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Some women who were once at the forefront of an effort to combat racism toward Native Americans are gathering this weekend. Winners of the Miss Indian America Pageant are holding a reunion in Sheridan, Wyoming. The pageant ran from 1953 to 1984 and attracted contestants from across the country. Wyoming Public Radio's Irina Zhorov reports.

IRINA ZHOROV, BYLINE: Wahleah Lujan was Miss Indian America 1966. She was very shy when she won at 19. Here she is in an archival recording just after being crowned, addressing a ladies' luncheon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WAHLEAH LUJAN: The most important thing in my life is the preservation of our ancient pueblo and the Rio Pueblo de Taos.

ZHOROV: Today, 47 years later, she's proud that she helped preserve her people's land. The retired elementary school teacher attributes her success, at least in part, to her days as Miss Indian America.

LUJAN: My greatest concern was to show the world that we have a wonderful culture, not just Taos Pueblo but all the tribes throughout the United States. And finally we were being given the spotlight and it was an extremely challenging and at the same time rewarding time for me.

ZHOROV: The point of the pageant was to endear Native American people and culture to the rest of America. It was necessary, says historian Greg Nickerson, because Sheridan, Wyoming, in the 1950s resembled the Jim Crow-era South.

GREG NICKERSON: There were these signs in Sheridan's downtown businesses that said things like - no Indians or dogs allowed. And the folks from the Crow Indian Reservation would come down and try and shop at these businesses and be forced out of the business.

ZHOROV: A group of civic-minded residents looked for ways to change things in town and came up with the Miss Indian America pageant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) Miss Indian America enter...

ZHOROV: Nickerson says from the beginning the focus was slightly different than, say, in the Miss America pageant.

NICKERSON: It was more about selecting someone who would have the ability to be a good public relations person. There wasn't like a swimsuit section of the Miss Indian America pageant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Miss Indian America must first of all be dedicated to the cultural well-being of her tribe. She must have a comprehensive knowledge of her people, be dedicated to the advancement.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: She must have the appearance, personality and poise to represent her people in the white community.

ZHOROV: Winners spent the year traveling around the U.S., speaking about their respective tribes and Native American issues. Despite its creators good intentions, the pageant still relied on certain stereotypes. For instance, contestants were asked to wear buckskin and feathers in their hair even if that wasn't part of their traditional attire.

Also, Nickerson says for years the judges were all white.

NICKERSON: It was kind of like they were saying we know what the definition of a good, upstanding Indian woman, and we should be the ones to choose that.

VIVIAN ARVISO: This is the '50s. This is the start of this kind of thing.

ZHOROV: Vivian Arviso was Miss Indian America 1960. Her year of service as Miss Indian America included a stint answering tourists' questions at the Indian Village in Disneyland.

ARVISO: The tourists really needed to be able to ask questions, not just watch Indians dance or do sand paintings or do a textile weaving.

ZHOROV: Today, the situation seems absurd, but then it was viewed as being a cultural ambassador, and Arviso says her work was important.

ARVISO: I was unknowingly called an activist, and I think that was before the term came up in later decades but I tried to share what I knew.

ZHOROV: Arviso says the whole experience built confidence in her. This weekend, she's reuniting with about a dozen other Miss Indian America winners. They each plan to share what they've achieved in the years since they were crowned in Sheridan, Wyoming. For NPR News, I'm Irina Zhorov in Laramie.

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