November 10, 2010

Native girls judged on "poise," makeup

Indian beauty contests at Pendleton Roundup

Part 4 of 4 part series

By Jack McNeel
The Pendleton Roundup is much more than bucking horses and bulls. Perhaps the farthest extreme from rough stock rodeo is a beauty pageant–and two such pageants are part of Roundup week in Pendleton.

One contest, the Junior American Indian Beauty Pageant, is for girls from 5 to 13 years old. The American Indian Beauty Contest features young women from 14 to 22. An incredibly difficult job faced the judges, especially in the junior pageant where 98 contestants were entered, any one of which would have been a good choice. But the judges had to settle on just the top three.

There’s a lot of preparation like any beauty pageant. The judging is based half on regalia and half on poise so the mothers and aunties work hard to prepare the girls. Some of the dresses and other regalia have been passed down from several generations while others are new, possibly made just for this event. Hair is combed and braided and ties frequently added. Makeup must be just so. Then there’s the walking and smiling and waving–all that is practiced before watchful eyes and with advice from the adults.
And:Gabriella’s mother told how her daughter had been preparing for this since she was 1. “She loves doing this contest. It’s one of her favorite things to do. She got third in 2004 and 2008 and this was her last year of eligibility. She was really excited and nervous about it being her last year. She was one of the last ones of the top 10 called so she was really nervous and scared. When they called her she was surprised and happy. Then it kind of hit her and she was really emotional.” Eventually, when she’s old enough, Gabby would like to run for Happy Canyon princess.Comment:  The pageant's recognition of regalia is okay. But "poise"? What do braided hair and makeup have to do with poise? It seems this pageant is judging how feminine--how pretty and presentable--these girls are and mislabeling it "poise."

The real problem is having a beauty pageant for girls as young as five. And getting them excited about it at age 1. This is why girls have body-image issues, people. It's why they become anorexic or bulimic. It's why some have sex and get pregnant as teenagers--to prove their worth as women. It's why others become depressed or suicidal--because they can't achieve the "glamorous" life of a beauty pageant winner.

So many levels of foolishness here. Native cultures adopting the white man's ways. Native girls being taught to smile and wave like Barbie dolls. And journalists writing about beauty pageants uncritically.

If you want to recognize Native regalia, great. Have a regalia contest that doesn't depend on hair, makeup, or poise. Honor the children who embody their culture without becoming stereotypical princesses.

For more on beauty pageants, see Miss Universe Canada Finalist in a Headdress and Documentary About Hearing Radmilla.

Below:  "Keahna Bill had her makeup applied by Crystal Pond, a Happy Canyon princess from 2006."

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