On Friday night, hundreds gathered under and around two large white tents covering the powwow circle. Song and dance filled the Delta Park in Northeast Portland, celebrating the long awaited return of the Miss Indian Northwest Pageant in addition to the 51st Annual Delta Park Powwow.

Spectators and family members of the seven young women competing to represent the Native Nations from across the Northwest were on the edge of their seats as Rebecca Kirk, 3rd-generation Miss Indian Northwest Pageant director, asked the contestants to make their way into the circle for the crowning.

“All of these contestants, they are so brave for being able to step to the forefront to represent their communities,” Kirk, Klamath and Leech Lake Ojibwe, said over the microphone on Friday night. “Today you have made history by running for this pageant and you have made history as a warrior for your community by representing your people proudly.”

After months of preparation, fundraising, and competing in the Miss Indian Northwest Pageant to showcase their cultural knowledge and talents, only one would walk away with the beautifully beaded crown and sash made by Kirk and the Miss Indian Northwest team.

Contestants of the 2024-2025 Miss Indian Northwest Pageant pose for their photo after the talent competition held at OMSI on Thursday, June 13, 2024. L to R: Mauricea TwoEagle, Shoshone-Bannock and Washoe Nations, Jade Mokry, Coeur d’Alene Nation, Clarissa Morninggun, Cowichan Nation, Keyen Singer of Confederated Tribes of Umatilla, Thyreicia Simtusus, Warm Springs, Kamarin Gleason, Yakama Nation, and Leilonnie Wilson, ​​Klamath, Modoc, Yahooskin Paiute Nations. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

“Congratulations to our new Miss Indian Northwest, representing the Klamath people, Miss Leilonnie Wilson,” Kirk announced as the crowd erupted into applause and drum groups beat their drums.

Leilonnie Wilson, 19, representing the ​​Klamath, Modoc, Yahooskin Paiute Nations will serve as the new Miss Indian Northwest 2024-2025. The last time a person held the title was nearly three decades ago.

“What it means to me is the start of something new, not just to represent all the tribes in the [Northwest], but to represent everyone,” Wilson said. “It's a new flower, a new season, a new generation.”

Keyen Singer, representing the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, was awarded first runner-up, and Clarissa Morninggun, representing the Cowichan Nation was second runner-up. Mauricea TwoEagle, representing the Shoshone-Bannock and Washoe Nations was awarded Miss Congeniality, and Kamarin Gleason, representing the Yakama Nation, was awarded the Social Media Star award.

As Wilson made her victory lap, the Swarovski crystals used for the lettering on the sash sparkled and the buckskin fringe swayed with each step. As drummers sang her an honor song, Clarissa Morninggun’s mother threw down dollar bills as she danced by to show her blessings as the new Miss Indian Northwest.

As Leilonnie Wilson danced around the circle for the first time as Miss Indian Northwest. As drummers sang her an honor song, Clarissa Morninggun’s mother threw down dollar bills as she danced by to show her blessings as the new Miss Indian Northwest. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

Whirlwind Girl

Leilonnie Wilson’s traditional name is qaqii?aqs ‘nisq’aak, which translates to Whirlwind Girl. She says people call her the “lucky one” because she was raised immersed in her culture by her foster mom, Catherine Mex Weiser.

Weiser, ​​Klamath, Modoc, Yahooskin Paiute Nations, says she entered Wilson in her first powwow dance competition before she even left the cradle board.

“She had her first contest when she was two weeks old, in her cradle board,” Weiser said with a smile.

Wilson was raised in a family that actively practices their culture and regularly hits the powwow trail. Weiser said she grew up looking up to relatives who were also title holders.

“My cousin Tina Bates, from our town was Miss Indian Northwest also,” Weiser said. “Ramona Soto Rank is our cousin, and she was Miss Indian America. So she has always seen them as idols.”

Leilonnie Wilson, ​​Klamath, Modoc, Yahooskin Paiute Nations sings songs in Klamath with her nephew during the talent portion of the Miss Indian Northwest Pageant held at OMSI on Thursday June 13, 2024 (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

With role models like that, Wilson grew up with goals of holding titles herself, including Miss Naiumuma 2023-2024.

She hopes that by holding the title as Miss Indian Northwest she could help to inspire other youth to break out of their comfort zone and try something new.

“I decided to take more of a career path to my nieces and nephews,” Wilson said. “That's what inspires me– my nieces and nephews that live with me. I'm doing this for them, and not just for them either, but for my community as well.”

Originally from Beatty, Oregon, Wilson currently attends Klamath Community College with plans to transfer to University of Oregon to continue studying linguistics.

“Then I could be able to go back home and teach in Chiloquin and Klamath our ​​Klamath, Modoc, and our Yahooskin language so that the Native kids can get their second language credits, so they don't have to be like me and make it up as I'm going in college,” Wilson told Cronogomet.

A young girl reviews the Miss Indian Northwest Pageant pamphlet during the talent portion of the competition held at OMSI on June 13, 2024. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

Wilson said she hopes to study other foreign languages as well to help provide a variety of languages for the youth in her community when she returns home to teach.

“I'm going to make sure I get my Spanish degree and maybe French or German, just so it gives the kids variety,” Wilson said. “Even if they're non-Native and they want to learn the language, it gives all the kids a chance to get a second language credit.”

History of Miss Indian Northwest

For Kirk, breathing life back into the pageant was personal because it’s a part of her family’s legacy.

“As a third generation pageant director, it really is a huge responsibility to be able to represent my family, as well as to put on the best program that I possibly can because this is my family's legacy,” Kirk said. “And these are also things that my daughter, who is only four years old, is able to witness and also participate in.”

Five and a half decades ago, Kirk’s grandmother, Barbara Alatorre (Farmer) of the Klamath and Yakama Nations, created the Miss Indian Northwest pageant in hopes that it would create opportunities for young Native leaders to represent Northwest Nations as a goodwill ambassador each year.

The top three finalists of the 2024-2025 Miss Indian Northwest Pageant pose for their photo after the crowning at Delta Park Powwow on June 14, 2024. L to R: Clarissa Morninggun, representing the Cowichan Nation was second runner-up, Leilonnie Wilson, representing the ​​Klamath, Modoc, Yahooskin Paiute Nations was crowned Miss Indian Northwest, and Keyen Singer, representing the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, was awarded first runner-up. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

After Alatorre had successfully built up the pageant, she passed the baton down to her daughter, Stephanie Smith, Klamath and Ojibwe.

Kirk vividly remembers being a little girl watching her mother planning out the pageant and beading the signature red roses and Portland cityscape on the front of crowns well into the night.

“Those are memories that it's like it was yesterday, and now that's me today, creating the crown and even having my daughter help me,” Kirk shared. “I string the beads on, and I would have her help me pull the needle and thread through.”

After a few years of running the pageant on her own, Smith decided to make the tough decision to put a pause on the pageant to raise her two toddlers in 1997. She then passed it down to her daughter, Rebecca Kirk, who brought it back to life this year and continues on with her grandmother’s legacy today.

Miss Indian Northwest Pageant Director, Rebecca Kirk, Klamath and Leech Lake Ojibwe, presents Aurolyn Sawyer, Miss Indian Northwest 1978, with the 2024 Elite Women's Entrepreneurial award during the talent portion of the competition. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Cronogomet / Report for America)

One of the main things Kirk wants people to know about Miss Indian Northwest is that this is not a beauty pageant, rather it is a traditional cultural pageant, and it's “based on what you know as a Native person.”

According to the website, Miss Indian Northwest is not only knowledgeable in her cultural traditions, she would also be intelligent and able to articulate her platform effectively to the communities she would travel and speak to.

“We are preparing these young leaders, mentoring them, and showing them what it takes to become a strong leader in Indian Country, starting with representing all of your tribes with this regional Northwest title,” Kirk said.

Kirk says that Indian Country needs more ambassadors like Miss Indian northwest to inspire other Native youth, to show them that they can accomplish anything, if they are determined.

“I just want to say that I am so proud of each and every one of you, because I know throughout this process a lot of you have overcome many obstacles and yet you persevered and you pushed through and you are here today,”Kirk said to the contestants. “So be very proud of everything that you accomplished this far. To me, you are all winners.”

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Jarrette is a multimedia journalist with experience in digital news, audio reporting and photojournalism. He joined Underscore in June 2022 in partnership with the national Report for America program....