As the sun beat down on the streets of Portland the second Saturday in May, hundreds of families lined the sidewalks to watch the annual St. Johns Parade.

Near the middle of the procession, 15 convertibles drove past with this year’s Portland Rose Festival Court. Leading the Court, Heleen Red Bird, a junior from Roosevelt high school, smiled and waved. A warhoop echoed out from the crowd and Red Bird offered an extra big smile.

“Of course she looked, she’s Native,” said the audience member who let out the call.

A descendant of the Fort Peck Sioux and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes, Red Bird won the honor of serving as the Rose Princess for Roosevelt High School this year, joining 14 other young women from high schools across the Portland metro area.

On June 7, one will be selected to serve as Rose Queen for the next year. Until then, the court has been busy attending parades, learning how to interact with media, receiving mentorship and more.

“In my speech, I ended up talking about representing the Native community within the Rose Festival,” Red Bird said. “[When I become queen] I can help everyone incorporate more Indigenous influences throughout the Rose Festival.”

Roosevelt High School junior Heleen Red Bird, descendant of the Fort Peck Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes, is an active youth leader at her school, serving as co-president of Roosevelt’s Indigenous Alliance club. She is also active in theater and hopes to attend Howard University. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

Running for princess

Standing on the stage in front of her peers at Roosevelt High School on March 5, Red Bird wore a long, salmon-colored gown and borrowed, multi-tiered Native-made earrings. She said her nerves began to bubble up as Haley Lawson, seasonal events assistant at the Portland Rose Festival Foundation, opened the small envelope containing the name of the 2024 Roosevelt Rose Princess.

“When she finally opened it, it didn't fully register in my mind that she said my name…It took me a whole good 10 seconds before I realized that I was the one that won,” Red Bird said. “I was so proud of how far I had come.”

Cheers erupted from the crowd as Lawson announced that Red Bird had won. Red Bird held back tears of happiness while getting hugs from her mom and brother, dressed in a ribbon skirt and a ribbon shirt.

“Joy and pride went through my whole body. I felt my mom’s spirit with me,” said Red Bird’s mom, Khalea Phar, Fort Peck Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. “It was like I could feel how proud our ancestors were. I knew she was going to win but when it actually happened it was the best feeling ever.”

After being crowned as Rose Princess, each young woman was gifted a golden rose and chain as a keepsake. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

Being crowned Rose Princess is much more than a popularity contest. To be eligible, contestants must meet a number of requirements and then write and give two different speeches to their schools and judges from the Portland Rose Festival Foundation.

Phar, Red Bird’s mom, works in foster care support at the Native American Youth and Family Center. Red Bird met her many community service hour requirements by helping her mom at NAYA. She is involved in her school community through theater and as co-president of Roosevelt’s Indigenous Alliance.

For her two-minute speech responding to the question “Where do you see the Rose Festival in the next 30 years?,” Red Bird talked about her experience as a young Native woman and the importance of diversity in community. One of her goals as princess is to spread awareness about the Native nations and Indigenous people in and around Portland.

Red Bird grew up in Madras, Oregon near the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs reservation, raised by her Native grandparents and mother. In middle school, she moved to Portland with her mom and her older brother, who she calls her best friend.

When her extended family found out that Red Bird won the title of Roosevelt’s Rose Princess, they told her: “You are making your great-grandmother proud.”

For Red Bird, her role as princess is about making her family proud and creating more opportunities for other Native community members in Portland.

“I was lucky enough to live so close to my people that a lot of [Native] people in Portland aren’t able to experience that,” Red Bird said. “By having a Native princess or Native queen on the [Rose Court], I can help bring that to other Native communities within Portland.”

As a descendant of the Fort Peck Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes, Heleen Red Bird uses her platform to amplify the importance of authentic Indigenous representation and create more space for Indigenous community. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

Princess duties

Since the beginning of May, Red Bird and the 14 other princesses on the 2024 Rose Festival Court have been busy with trainings, community tours, parades and more. The court took a trip to Pendleton where they had horseback riding lessons and evening dancing. They’ve planted roses, been interviewed and learned about small businesses around Portland.

The group travels five days a week for five weeks. They visit events, youth organizations and community leaders in preparation for the Rose Parade and the Queen’s coronation.

The outpouring of support from the community during the St. Johns Parade was evident as spectators cheered for all. But it was particularly loud when Red Bird’s name was announced.

As hundreds of spectators gathered to watch the annual St. John's Parade on May 11, 2024, Heleen Red Bird led the Portland Rose Festival Court. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

Roosevelt High School has been part of the Rose Festival tradition since 1930, according to Marilyn Clint, CEO of the Portland Rose Festival Foundation.

“Representing your community still matters: representing your school, representing your neighborhood,” Clint said. “We are all unified and the Rose Festival Court unifies all of these schools and all of these communities, but you're still proud of where you came from.”

Clint, a descendant of the Chinook Indian Nation, remembers the sense of community pride that comes with being crowned princess. Though never a Rose Princess herself, she graduated from Roosevelt in 1974 and remembers the importance of the crowning for princess and then queen.

Red Bird’s pride for her community runs deep and her commitment to amplifying Indigenous voices and experiences in her position is a priority.

“Given our strong Native community there should have been a Native queen long ago and multiple of them,” Phar said. “We are all on Indigenous land. She stands firm in why she decided to run for Princess and Queen. Representation matters.”

On June 7, a queen will be crowned, and it could be Red Bird. Regardless, she will always be a Rose Princess.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, using our Republishing Guidelines.

Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to center the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Of Osage and Oneida Nations descent, with Northern European...