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Miss Indian World works to instill pride in Native American heritage

New Mexico women in the upcoming Miss Indian World pageant say the contest is a way to affirm their culture and their lives.

“I want to speak on behalf of my experiences, my ambitions and most of all my tribe,” says Sophia Ponce, 25, of the Mescalero Apache tribe. “My mom says, ‘never give up on your dreams,’ and that stuck with me. I want the courage to speak up on behalf of my dreams to be a representative of Native American women.”

Ponce, who works for an insurance agency in Ruidoso, says her family, especially an aunt who passed away last year, always encouraged her. “I just thought how happy it would make her if I was in the pageant.”

Another New Mexico woman, also from the Mescalero Apache tribe, Megan Byers, 19, says she wanted to be in the contest to help show her younger cousins and friends that they can pursue whatever dreams they have.

“That’s tied into my goals: to instill pride in our identity as native people,” she says. “I want to tell young people, you can achieve whatever you want if you put in the hard work. There’s more to life than living on the reservation. We can help each other by stepping up.”

Both women stress that the pageant is about cultural competency, rather than appearances.

Ponce says, “It differs than other competitions because it’s not bikini based. It’s based on cultural knowledge and your drive and determination to help others.”

Program coordinator Melonie Mathews says the goal of Miss Indian World Pageant is about presenting Native American culture and tradition. Contestants are judged on their abilities to showcase and present their tribal knowledge through their own experience in a variety of categories. The pageant is in its 32nd year.

The winner becomes an ambassador for Native Americans and the Gathering of Nations across the country and the world.

Native recording artist Kansas Begaye of Rio Rancho, who won in 2013, says she’s still traveling and speaking as a result of her title.

Begaye, 27, a Navajo, whose mother and father live in Waterflow, N.M., says she’s been all over the country and to Russia and South Korea, where she met with other indigenous people from those places.

“It’s truly been a beautiful time of my life,” she says. “The pageant was a boot camp for being Miss Indian World. It helps you learn to think on your feet, to know where you stand on subjects and issues.”

Begaye had won other regional titles before winning the Gathering of Nations pageant.

She has a degree from the University of New Mexico and plans to pursue a master’s degree in jurisprudence and Native American law in Oklahoma.

She says as she’s traveled she’s encouraged other young Native Americans to study and graduate: “Your education will never leave you, never break your heart and no one can ever take it away from you.”

The traditional talent competitions are 7 p.m. April 28 at the Kiva Auditorium in the Albuquerque Convention Center. The winner will be crowned at the Gathering of Nations Powwow in the WisePies Arena, The Pit.

Ponce says she will share her culture through storytelling.

Byers says she is bringing another dancer and a singer to present an Apache War Dance. “We will be in full regalia. I’m excited for that. The war dance instills pride. Apaches dance before battle to get their minds right and after to give thanks to the creator for making them victorious.”

Byers, who will soon graduate from the New Mexico Military Institute, says her family encouraged her to go to the school so she could learn discipline and independence.

Military school has also allowed her Apache heritage expression. She loves to hike and hunt when she’s home in Mescalero.

“I’ve changed a lot since I was 14,” she says. “I can take care of myself and have the discipline to get things done.”

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