This is a doctoral dissertation research project on how young Alaska Native women develop leadership skills through an ethnographic examination of Native Nations Pageants. Native Nations Pageants are not beauty contests, the participants are judged on a broad range of skills including: knowledge of their heritage language, traditional storytelling, singing, or dancing, and demonstrated leadership skills. Although Native Nations Pageants have existed since the 1950s, very little scholarship beyond descriptive narratives has been done to date. This research project will examine why the many American Indian and Arctic Nations have adapted the western construct of a ?beauty contest,? into their own culturally appropriate form. This project will study the relationship between these pageants in Alaska and their relationship to developing young women as role models and leaders for Alaskan communities. Understanding the process of developing young leaders in indigenous communities could be critical to creating opportunities for creating leadership skills and the long-term sustainability and well being of these diverse communities and cultural groups.

Project Report

Abstract My research focused on youth leadership, examining how youth are trained for leadership positions within communities. Using cultural pageants as a case study, I challenged the general perception that pageants - traditionally known as arenas for displaying women’s bodies - can be adapted into leadership contests. Pageants, such as the one I followed in Alaska, help to: 1) develop leadership; 2) produce language and cultural, revitalization and maintenance role models; and 3) provide a non-stereotypical representative of contemporary Indigenous women. Cultural pageants offer a venue for youth (both female and male) to become social justice spokespersons within their communities. My research draws from interdisciplinary theories (transformative leadership, levels of understanding, objectification, and stereotype threat) and qualitative and quantitative research methodologies (participant observation, interviews, questionnaires, surveys, and archival research), as the young women were shadowed at the state and national contests. My research concludes that youth enter pageants to better their communities, as they promote sustainable nations, and work on platforms such as suicide prevention, substance abuse, and language and cultural revitalization. Summary of Findings The World Eskimo Indian Olympics (WEIO), the only Alaska Native pageant thoroughly researched in this dissertation, started in Fairbanks in 1961. The pageant originated as a swimsuit contest, aimed at encouraging young women to attend college. Today, we see the contest has adapted into a cultural maintenance and preservation event, providing women an opportunity to enhance leadership skills, become a cultural role model within their community, and an ambassador to the outside world. Native communities have adapted pageants, originally a western construct based on physical appearance, based on a need to provide positive women role models in communities. The majority of WEIO contestants are college students. The young women organize and plan events, coordinate with groups and organizations, and fundraise to promote their platform. While the contestants are already leaders going into the pageant, they increase skills, earn sponsorships, further their cause, and network with leaders in their community. The contest is therefore a form of leadership training for the young women. The pageant has a positive impact on the cultural maintenance within community, although it is unknown if the impact is long lasting. Pageants, which consist of talents steeped in tradition, are a form of cultural preservation. Some talents demonstrate how to use age old equipment, such as cradle boards, while other talents explain how to make traditional food. Having "traditions" only appear in pageant talents relegates them to special events - versus integrating them into everyday life. Some pageants contestants may contribute to the idea of Indigenous people as a group living in the past, by having only old "traditions" showcased. Other contestants, such as some from WEIO 2011 and 2012, incorporate modern interpretations of "tradition." By integrating modern paraphernalia into their talents – for example Tlingit designed snowboards – contestants can provide accurate representations of contemporary Indigenous life, while simultaneously accomplishing cultural maintenance. Language loss is occurring at an alarming rate in Indigenous communities. Seeing a person of prestige speak their heritage language may motivate some to learn and/or also speak their heritage language. When all prestigious people within a community speak their heritage language, a change in language use in the community will occur. Beauty pageants are notorious for objectifying women. In contrast, cultural pageants have become contemporary advertisements for young Indigenous women. They portray a positive body image which can have the opposite effect of advertising images which objectify women and lower self-esteem. The young women are culturally objectified in the contest - in the same way that tourist attractions objectify people – when encountered by people who do not understand the culture. Contestants are not sexually objectified in the way that beauty pageants objectify women. As ambassadors, the pageant winners become a symbol of national identity. They illustrate to the outside world, what it is to be a contemporary Indigenous women. The appearance of confident young women increases the cultural fit of youth in their society and helps deal with issues such as retention rates in schools, and health issues. Research has shown that positive role models are needed and that negative role models can have a detrimental effect on self-esteem. The pageant contestants could fill a need. Alaskan communities are small enough that the winner of a contest could be known by the entire community. Native American pageant winners are multi-functional in that they can fill the role of leaders, role model, and ambassador and also normalize women of color as beautiful. One has to question however, who is defining beauty? Western defined beauty and Native defined beauty are very different. Native pageants are based on internal beauty related to culture, an achievable reality. In comparison, mainstream beauty pageants focus on harmful notions of beauty that are unachievable for most body types, and can therefore lower self-esteem.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Polar Programs (PLR)
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Anna Kerttula de Echave
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University of Arizona
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