Since her appearance on Tyra Banks’ show America’s Next Top Model, Mariah Watchman has become a household name and inspiration for Native women throughout Indian country. Watchman grew up in a variety of locations, but counts the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation as her home. ICTMN caught up with the ravishing 20-year-old during a break as she tutored other aspiring local Native models prior to a Native American fashion event that took place in March in Billings, Montana.
Did you spend most of your time growing up on the reservation in Oregon?
I was born in Missoula, Montana, actually, and my grandmother is from Wolf Point on the Fort Peck Reservation, so I’m kind of in Montana often. My parent’s have been divorced since I was little, so on my dad’s side of the family we’re from Pendleton, Oregon—where the Pendleton blankets come from.
All of my life, since I was a little, girl I’ve been traveling a lot. My dad was in the Air Force, we lived in Germany for 2 years when I was little, I grew up in Pendleton, Montana, Idaho—and my dad worked for the National Congress of American Indians in D.C. So I’ve been traveling everywhere since I was a little girl, but I’ve always been on the rez one way or another. It’s always been my home. Our families have always been on the reservations.
When did you begin your modeling career?
I’ve been an international model since the age of 15. I signed my first contract at 15, and I was traveling internationally in Thailand for two months when I was 15, and turning 16. I lived in Bangkok, Thailand by myself. I also traveled to the three main modeling markets in New York, LA, and Miami. I was still in high school at that point, and basketball was my main passion. I was really active in playing sports for my high school. I had my high school graduation in 2009, went home to pack, and the next day I went to Hong Kong for three months.
So your modeling career conflicted with your basketball ambitions?
When I was a little girl, my dad raised me. He’s played for the Air Force league, and so I’ve been in the gym since I was little. Basketball was my first passion. I’ve played it all the time, and it was my first goal to go to college and play basketball. But when I was 15 and signed my first modeling contract, my mother-agent let me know eventually I was going to have to make a decision between basketball and modeling.
Do you know the Umatilla Reservation Natives Shoni and Jude Schimmel at the University of Louisville?
I grew up with them, and always saw Shoni at open gyms—stuff like that. I visit them all the time. They’re actually cousins with my little brother and sister. Fortunately, since they’re from our reservation, I was like, ‘Shoni is going to go to the WNBA for us!’ and I knew I probably wasn’t. Modeling really was my passion and calling because I wanted to start breaking away into the mainstream. I just really wanted to empower Native American women across the country and let them know not only can they go as far as I’ve gone, but further.
Did you feel additional pressure in representing Native women in America’s Next Top Model?
Yes. When I went to my very first casting, my very first goal right off the bat was to let them know, ‘I want to be the first Native American female to compete in America’s Next Top model.’ I went in there and told them how I spoke my language, how I grew up on reservations, I bead, I fish salmon with my family off of the Colombia River, how we go to pow wows, and at our grandpa’s is our sweat lodge. But being the first Native on the show, I felt like I had a huge pressure. I wasn’t just representing myself, I was representing a Nation. I was representing Indian country. I’ve been an international model for five years, and I wasn’t just trying to go on tv and act disrespectful, and tarnish or ruin my reputation. I definitely felt a lot of pressure to maintain and be well-behaved.
We hear you may be launching a clothing line—what can you tell us about it?
It’s in the works. It’s a t-shirt line and it’s called N8TV. Ten percent of every shirt I sell is going to go to an charity or organization of my choosing.
What do the youth leadership workshops you participate in entail?
I’m going to start a program called N8TV Game Changers, and I’d like to go on a reservation tour to start talking to and inspiring youth, probably starting in South Dakota. Just speaking to kids, being an example, just sharing with them my life story of how hard work and dedication has gotten me to the point I’m at today. And I feel like I’m just starting to warm up. I’m not even near where I want to be yet. I’ve accomplished a lot so far and I’m 20 years young, but I have a lot more to do and I’m going to do it. I aspire to be—and will be—the first Native American supermodel.
What are your other plans for the future?
I’m very business savvy, and I’d like to be a business owner with my t-shirt line. But about being the first Native American supermodel, when I got eliminated on the second episode of Top Model, when I was walking away, Tyra told me, “You may not be America’s Top Model, but you can be the first Native American supermodel ever.” She knew that was my goal and dream as well. And if Tyra Banks told me I can be the first Native American supermodel ever, I took that and believed in myself with all confidence I will achieve that goal.