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Aug 28, 2017 6:28 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Autumn Rose Williams Brings Miss Native America USA Crown To Shinnecock, Will Appear At Powwow

Shinnecock tribe member Autumn Rose Williams was crowned Miss Native America USA 2017 on Saturday at a ceremony in Arizona.
Aug 29, 2017 3:47 PM

To Autumn Rose Williams, seeing is believing. Growing up on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation, attending the Ross School in East Hampton and, later, Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, the 24-year-old went on what she describes as a “journey of self-discovery,” where maintaining a close connection to indigenous culture was key to her desire to understand how her mixed-race ancestry affects the way she walks through the world.

Watching confident indigenous and African-American women in action has helped shape who she is today, Ms. Williams says—and she wants to do the same for the next generation of young women like her.

She now has the opportunity to fulfill that desire, not only for members of her own tribe but for young women around the country.

On August 26, in Mesa, Arizona, Ms. Williams was crowned Miss Native America USA 2017, beating out six other competitors for the title at the cultural pageant, which is in its sixth year.

It’s not hard to envision young girls, especially those with indigenous ancestry, looking up to Ms. Williams. She is poised, confident and attractive, with bright eyes that light up when she speaks about female empowerment and her pride for both her Shinnecock and African-American ancestry. She smiles easily, and is infectiously friendly, preferring a hug to a handshake.

Ms. Williams will be walking in the Grand Entry for the 71st annual Shinnecock Powwow, which starts on Friday and runs through Monday. She also will speak about her platform at the powwow.

The Miss Native America pageant breaks with the norms of traditional beauty pageants, although there are similarities. According to Ms. Williams, emphasis was placed on identity, connection to culture and empowering others. Contestants needed to be enrolled members of a tribe, provide their resumes and have a specific platform they intended to act on, related to an issue of importance to them.

A panel of judges interviewed the contestants, asking questions about how they stay connected to their indigenous culture, and extracurricular activities they take part in that are connected to their tribe. There was an evening gown portion, where contestants were judged on their confidence and poise, as well as a talent portion, where contestants could showcase a skill or aspect of their personality that did not necessarily have to have a connection to their culture. The contestants were also judged on public speaking, asked to talk for two minutes about their platform and then answer a few impromptu questions.

For the talent portion of the pageant, Ms. Williams performed a traditional Eastern Blanket Dance, which represents Shinnecock culture in particular, and symbolizes the various stages of womanhood. She began the dance wrapped in the blanket, meant to represent time in the womb, and went through various stages before casting off the blanket at the end, which symbolizes death.

Ms. Williams’s platform was based on spreading the message of female empowerment as it relates specifically to indigenous women. She speaks about finding the balance between living on a reservation in a tight-knit indigenous community like Shinnecock, and how to reconcile that aspect of life with life in the larger world.

“It’s about balancing the two worlds we live in,” she said.

Ms. Williams also spoke about how she remains connected to Shinnecock culture by serving on the Youth Council, and also by taking a specific interest in canoe culture, a big part of Shinnecock history on the waterfront. Tribe member Gerrod Smith was instrumental in teaching Ms. Williams about canoe culture, while tribe member Chenea Bullock taught Ms. Williams a traditional Shinnecock canoe song.

Ms. Williams held the title of Miss Teen Shinnecock from 2009 to 2012, but she said she was inspired to enter the national competition after witnessing the Miss Indian World Pageant several years ago, watching Dakota Brant of the Mohawk Nation in upstate New York earn the crown in 2012. “It was a very powerful experience for me,” she said.

So powerful, in fact, that following the pageant, she reached out to Ms. Branch on Facebook to ask her what it takes to enter a pageant and find success at that level. Ms. Brant had simple yet important advice.

“She said you have to want to do it, and you have to be prepared to take on the responsibility,” Ms. Williams said.

Ms. Williams followed that advice, holding off on entering until she was done with college. A year after her graduation from VCU, Ms. Williams said she was ready to enter, adding that she’s “successfully adulting” now, with a job at Peconic Land Trust, and a place of her own.

Ms. Williams said she was thrilled when her name was called as the winner. “Oh my gosh!” she said, mouthing the words in a breathless whisper. “I was in shock. I worked so hard creating a platform, and now I can execute it.”

Those who know her best were not shocked that Ms. Williams won.

“I had no doubt in my mind that she would either win or be in the top, because she is such a brilliant, beautiful young woman, inside and out,” said Sherry Blakey Smith, who is Ms. Williams’s weheh, a distinction similar to being a godmother. “She radiates love and kindness, and she’s so dedicated to her passion and working with native people and our tribe. She’s very passionate about making our world a better place and protecting our planet and empowering young women.

“She is such a good mentor for the young girls on the reservation,” Ms. Blakey Smith added. “She’s evolved into that from the support she’s received from the tribal community she comes from.”

For the next year, Ms. Williams will travel around the country, sharing her platform of empowering young indigenous women. She’s already booked three appearances, including at the Gathering of Nations Powwow in Albuquerque, New Mexico, one of the largest powwows in the country.

“I really want to bridge the gap between different communities, and not just within different indigenous communities,” Ms. Williams said. “I want to show [non-indigenous people] that we’re so complex—we’re not like what you see on TV. Each tribe has its own culture and identity. I think that’s what makes America so beautiful, is that we have such a complex group of different people.”

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Well done young lady. A asset to our community.
By knitter (1941), Southampton on Sep 1, 17 10:05 AM
1 member liked this comment
Congrats to this amazing young woman!
By toes in the water (884), southampton on Sep 2, 17 8:42 AM
Seen her win her title as Teen Shinnecock. Now she has won 1 of the most hard earned titles. Congratulations to her and the Williams family on Shinnecock.
By CrochetLaShay (1), on Sep 2, 17 9:04 AM
Congratulations Autumn! You are a role model for all young women of Southampton.
By Red Flag (51), HamptonBays on Sep 6, 17 10:15 PM
Congratulations Autumn! You are a role model for all young women of Southampton.
By Red Flag (51), HamptonBays on Sep 6, 17 10:15 PM