“First and foremost,” McConnell says she wants to thank “my parents, my tribe and my amazing community.”
As Miss Indian World, McConnell, who has previously worked in the tribe’s food sovereignty division and now works with artist Julian Lang in its master apprentice language acquisition program run by the Advocates for Indigenous Californian Language Survival, may travel around the country and overseas to connect with other Indigenous communities. “I will serve as a cultural goodwill ambassador for all of Indian Country and Indigenous community worldwide,” she says. Her goodwill and spirit of cooperation already won her the additional title of Miss Congeniality. “That the majority of my fellow sisters voted for me that really touched my heart.”
It was at U.C. Davis McConnell first heard of the competition from professor Jessa Rae Growing Thunder, who’d served as Miss Indian World in 2012-2013 and went on to work on behalf of her people, including through the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People movement. While she was impressed, McConnell says, “I never dreamed of doing this. … I never thought I’d be competing in it.”
The international pageant takes place during the Gathering of Nations, North America’s largest pow wow, and is open to any Indigenous woman ages 18 to 25. Contestants — 25 this year — are judged on their personal interview, essay and letters of recommendation, public speaking, traditional talents, dance and overall character, the last of which is evaluated over the course of the pow wow.
For her essay, McConnell says, “I focused on what it’s like here in Humboldt County, living in our ancestral lands,” her work with Indigenous language on a trip to Austraila and helping run the Indigenous advisory committee at U.C. Davis. She also outlined her goals of participating in ceremony here, preserving tattooing culture and serving as part of her tribe, “those who fix the world and those who balance the world by fulfilling our spiritual and physical obligations.”
Explaining her own traditional basketry — the process, the willow and bear grass materials, and its snake nose design — in Karuk won her Best Traditional Talent. “It’s really one of the core elements of our culture,” she says, adding she learned from Yurok tribal member Theresa Surgaugh. She also presented other visual artwork readers might be familiar with, including the image she created for this year’s Godwit Days, her mural at the Trinidad Rancheria Social Services Building and “Undamming,” the illustration that ran on the cover of the Journal’s March, 4, 2021 issue.
The dance competition in front of a crowd of 4,000 attendees was a bit daunting, as it’s all done “to the heartbeat of a big drum,” not to the same rhythms of Yurok and Karuk dance, which she describes as “slow and graceful movement.” The unchoreographed movement, including the elements of Brush Dancing she incorporated, is “all about the feeling.” McConnell says she was shaking with nerves but pressed on. “I just did my best,” she says with a laugh. “That was my first time dancing at a pow wow and our type of dancing at home has a very different beat.”
McConnell also sang a traditonal style song of her own composition, “a song of gratitude and respect for the creative energies that define myself and my people.” Those energies were on full display in the form of her regalia, which was the result of labor and care from friends and family back home.
Her woven cap was made with black fern by her great-great-great-grandmother Fanny Rube Dowd, who was one of the last traditional doctors in our area. She calls her maple bark skirt, which was once a daily outfit, “the LBD of the local Indigenous people,” noting she wore it for 10 days during the White Deer Dance. Yurok Tribe member and regalia designer Shoshoni Hostler loaned her regalia and helped her design a one-of-a-kind cape drawing on other bibs and capes. “She was so gracious and kind to let me put my own ideas and flair into something that she created,” says McConnell, explaining it was “made of braided bear grass, darkened pine nuts that my dad gathered and my family and close friends processed … [as well as] abalone given to me by close friends and that I processed and polished. … I just love that.”
McConnell is eager to give credit to those who contributed to her painstakingly created regalia. Her belt was the work of Loreta Brown and Olivia Rose Williams, and she also wore Hostler’s medicine dress during the competition. Otter wraps and ties in her hair were from Rachel Sundberg of the Trinidad Rancheria, while her pine nut anklets were her mother’s handiwork.
“It took so much support from my community to suit up and do this,” says McConnnell. “It wasn’t just me and that’s what it means to be Indigenous; we share and we help each other.”