As the teenage girls lined the stage dancing in traditional costumes of fringed buckskin or brightly colored dresses with attached conical bells, it was clear the 2009 Junior Teen and Teen Shinnecock Beauty Pageant was unlike the typical beauty pageants broadcast on TV. The Shinnecock event included all of the components found in these televised pageants, such as an evening wear and a talent portion, but whereas these beauty pageants are often ridiculed for being superficial, the Shinnecock Beauty Pageant highlighted the contestants’ Native American ancestry and cultural identity.
Throughout the pageant, held on Friday at the Southampton Inn, the young girls — ranging from grades 6 through 12 — seamlessly showcased both their traditional Shinnecock persona and their main stream one. In preparation for the main event, the girls studied not only ballroom dancing, etiquette and how to walk with a book on their heads, but also the history, language and culture of their people.
“This event shows how these young girls cross between two worlds: the modern world and the traditional one,” said Shinnecock trustee Frederick Bess. “When these girls learn how to talk they learn how to sing [the traditional songs]. When they learn how to walk they learn how to dance [the traditional dances].”
The event has been on a 13-year hiatus, but was brought back this year by the 1996 Miss Teen Shinnecock winner Nishwe Williams, whose deceased aunt Vanessa Williams started the competition in 1988.
“This is definitely not a beauty pageant. They are judged on their creativity and how they present themselves,” said Williams. “It emphasizes building self-esteem and pride in their culture.”
The girls’ sense of dual cultural identity was emphasized during the talent portion of the competition. Nadonis Tarrant, 17, displayed her painting titled “The Urban Indian” to the judges, including U.S. Congressman Tim Bishop and former tribal chairman Lance Gumbs. The large work showed an anonymous face, painted in white and black, surrounded by renderings of traditional Native American fabrics, painted in brilliant colors.
“When the Indian and [the modern world] collides … they make the urban Indian,” said Tarrant.
Other contestants chose to highlight either their traditional roots or popular culture. For her talent, Junior Teen winner Mattah Wright, 13, did a “fancy” Shinnecock dance, as the name refers to the type of dance and attire which is an updated take on the classic blanket dance. Wright waved an exuberantly colored shawl in the air as she did intricate footwork across the stage, while her father, Shinnecock trustee Gordell Wright, sang on the sidelines. Nasha Hill, 13, who competed in the Junior Teen pageant, opted instead to sing a blues ballad, “All I Could Do Was Cry” by Etta James and wore a 1940s-style outfit and pinned her long black hair into a wavy bun. Much of the make up and contemporary wear the girls wore was donated by local companies.
The evening, however, wasn’t solely dedicated to demonstrating various talents or modeling evening gowns. Instead, the event began with each girl dancing on stage in traditional costume. Some girls donned buckskin floor-length dresses while doing the slow, contemplative “blanket” dance. Others bounced up and down, jingling the tiny sliver bells affixed to their gowns. While others stretched out their brightly colored shawls, sweeping them from side to side, doing the “fancy” dance.
The first portion of the competition was dedicated to a question and answer session on Shinnecock history and each girl introduced herself in the native language. Younger girls were asked to list three important aspects of traditional culture, and many cited the Shinnecock Labor Day Pow Wow and the importance of family ties on the reservation. Older girls were asked what Shinnecock traditions could be imbued onto the surrounding community. Miss Teen Shinnecock winner Autumn Rose Williams said the Shinnecocks helped sustain the European colonists when they first arrived to the East End, by showing them how to cultivate the land. Williams added, however, that the Shinnecocks had a tradition of respecting the land and said current residents of both Southampton and the Shinnecock reservation needed to “protect the land for future generations.”
“I didn’t realize how lucky it is to live on the land that our ancestors lived and died on,” said Seneca Smith, 15, of the Shinnecock reservation, which unlike federally owned reservations, is owned by the Shinnecock community.
While some contestants said they effortlessly transition between their life on the reservation and their life outside, others say they find it difficult.
“It isn’t that much different. I know I am a Shinnecock Indian, that is just what I am,” said Hill.
Cholena Smith, 16, the first runner-up in the teen category, reported having a difficult time crossing between these two worlds.
“I find it hard, especially this year. What we learn in school is so different than what we learn on the reservation. In school, we are learning about evolution and existentialism … I feel like I am living in two worlds and always feel like I need to explain myself,” opined Smith. “That is why in every school project I make sure to include something about my heritage.”
Smith, an upcoming senior at the Ross School, plans to create a DVD book written in both English and Shinnecock for the school to use in a Native American education program.
As winners, Wright and Williams will act as representatives of the Shinnecock Nation at several “Pow Wows, held in New England and New York, throughout the summer and their travel expenses will be paid for by the Alternatives Counseling Center.
Nishwe Williams said girls are already signing up to compete in next year’s pageant, which is a welcome change since the pageant went on hiatus in 1996 because not enough girls were willing to join.
“The year I was in it we were down to six girls … Now there is a new generation and they want to do things like this,” said Williams. “I think they were waiting for something like this.”