Miss Native American SUU: Shelvie James

As Miss SUU Native American, Shelvie James doesn’t concern herself with the glory of her crown. Instead, she is focused on how her crown can help others as well as bringing back an important part of her culture she felt she had previously lost.

James, a sophomore double-majoring in anthropology and sociology from San Carlos, Arizona, represented the San Carlos Apache Tribe in the Fall 2018 Miss SUU Native American Pageant.

“What drew me to run in the pageant is that it isn’t just something you win,” said James. “It’s a title you can use to help people and bring that voice awareness. And that’s what I want to do.”

Growing up on a reservation, James observed that life was often difficult for the people that lived there.

“I started to notice things that could be challenging for most people,” said James. “There was always instances of alcohol abuse and drugs. Nobody ever had a full family— there was always one mom or one dad.”

James was lucky enough to be able to leave the reservation and begin her collegiate career here at SUU.

“I registered for classes and found a place to live four days before school started,” said James. “I took a risk in coming here, but I feel pretty sure it was the right decision because I felt instantly at home here.”

Even though James left the reservation, she wants to be a role model for the youth who still live there.

“I wanted to leave (the reservation) and help it,” said James. “I didn’t want to leave it and forget it because I know that there are people like me who are struggling to get out. I want to be able to bring the awareness to the youth in my tribe to go out and further their education.”

As Miss SUU Native American, James desires to use her new platform to advocate for mental health awareness and inspire youth to attend college.

“I know how much it means to people to know that they are important and be listened to which goes back to my platform on mental health awareness,” said James. “I hope I can be a role model. I want people to know that your weaknesses don’t define you and that there is a chance and hope that you can improve.”

James competed in the pageant not only to be a role model but also to remind herself of her culture and where she came from.

“Even though I grew up on the reservation, I was kind of not really into my traditions,” said James. “So something I really wanted to do within the pageant was bring back what I felt like had lost. But it was never really lost; it was just remembering it again.”

In order to be a part of the pageant, James had to wear her own traditional Native American dress and perform a cultural dance.

The dress James used for the pageant is a handmade original dress made by her aunt. The dress is bright blue, a color that signifies new life and includes four ribbons that symbolize the four directions.

“It is important we know the four directions because it helps us know where to go and where we have been and where we are going to be at,” said James. “This helps our people. We like to continuously be united with each other.”

The T-necklace James wore, was originally used during her Sunrise ceremony. The sunrise ceremony is a coming of age ceremony for all the women in James’s tribe.

“It’s basically to help prepare you for life,” said James. “It [brings] you that sense of what you have to look forward to when you are becoming a women.”

The Sunrise ceremony includes 128 dances, performed over the course of three days. Every dance performed is a prayer to a person’s family, land and reservation. Part of the ceremony required James to wake up at sunrise and not go to bed until everyone participating in the ceremony goes to sleep.

“It’s a lot of mental and physical stamina,” said James. “And that is why I picked one of my sunrise dances to perform for the pageant. I personally felt like it had the biggest impact on my life. It was hard. It was exhausting. There were times where I was like, ‘You know, I don’t totally know what I am doing right now and I want to quit.’ But my family was there and my extended family [was] cheering me on.”

James said that the “dances are supposed to strengthen you,” and she now uses that strength for others.

“I want to be able to help the youth,” said James. “It means a lot to me to know that there is still hope for people who think that there isn’t any hope.”

Over the next year, James wants to reach out to local schools here and on the reservation and be a spokesperson to help inspire them to achieve their dreams.

James is thankful for not only for all the contestants she competed with but also for the Native American Student Association (NASA).

“NASA is a big part of my life here on campus,” said James. “For me, knowing that I am able to represent my Apache tribe is great because I love NASA and I love that they all represent the Navajo nations.”

Story by Cassidy Harmon
Photo Courtesy of Shelvie James