When Delena Smith entered the coliseum in Albuquerque, N.M., for the Gathering of Nations Powwow, she found the drum beats, bells, jingles and rattle sounds of 5,000 dancers and 100 drum groups awesome.
Smith, 23, a Head Start teacher on Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota, walked out of the largest Indian event in the nation April 24 with the crown of Miss Indian World.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience in her journey – her life path. She represents who we are as Anishinaabeg people,” said Larry Stillday, spiritual leader of the tribe who prayed at an honoring ceremony for her Wednesday in Red Lake.
For the new Miss Indian World, her first appointment was to go to the school and give all her 16 Head Start students a hug.
During the honoring ceremony, the young students hung around their teacher waiting for a smile and a hug as she received blankets, flowers and gifts. Toward the end of the honoring ceremony the Head Start students returned the gesture by each giving her a rose.
Albuquerque is much bigger than her rural reservation home in Red Lake. But Smith was more intimidated by the beauty, poise and ease of the other 16 candidates who were competing for Miss Indian World. After she got to know the girls, she said, things were more relaxed.
She learned a lot.
“I learned the differences between Eskimo and Athabascan people who live in Alaska and I learned the different styles of the Southwest dancers.”
In turn, Smith taught the other contestants about the traditional jingle dress. Jingle dresses, she said, were medicine dresses used only in ceremonies. Today they have been adopted into modern society as a contemporary style for dancing.
Smith knows jingle dress dancing. Dancing is a part of her life. She said she started dancing nearly before she could walk. Smith said she dances for two hours every day without the jingle dress and to a tape recorder. Those strenuous dancing exercises not only keep her in shape, but hone her skills as a dancer.
The pageant wasn’t all dancing and dressing in traditional outfits. She had to write a five-page essay, answer an impromptu question in front of an audience, dance in the contest and perform a talent. For the talent she told the story of the dream catcher, about Nokomis and the spider.
She set a goal for herself when she was just a child, she said. She wanted the opportunity to show the nation that beautiful and educated women live on the reservations, too. Smith wanted to portray the American Indian culture in a positive way.
For now she will be living at Red Lake and at home with her parents, Norine and Paul Smith, but she said she’ll leave options open for other opportunities.
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