Miss Indian North Carolina, has been forced to curtail her events but officials are hopeful she can increase her in-person appearances in the fall. She was crowned the winner in February 2020, but will keep the crown until a new winner can be chosen in February 2022, officials said.
“Once we realized that we would likely not be able to hold a pageant and truly celebrate the young women the way we would like to, we elected to extend the reign of our current title holder,” spokeswoman Leslie Locklear said in an email.
“Miss Indian NC is typically very active in the state of (North Carolina) and present in all tribal communities,” Locklear said. “Whether this be a visit to tribal council or the tribal powwows, however, due to things being canceled for much of 2020, Miss Indian NC has truly tried to maximize social media as an outlet to engage with Natives in NC and continue to serve in various ways.”
The Miss Navajo Nation Pageant — which has evolved from a winner being chosen by applause in the 1950s to what is now a four-day event — features both historic and modern Navajo ways, including a traditional sheep-butchering contest to demonstrate knowledge of preparing traditional foods. Perhaps the most important qualification is fluency in the Navajo and English languages.
But COVID-19 has hit the Navajo Nation particularly hard, so Parrish, 26, the 2019 winner, had her reign extended into 2021 with a bill passed as a public emergency by the Emergency Management Commission and approved by the Navajo Nation president.
“The reason why I became Miss Navajo Nation was to serve my people and that is still my mission everyday,” Parrish said recently. “This is why there was never a moment of hesitation to serve alongside Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez on the frontlines.”
Kippenberger is now approaching the end of her time as Miss Indian World but not the end of her involvement.
She has filmed a video farewell that will be screened April 24 during the final day of the Gathering of Nations Powwow and is working on a documentary to cover her unprecedented reign.
“With this last month in full drive I’ve been so busy I’ve barely had time to just sit and take this all in, but I’m so grateful for this time as MIW,” she said recently.
“I love what I do and plan to continue in these missions for our people. Crown or no crown, this is who I am and these are the things I believe in. I happily give presentations on culture, history, empowerment, mental health, representation and so much more. This is ME.”