(CNN)As her silver crown shimmered in the sunlight, Shaandiin Parrish loaded car after car in the Navajo Nation‘s Huerfano chapter area with food and toilet paper.
When the coronavirus pandemic halted the nursing home visits and speeches that kept her Miss Navajo Nation predecessors busy, Parrish knew she couldn’t hang up her crown and sash.
“She becomes everybody’s mother, everybody’s sister, everybody’s aunt,” the 26-year-old said about holding her title.
The Navajo Nation, spanning more than 27,000 square miles across parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, had at one point some of the highest Covid-19 infection rates per capita in the United States. Regular weekend lockdowns and nightly curfews have since helped flattened its curve, but authorities are not easing restrictions yet.
The incidence of Covid-19 cases among American Indians and Alaska Natives has been 3.5 times higher than among White people, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The pandemic has led Indigenous pageant queens or tribal ambassadors like Parrish to redefine their duties. While the majority have been unable to travel, these young women have sewn hundreds of face masks, launched online campaigns to increase census participation after it was hampered by the pandemic and secured school supplies for thousands of children.
Parrish and other leaders in the Navajo Nation have worked since March to stop the spread of the virus. As of September 8, there have been 9,903 coronavirus cases within the territory.
When the pandemic first forced families to shelter in place, Parrish became a temporary spokeswoman for the reservation’s emergency operations center. Months later, as thousands fell ill to the virus, she traveled from her home in Window Rock, Arizona, to join teams distributing food and supplies to families in need.
“I knew that I could use my talents, my education and my experience to the best of my ability to convey the importance of wearing a mask and of social distancing,” said Parrish, who had been a spokeswoman for the Arizona state treasurer before winning her title.
These pageants are not about showcasing beauty. To win, contestants should embrace their heritage, language and traditional practices. In the case of Parrish, she had to butcher a sheep in an hour and cook a large meal as a way to symbolize that she can provide for her family.
During the competitions, some contestants sing in their tribes language, showcase traditional dances or demonstrate ceremonies or practices unique to their tribes.
For contestants, the indigenous pageants are mainly an opportunity to develop their leadership skills and a chance to be the voice of their people outside their communities.
Census participation gets new attention
Weeks before Cheyenne Ette Kippenberger was set to pass the title of Miss Indian World to her successor, the Gathering of Nations — the world’s largest pow wow — and the pageant were canceled in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Kippenberger, the first member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida to win the pageant, scratched her plans of returning to school and agreed to extend her reign for another year.
“I was so heartbroken for the girls who were going to be competing this year,” Kippenberger said. “But I felt like I needed to do that for my people.”
Kippenberger has continued speaking about mental health in Native communities but now solely during virtual events. In recent weeks, she launched a social media campaign focusing on getting indigenous people to complete the census.
Tribal areas traditionally have some of the lowest participation numbers and Covid-19 become another challenge. In 2010, American Indians living on reservations and Alaska Natives were undercounted by approximately 4.9%, according to the Census Bureau.
Many tribal lands and reservation residents rely on census takers to drop off materials on their front doors because their addresses are not listed, they don’t have landlines or they have limited internet access. Those efforts were delayed in mid-March when the Census Bureau temporarily suspended its field operations to protect communities.
Field operations resumed in phases over the summer but completion remains low. So far, the Navajo Nation has a 19% response rate, while the Hopi Tribe in Arizona had a 16.6% rate, according to data released by the Census Bureau. In Montana, the Crow Indian Reservation had a 15.3% rate, compared to 12.6% for Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.
Pageant winners use social media to get message out
As the Census deadline approaches, pageant winners of all ages — including male title holders — representing tribes in Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Oregon have joined Kippenberger by posting photos of themselves wearing their multicolor traditional regalia, crowns and sashes and holding “Be counted” or “Indian Country Counts” signs.
“My family counts,” reads a sign held by a group of children ambassadors from The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in Oregon.
Indigenous people have been “so undercounted and so underrepresented” for decades and young leaders want to change it, Kippenberger said.
“When we receive that proper count, we can receive proper funding for our communities,” Kippenberger added.
Miss Native American USA Lexie Michael James, who also agreed to extend her reign for another year, says Covid-19 has changed life in the Hopi Reservation. Many ceremonies and traditional social dances have been postponed or modified for social distancing, the 24-year-old said.
Before the pandemic, groups of about 20 women would gather and turn dozens of pounds of flour into traditional bread and pastries in the days leading to a ceremony. It’s a tradition that would bring generations, and sometimes even an entire clan together, James said.
“I would get together with my clan sisters, my clan mothers, my clan grandmothers and you’ll just share laughing and talking throughout the day,” James told CNN.
Many tribal communities across the US have limited access to water and suffer from preexisting health conditions that put them at a higher risk of Covid-19 complications, and many lost their jobs early in the pandemic, James and Parrish said.
While James has continued focusing on her platform of mental health awareness and suicide prevention, she and a group of friends launched an initiative to provide school supplies to more than 1,000 children in the Hopi reservation.
“We wanted to show our students here that they have the support of community members. That they have people who care that they have the necessary supplies or the tools to have a good academic school year,” James said.
Their efforts draw the attention from the National Guard, which donated hundreds of school supplies and from Hopi artists who donated more than 100 items, including paintings and jewelry, for a raffle to support their initiative.
“When the pandemic hit, I did felt really lost for a minute,” James said. “But I think this has given us a really good opportunity to stop and reflect on what it is that we want to achieve with our titles.”
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