Native American Miss South Dakota Targets Stereotypes - 2002-09-18

When 51 young women from across the U.S. take the stage for the Miss America Pageant Saturday, September 21, one will be breaking a barrier. It's not because Vanessa Short Bull is Native American. There have been other American Indian women who've competed in the pageant and one, Norma Smallwood, a Cherokee from Oklahoma, became Miss America in 1926. What makes Miss Short Bull's presence on that stage significant is that she's the first Native American to hold the title of Miss South Dakota, a western state with a reputation particularly among Native people for being discriminatory toward Indians.

Vanessa Short Bull began her road to the Miss America Pageant as a senior in high school. She says her government studies teacher suggested that she try out for the Junior Miss South Dakota pageant because of her beauty, her poise, her sense of humor and her talent.

Ten years of ballet classes and a stint at New York City's Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre paid off for Miss Short Bull, she won the talent category for Junior Miss South Dakota. But it took several tries before she became Miss South Dakota. She attributes her determination to win as well as her political outspokenness to her grandmothers.

"I look at my grandmothers and just the way they led their lives. My grandmother Zona was actually the first person on the reservation to have a car...and that's amazing," she explain. " Because most people would assume that, hey, why in, what was that 1920 something - that, I mean, she had a job, she was supporting her family and she had a car, and most people wouldn't assume that a woman would do that. So I look to them, and being outspoken and speaking for your people, I think they're the true feminists."

Vanessa Short Bull also comes from a line of strong men, counting the legendary Lakota leaders Red Cloud and Short Bull among her ancestors. Her father, Tom Shortbull, is a former state senator and current president of Oglala Lakota College. Although Miss Short Bull hasn't lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation since she was six, this down-to-earth beauty queen says she's well aware of the problems faced by her people especially Lakota Sioux women.

"I go around the reservation seeing these most beautiful Indian girls, and they're not confident. When I see this it just breaks my heart because these are natural beauties and they should be proud of what they look like," she admits. "And I think that's because when they look in the magazines on newsstands, they aren't the blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauties. I just want to show them that, hey, if I can do it you more than certainly can do it. I really do think that Indian women are the most unique looking people, their facial features. And it's just sad not to see them not being confident in that. And hopefully, being in Miss America and showing them that you can be confident in your own skin, that's something I can give to them and hopefully I can see more Indian women pursuing being Miss South Dakota or going into the Miss USA system, just to be out there."

For Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Vanessa Short Bull's reign as Miss South Dakota will provide an opportunity for the world to see a beautiful Native woman and to learn that American Indians share many of the same values as other Americans.

"It's giving her a chance to not only represent the women of South Dakota, but also the Native women of South Dakota. We may not be rich, money-wise, but we have a lot of rich talents, rich culture and that, you know, we're genuine people," said one woman.

"You know, she's probably one of the most successful girls on the reservation, to actually be in that position," said another. " Like, she's not scared to do what she looks forward to doing, and like nothing else gets at her and she's just going out there and doing what she wants to do. I like that about her."

In spite of these accolades, Vanessa Short Bull remains humble. She says that winning beauty pageants has merely changed her from an "ugly duckling" into a more confident duck. And she adds that the last thing she wants to be seen as is an "American Indian" beauty queen.

"I don't want to sell people on the fact that I'm Indian. That's something that's just part of me. I don't have to go out and force-feed people, you know, be aware I'm Indian," she says. " I think people, when they see me, are going to say, 'Well, of course she's Indian. Her last name's Short Bull, she's got features...' and I want people to see me for who I am and not for the fact that I'm the first Native American Miss South Dakota."

That seems to be happening. In a state whose residents are frequently viewed as discriminatory by tribal members, the first Native American Miss South Dakota is not drawing controversy.

"I don't think it's a big deal. I don't think it's any different than having someone who's German, Italian, whatever nationality they are. We don't think it's that rare," said one local.

However, the fact that it's taken so long for an Indian to win the state title is not lost on other South Dakotans.

"I've never thought of a person of a different race winning the Miss South Dakota title," said one woman. "I'm happy that a Native American is representing us."

Comments like that don't surprise Tom and Darlene Shortbull, who say they look forward to their daughter's contributions to improved race relations in the state.

"The whole issue of improved race relations has to be enhanced when we as Indian people go out there and accomplish things," Mr. Short Bull says. "As Vanessa said, there's been a stereotype in South Dakota that we're lazy Indians, we don't accomplish much. I think she's a positive role model as other people are in this state, who go on to be doctors and lawyers and things like that. And so when I think the non-Indian population sees us in a more positive light, that's got to have a positive impact. "

"It's America. I mean, this is the American dream for Vanessa and for us," adds Mr. Short Bull. "I think it's a positive image that everybody really, really needs to see, as far as Indian Country. Because I think we are so caught up in our problems, right on the reservation, that we never see further, you know, what can happen outside of the reservation. And certainly Vanessa's doing it. She's out there showing people, here we are we're Indians."

Just as her grandmother was the first person on Pine Ridge to own a car Vanessa Short Bull would also like to be a 'first' - the first Indian woman from her state to become Miss America. Her platform calls for political awareness and participation. And while she stresses that it's imperative for American Indians to get out and vote, she says she'd like to see everyone in the country take part in the political process.

"It's just important that people get out and vote. It's so important," she stresses. "People around here don't remember our grandparents who fought in World War II, who fought for the freedoms that we enjoy but, yet, we're not partaking in it. And one of the greatest freedoms that we have is the right to vote. I want to show people that yes, I am Indian, but I still have the same ideals and values as everyone else. It's Miss America, we are trying to find things that unite us all and that we all are the same."

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs