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Dan Ninham
Special to ICT

Two Indigenous women will represent not only their home states but also their tribal communities at the Miss America and Miss USA pageants in coming weeks.

Miss North Dakota USA SaNoah LaRocque, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, will step into the spotlight first at the Miss USA pageant on Monday, Oct. 3, at the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino in Reno, Nevada.

Rachel Evangelisto, Standing Rock Sioux, was named Miss Minnesota on June 17, 2022 – the first Indigenous woman ever chosen for the title. She will compete in the Miss America pageant in December 2022 at the Mohegan Sun, which is owned and operated by the Mohegan Tribe in Connecticut. (Photo by Michael Haug Photography, courtesy of Rachel Evangelisto)

Rachel Evangelisto – the first Indigenous woman ever named as Miss Minnesota – will compete in the Miss America pageant on Dec. 15 at the Mohegan Sun, which is owned and operated by the Mohegan Tribe in Connecticut. 

“My two biggest goals for Miss America is to … have a blast and … make Turtle Island proud,” Evangelisto, Standing Rock Sioux, told ICT in an email. “It’s with immense gratitude that I get to shine a light on Indian Country as a whole and I really just want to make my people proud.”

LaRocque, too, knows the spotlight will be on them.

“As Native people, we are not just individuals but members of a larger community by which we must do well,” she said.

They will join more than a dozen Indigenous women in past decades who have competed in the pageants, including Norma Smallwood, Cherokee, who is credited with being the first Native woman to win Miss America, in 1926. Triana Browne, Chickasaw, was second runner-up to Miss USA in 2019 as Miss Oklahoma USA, and also was Miss Oklahoma in 2017.

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Autumn Simunek Conrad, who is helping Evangelisto prepare for the Miss America pageant, said the pageant can give voice to Indigenous issues.

“As we continue to prepare for Miss America, we are ensuring that Rachel’s deep desire to uplift Indigenous voices is at the forefront of every decision that is made,” Conrad said. “Rachel is a pillar of her community and her reach as a leader and role model has only just begun.”

First up: Miss USA

LaRocque, 25, said her Anishinaabe roots have helped her pursue her dreams, from Central High School in Grand Forks, North Dakota, to Harvard University. She currently works as a financial analyst in Bismarck.

“I have always maintained that my identity as an Anishinaabe woman has carried me through the fire,” LaRocque told ICT. “As Anishinaabe people, we are given the teachings from the Seven Grandfathers, which guide us into being good people.”

They have also helped her prepare for the pageant.

“My Indigenous teachings have allowed me to feel resolve and confidence in myself not only as an individual, but as a member of a tribal community,” she said. “I understand that my accomplishments are not only my own, but empower my people and Indian Country at large.”

She said she was most influenced by the grandparents who raised her, Loretta DeLong and Gerald Carty Monette, both of whom have doctorate degrees in education.

“As someone who was exposed to violence, drug/alcohol abuse, and poverty during my childhood, my grandparents gave me the tools to find strength in my voice,” she said. “They reminded me that, as an Anishinaabe woman, I have ancestors to whom I owe strength. I live every day of my life indebted to them, as they instilled in me every tool I needed to be successful.”

She was crowned Miss North Dakota USA on May 1. During her reign, she has traveled across the state spreading a message of hope.

“My platform is ‘Hope is There,’” she said, “which is meant to equip disadvantaged children with mentorship and opportunities. I preach that the grass is truly greener on the other side, and that a dedication to your passions can help you overcome hardship in your life so that you may be successful.

She continued, “I hope that my message can influence kids who may be struggling with feeling hopeless. Hope is truly there. If I can make it through adversity, they can, too.”

Coming in December: Miss America

Evangelisto, also 25, lives in Minneapolis and services as a court-appointed guardian for children under the Indian Child Welfare Act. She is set to start law school in August.

She says both pageants provide a platform for putting a spotlight on important issues.

“Both the Miss USA and Miss America organizations support women in becoming the best versions of themselves and support year-round professional development, networking, scholarship, and community service opportunities,” Evangelisto said.

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“As a Lakota woman, I have always put my community and culture at the heart of everything I do, and I am excited to use this new platform I’ve been given to showcase that.

Evangelisto grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota, and moved to Minnesota to attend college, graduating in 2019 with a degree in political science and an emphasis on law.

She has been accepted into the Mitchell Hamline School of Law to study Native American law at the Native American Law and Sovereignty Institute. On her Instagram account, @missamericamn she describes herself as a “future lawyer.”

She was crowned Miss Minnesota on June 17.

“Being ‘the first’ in anything is daunting, let alone being the first Native American Miss Minnesota,” Evangelisto said in an email. “I am thrilled to compete for Miss America on tribal land and want to say pilamayayapiye, thank you, to the Mohegan Tribe for hosting us this year.”

During her reign as Miss Minnesota, she has promoted a social impact initiative, “Celebrating Culture & Driving Diversity,” which aims to teach the public about Indigenous people, open a dialogue about racial inequality and empower youth to be agents of change in their communities.

She also wants to draw attention in Congress to the Indian Child Welfare Act, which is facing a challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Among her goals, she said, “attend every wacipi (pow wow) I can, and educate all Minnesotans about Indigenous rights and sovereignty,” she said. “The possibilities are limitless.”

Norma Smallwood, Cherokee, of Tulsa, Oklahomas, poses in her bathing suit with trophies after becoming Miss America in 1926 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on Sept. 11, 1926. Smallwood is credited with being the first Indigenous woman to win the Miss America pageant. (AP Photo)

In the footsteps

A number of Indigenous women have competed in the Miss USA or Miss America pageants – or both – over the decades, but no records are available to compile a complete list.

But the experience can change lives, said Susan Supernaw, Muscogee (Creek), who was Miss Oklahoma for 1971 and who wrote the book, “Muscogee Daughter.” She lives near Lake Eufaula, Oklahoma.

Susan Supernaw, Muscogee (Creek), was crowned Miss Oklahoma for 1971 and competed in the Miss America pageant. She went on to write a book, “Muscogee Daughter,” and was living near Lake Eufaula, Oklahoma, in 2022. (Photo courtesy of Susan Supernaw)

“My experiences not only gave me experience being in front of people and learning how to answer questions, but also brought me into the Indian world as an ambassador for Natives,” Supernaw told ICT. “I also met people who later would help me as I tried to help build a computer network structures for various tribes. It also brought pride to my family, tribal clan and tribe to represent Natives.”

Mariah Jane Davis, Choctaw, who was Miss Oklahoma USA for 2020, agreed.

“Fulfilling the role as Miss Oklahoma USA allowed me to get in touch with not only my community but people around the world,” said Davis, who now lives in Los Angeles. “The only way you can lose is by counting yourself out. Don’t focus on the ‘win’, focus on the process of preparation and allow that to become a part of your identity. You ARE confident, you ARE eloquent, and you ARE everything you desire to be already. The true victory is not the final result but the work you invested and the experiences made.”

Browne, who competed in 2017 in the Miss America pageant and in 2019 in the Miss USA pageant, said the experiences also taught her important lessons. She now works as a spokesperson for the Chickasaw Nation.

“Do not be afraid to open those doors,” Browne told ICT. “There is no reason to limit yourself in what you think you may only be capable of. Our culture deserves to be shared with the world. Use your voice, teach the masses, and set the example.”

Peggy Willman Porter, Inupiaq, said being chosen Miss Alaska in 2002 helped her reach out to Native Alaska youths.

“I was incredibly honored to represent my state and my people. Most notably I was seen as a mentor to Alaskan Native youth, which is needed among our indigenous communities,” said Porter, who became a nurse and now lives in Yakutat, Alaska.

“I love what I do,” she told ICT. “It doesn’t feel like work, but something I feel called to do. I’m honored to care for my Indigenous community members.”

*Update: The story has been updated to note that the Miss America pageant will be held on Dec. 15 at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.

Indigenous contestants
A complete list is not available of the Indigenous women who have competed in the Miss America and Miss USA pageants over the decades, but here’s a partial list compiled by ICT:
2010-2022
*Rachel Evangelisto, Standing Rock Sioux Miss Minnesota 2022
*SaNoah LaRocque, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Miss North Dakota USA 2022
*Mariah Jane Davis, Choctaw, Miss Oklahoma USA 2020
*Triana Browne, Chickasaw, was second runner-up in the Miss USA pageant in 2019 as Miss Oklahoma USA; she was also Miss Oklahoma in 2017
*Alyssa London, Tlingit, Miss Alaska USA 2017
*Mekayla Diehl Eppers, Zhiibaahaasing First Nation, Miss Indiana USA 2014
*Johna Edmonds, Lumbee, Miss North Carolina 2013
2000-2009
*Jessica Jacobs Marquardt, Lumbee, Miss North Carolina 2007
*Peggy Willman Porter, Inupiaq, Miss Alaska in 2002
*Vanessa Short Bull, Oglala Sioux, Miss South Dakota 2002 and Miss South Dakota USA 2000
*Lorna McNeill Ricotta, Lumbee, Miss North Carolina 2000
1970-1999
*Susan Supernaw, Muscogee (Creek), Miss Oklahoma 1971
1950-1969
*Ann Campbell, Chickasaw/Choctaw, Miss Oklahoma 1955
1940-1949
*Mifaunwy Shunatona, Otoe/Pawnee, Miss Oklahoma 1941; she won the Miss Congeniality award in the Miss America pageant
*Ada Martyne Woods, Choctaw, Miss Oklahoma 1940
1930-1939
*Joanne Alcorn, Osage descent, Miss Oklahoma 1933; she was forced to withdraw from the Miss America pageant after developing appendicitis the first day of the competition+
1920-1929
*Norma Smallwood, Cherokee, crowned Miss America in 1926 as Miss Tulsa

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