While some years have felt like two-steps-forward, one-step-back, members of the Miss Indian Arizona Association keep pushing forward with a strong will as printed in this year’s scholarship program: “The challenges of our journey over the last 50 years, sometimes in the face of insurmountable odds, have only increased our efforts to enhance and improve recognition of the contributions of young Indian women.”
It was half a century ago that the Miss Indian Arizona program was introduced during Indian Day activities at the Arizona State Fair. The annual event stayed at the fairgrounds for five years until 1967 when the Arizona Republic newspaper graphically reported the program had been “scalped due to the lack of wampum.”
The Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona tried sponsorship for a while, as did the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the nonprofit Irataba Society until interested parties established the Miss Indian Arizona Association and the scholarship program began in 2000 with a focus on academics and community service.
In those intervening years, between 600 and 700 young Native American women have participated in the program—with 55 of them eventually holding the Miss Indian Arizona title. While all titleholders have represented Arizona Native American culture, heritage, and spirituality at it’s finest, three have gone on to hold the Miss Indian America title as well including Maxine Norris, Tohono O’odham, in 1973; Gracie Welsh, Mohave-Chemehuevi, Colorado River Indian Tribe, in 1977; and Vivian Juan Saunders, Tohono O’odham, in 1981.
“One of the major goals of our association is to increase the number and amount of educational scholarships it presents to program participants in order to meet the full annual financial needs of a student,” says events coordinator Yvonne Schaaf, Quechan-Mohave-Salt River Pima, the 1989 Miss Indian Arizona title holder.
This year, the 50th anniversary of the scholarship program, found eight contestants vying for title honors and a first place check of $4,000—$2,000 for first runner-up and $1,500 for second runner-up—to be used as-needed for higher education expenses, anything from tuition to books to a laptop.
“No contestants go home empty-handed as each receives some kind of scholarship check to help further her education,” says Miss Indian Arizona Association executive director Denise Homer, Mohave-Shasta (Colorado River Indian Tribe). “The program is possible through the efforts and generosity of Arizona tribes, tribal and private entrepreneurs and enterprises who contribute their financial support.”
Following a parade of former titleholders and an introduction by Sweetie Cody, Navajo, Miss Indian Arizona 2010-2011, judges and contestants got down to the business at hand. Competition was both friendly and fierce with participants working to make the best impression by sharing their tribal culture through traditional dress, song, dance, humor, oral presentations, and a Q&A session with judges. The participants competed on October 8 at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Chandler, Arizona in six different categories including evening gown and traditional dress as well as a display of talent, either contemporary or traditional.
Participation is open to enrolled members of Arizona Indian tribes between the ages of 17 and 24 who are in school—high school, trade school, college, or who are employed and wish to pursue further education.
While the numbers of competitors has varied from year-to-year among the 22 federally recognized tribes in the state—each tribe is allowed one entrant—this year’s challengers represented Navajo, Hopi, San Carlos Apache, Colorado River, Hualapai, Salt River Pima-Maricopa, Tohono O’odham and Gila River. Although all were winners, Jaymee Li Moore, Colorado River Indian Tribe, ended up wearing the 2011 top spot tiara; serving as her first attendant will be Martha Martinez, Salt River, and serving as her second attend will be Edith Starr, San Carlos Apache.
Moore says the scholarship money will come in handy for everything from books to rent to tuition for summer classes. “Scholarships are vital because the quest for higher education is not a simple path. The organization awarded the scholarship believes in me and is playing an active role in my future and my ability to succeed by translating that support into motivation for success.”
Last year’s winner, Cody, congratulated the new title holder and as she relinquished the crown and took her farewell walk, noted: “It has been an amazing year since I was bestowed the honor and blessing of representing the tribes of Arizona, the many beautiful people and cultures throughout the state, and I encourage my proud Native Americans to dream big in their future endeavors and to shine their light on the world.”
In a moment of quiet reflection after the event, Homer noted: “The 50th Miss Indian Arizona Scholarship Program was a huge success—again providing participants with an opportunity to build self-confidence and enhance pride as they realize the importance of educating others about Arizona Natives and their diverse culture.”