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."