The days of April 25th – May 1st and those leading up were a pure whirlwind that took my world by its roots and nourished them with adoration; a whirlwind that took me to new heights and greater understanding and respect for the world around me. An unforgettable experience that consisted of adrenaline highs, altitude sickness lows and all the amazing fun times through that, far and wide and in between.
For the first time in awhile I dug deep to find the courage to apply and run as a “Miss Indian World” contestant at the Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In past years I had never felt fully confident in myself and my abilities and the title of “Miss Indian World” seemed incredibly prestigious including the criteria of a young, beautiful, confident Indigenous woman with strong cultural knowledge, abilities to represent entire Indigenous nations across the world, speaking from her heart and showcasing her true self to the world. I always thought to myself, of course I wasn’t deemed fit for that. However, at this time I would like to thank those strong, beautiful and resilient women who inspired and mentored me throughout the years to the point where I felt ready to embark on this experience. To my mother Melanie Dean who paved the way my entire life, implanting that seed of cultural knowledge, raising me in a home with our traditional instruments, medicines, teachings and creating intricate works of regalia for every stage of my growth. I also thank my grandmother who also shared with me her wisdom and stories and offered her support and care. These two women were my prime examples growing up, following in their footsteps and striving for self-respect, self-love and an all seven sacred teachings attitude toward our self and the world around us. With this thanks, I would like to extend it to the rest of my family from my Nihithaw “Swampy Cree” roots on my mother’s side from our community of Mathias Colomb Cree Nation. Including all of my aunts, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers and countless cousins who supported my journey throughout the years. I would also like to acknowledge and thank my father Andrew Spence and my Anishinaabe/Ojibway roots from my father’s side from the community of Lake St. Martin First Nation. I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for that acknowledgement of both my Cree and Ojibway identity.
The thank you list continues, hang in there. Please do not turn away, as these people are vital to the story and deserve all of the recognition in the world. I’d like to thank those community mentors who have inspired me, those who I looked up to and found guidance from including Tasha and Leslie Spillet, Miss Lisa Meeches, Wab Kinew and Lisa Kinew, Connie Constant, Ray and Rhonda Stevenson, Violet Duncan and many many others. All of these people have paved the way for us as Indigenous peoples. Becoming well known in their home communities and being amazing people in their own ways, thus becoming role models and mentors for young Indigenous women like myself. Tasha and Wab specifically helped me with writing incredible recommendation letters and Lisa has always motivated me toward running. I’d also like to acknowledge Hilda Bighetty: super awesome phenomenal elder and cousin who helped me with my Nihithaw language that I would later include into my speeches, introductions and recognitions. All of these beautiful souls helped build together the courage to represent myself as a Nihithaw and Anishinaabe woman and to also bring a voice to Mathias Colomb Cree Nation and Lake St. Martin First Nation and speak on behalf of issues that I felt were important in our Canadian society including youth empowerment, mental health and (MMIWG) missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
Youth empowerment encompasses youth from all nations and backgrounds but of course also specifically within Indigenous youth. Providing them with the tools and resources to feel empowered toward reclaiming who they are as Indigenous young people; Reclaiming songs, dances, traditions, languages, stories, etc. and being proud of that. Bring empowerment to educate themselves on their rich histories and find ways to move forward in this ever-expanding world. Also empowerment to non-indigenous youth to do the same, learn about who you are, where you come from and learn to keep an open mind and open heart to those around you. Create safe spaces of acceptance and equality among your peers, find ways to diminish racism and discrimination and violence in your community, for we are all related and we all need reconciliation and healing.
In regards to mental health, this is a topic I am also passionate about because I have experienced my own path of mental health in forms of anxiety, panic attacks and depression. It is a story that I was ashamed of for many years and kept a lot of it to myself but it was through the strength of sharing my voice and asking for help that brought healing into my life. The hoop dance and a lot of my cultural teachings also played a major role in this growth. I hope to grow to be a strong advocate for these issues and bring a heightened awareness to mental health and its ties with Indigenous communities in terms of intergenerational effects, adaption to urban lifestyle, etc.
And of course my final platform of MMIWG, after attended countless candle lit vigils, watching the tears and outcries from elders in my community, watching as fear set into the young women in my community and watching close friends, family and community members have to deal with a lost loved one. This is an epidemic happening in Winnipeg and all across Canada that needs to be fully addressed, talked about and given action from all levels of peoples from our self, to our communities, to our nations and through out governments and those in power. We need change.
With each young woman backed with their platforms in mind, the pageant began with a fun orientation dinner where all of us young women met each other and our chaperones. The next day we were straight into traditional wear and private interviews. The holding room was full of nerves, laughs, coffee and snacks as well as beautiful, motivating and inspiring positive talks from the committee members. Following the interviews we had another dinner at an aquarium where we were distracted by the large pointed toothed sharks, funny looking fish and ancient looking turtles. This is when we also did the raffle draw. At this point I would also like to thank all of you who supported and bought raffle tickets even it was only one with the 2.50 in your pocket or if you bought 50! The support was greatly appreciated and I was very proud in the fact that I had sold all 1000 tickets. It was a fun evening and by this point I was more relaxed with the amazing group of women and committee members.
The next day was the huge talent production at the Kiva Auditorium with rehearsals all day starting at 8am sharp leading up to the main event at 7pm. I had chosen to fuse together traditional and contemporary powwow music together and bring forward my teachings on the traditional Indigenous hoop dance. The day was full of fear, excitement, dancing, massage trains, random break outs in song, braiding of hair, makeup fun with the Aveda team, all of us practicing in any space we could find vacant including showers, bathroom stalls, hallways or quietly in a corner. This was a day where I feel like we all truly bonded over funny family and travel stories, through sharing our experiences and common feelings and creating friendship and networks that would leave us feeling supported, grounded and ready for the night ahead. Let’s just say, I believe this was the pinnacle turning point of the whole week. The amount of adrenaline and pride I had up on that stage, giving it all that I had, dancing hard and speaking from the heart to the audience. Then afterwards being greeted by a roomful of applause from my newfound sisters. This was followed by an influx of crowd after the show; peoples young and old approached me in enthusiasm with an overwhelming array of questions, compliments and photographs. Through the blur of people I was on a mission to find my loving family through the sea of faces. The moment I found them my mom broke out in tears which then initiated the empathetic tear train from myself, my grandmother, my aunty, Lisa (one of the hosts of the talent show) and Candice. In that moment, I felt on top of the world, I felt proud in my performance and I could feel the immense amount of love and energy pouring from my family and those audience members who approached me and the rest of us girls after the show. I was overwhelmed with emotion. I spoke and danced with the strength of my ancestors deep in my heart, I danced to honor my family, my community and those who were in attendance that night. This performance won the award for “Best Traditional Presentation” on the final day.
The days that followed consisted of the the grand “Gathering of Nations” powwow! Nations represented from all over turtle island, North America and beyond. It was held at their new home at the Tingly Coliseum – Fitting name as the grand entry and the powwow always leaves most of us with the tingly feelings. Neeeh haha – This is me trying to offer some comic relief now, not too great at it ay? Anyways, our days were full of dancing in the grand entry, a feeling all on its own. The bright spotlights reflecting off our intricate regalia, our ribbons and fringes ready to whip, our feathers standing tall and our heads held high. The moment of first walking in to that arena, all eyes on you from every direction, the jingles of the bells and the bass of that drumbeat pounding through your entire being. The singing of that grand entry song as the announcer introduces each category into the circle. To be a spectator of the grand entry is marvelous but to be a participant within the grand entry, to be surrounded by nations, pride, dancers and constant flowing energies is beyond anything I’ve ever felt before.
Throughout the powwow times, us girls had our public speaking competition out at Stage 49, our dance competition and of course the crowning and awards ceremony that took place after the final grand entry of the final day of the powwow. During this time I became deeply reflective mode Shan. When am I never deeply reflective mode Shan though, am I right? Anyways…the whole day I was reflecting on everything I had learned, gained and found through this experience. I was thinking about everyone back home and those who were keeping up with this adventure online throughout social media updates or on the live stream. I was thinking about the youth, the elders and the community members back home. I was thinking about our ancestors who perhaps prayed and dreamed about a day like today where we were all gathered in that one place in pride. I reflected a lot on the past, present and future and above all I reflected very deeply about whom I am, whom I’ve become and whom I strive to be moving forward. The moment that they called my name for Second Runner up I was astonished. All of my hard work paid off and excitedly I ran up to Danielle who passed over to me the banner and gorgeous award with flowers. I would also love to congratulate the First Runner up, Mykhal Mendoza and of course the amazing Raven Swaamp. They were both so deserving of the titles they won and I know they will both do amazing at representing Indian country. I also want to congratulate my fellow sisters who also worked incredibly hard and represented their home nations with pride too. Each and every one of them inspired me and brought forward valuable moments and experiences that I will cherish for a very long time.
With all of this being said, I would like to thank everyone for reading up to this point and if I left anyone out of the thank you list I apologize, but please know everyone’s words, thoughts, prayers and immense support was deeply appreciated by little ol’ me and I am honored to have had this opportunity and to have been guided on this path in my life.
You may be asking, “K now what?” and in response to that, I’m going to keep doing the work that I am doing. I am going to continue to represent myself, our ancestors and our nations in the best way I know how through hoop dancing, fancy shawl dancing and speaking in regards to our reclamation as Indigenous peoples, bringing to light issues that are still prevalent in our society, raise awareness of topics I am passionate about and continue to try and inspire the next generations and change the world in the little ways that I can. Here’s to upward and onwards. See you on the trail! 😉
All my relations, ekosi – thank you.
P.S – Please enjoy the snapshots below that don’t even represent or encapsulate the amazing trip that we had or display the multitude of emotions, events and feelings that occurred throughout. Feel free to click on a photo for a longer description of that particular photo.