Miss Indian America Online Exhibition

Welcome to the Miss Indian America Online Exhibition

All-American Indian Days at Sheridan
Being Miss Indian America for a Year
Why It All Ended
Reunions and Legacy
Photos of Miss Indian America Winners
All-American Indian Days 1950’s Rodeo Clips


For over thirty years, from 1952 to 1984, American Indians and non-Indians collaborated on a project to promote understanding between the communities and to support and celebrate American Indian cultures and rights. It was not at all obvious that Sheridan, Wyoming, a town bordering the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations with a decidedly mixed reputation for welcoming Indians, would establish All-American Indian Days.  It was also not obvious that Indian communities would participate in the event. But every year thousands of visitors came to Sheridan, including young American Indian women from across the country who vied for the title of Miss Indian America. This exhibition is about their story, including especially their efforts to educate the general public about American Indian history, cultures, and rights.
The Bozeman Trail Museum would like to thank University of Delaware museum studies and history student Jeremy Cleghorn for designing the exhibition, and University of Delaware students, including Caroline Berger, Brooke Curwin, Maureen Iplenski, Sophie Molloy, and Emma Straw for their work on the content and images. We would also like to thank deana harragarra waters, Judy Slack, and Cindy Ott for their guidance. We are indebted to the financial support of the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, Wyoming Humanities, the University of Delaware Community Engagement Initiative and its UD History Department. We are grateful to THE Wyoming Room, Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library, Sheridan, WY for the use of their collections.

Program Cover 1969

FAAID Certificate

Bill Rawlings

Nora Begay

Melanie Tallmadge


Lucy Yellowmule Named Rodeo Queen

Every year since 1931, the small reservation border town of Sheridan, Wyoming held a rodeo. At the 1951 Sheridan WYO Rodeo, the organizers used an applause meter to elect the rodeo queen by popular vote, instead of backroom dealings as in the past. Of the twelve contestants, Lucy Yellowmule performed expertly in the arena, with perfect command of not only her horse but also the audience. She received the largest ovation. Yellowmule, a young ranch girl and college student from the Crow Nation, became the first American Indian Sheridan WYO rodeo queen, and the catalyst for the Miss Indian America pageant.

Lucy Ann Yellowmule with others
Yellowmule (pictured center above) became a star attraction and she graciously appeared at local community events. Her special qualities inspired the creation of All-American Indian Days (AAID) and the Miss Indian America (MIA) pageant and she remained an inspiration and guiding influence to all MIA winners. Credit: Photographer Unknown. All-American Indian Days collection, THE Wyoming Room, Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library, Sheridan, Wyoming.


First MIA
Arlene Wesley of the Yakama Nation was crowned the first Miss Indian America in 1953. Qualifications included knowledge of her community’s history and culture, strong academics, and creative talents. Credit: Don Diers, photographer, All-American Indian Days, THE Wyoming Room, Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library, Sheridan, Wyoming


No Indians
Before this unprecedented victory by Yellowmule, the town of Sheridan had a reputation for their anti-Indian prejudice, as did many western towns, such as Lander, Wyoming, as illustrated in this undated photograph of a local store. Sheridan aimed to foster better cross-culture relations with All-American Indian Days (AAID) and the MIA contest. Credit: Freemont County Pioneer Museum, Lander, Wyoming


Howard Sinclair
Howard Sinclair, also known as Neckyoke Jones, was a local journalist who led the charge to establish AAID and the MIA pageant. He described his mission to create “an interracial project in human relations.” Credit: THE Wyoming Room, Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library, Sheridan Wyoming


Silver Anvil
One of Yellowmule’s major contributions was to travel to Washington, D.C. with a group of Crow and Northern Cheyenne women. Yellowmule spoke before Congress and on Voice of America. Here Regina Spotted Horse, Joy Old Crow, Alta Drift Wood, Lucy Yellowmule, and Dolores Little Coyote accept the Silver Anvil award for “outstanding achievement in community public relations in the interest of racial equality and understanding,” from the American Public Relations Association. Credit: AAUW Collection, Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library, Sheridan, Wyoming

All-American Indian Days at Sheridan

The Miss Indian America pageant was the grand finale of the three-day annual All- American Indian Days. Sheridan car dealers, restaurant owners, fraternal organizations, and other local benefactors funded the event. The gathering drew on average over 4,000 American Indians from more than sixty different tribes to Sheridan.  Each year began with a parade that featured American Indians and local Sheridan organizations.  Art competitions, foot races and other athletic events, dances, tepee-building competitions, and a prayer service filled the days. 

The AAID grew into an important annual political gathering for Indians from across the country. Vine Deloria, Sr., Vine Deloria, Jr., presidents of the National Congress of American Indians, and the authors D’Arcy McNickle and N. Scott Momaday were just some of the Indian activists who came to Sheridan to organize for Indian causes. The town won national awards because of its mission to promote inter-racial understanding and support Indian self-determination. Some Indians were dubious about the goals and intentions of AAID and MIA, and felt the town used them for its own gain.  And while it certainly did not eradicate racism, enough Indians believed in the cause and the Sheridan community to keep the event going for thirty years.

AAID Parade MIA 1956
Miss Indian America candidates in All-American Indian Days parade in 1956. Photographer Unknown. Credit: All-American Indian Days collection, THE Wyoming Room, Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library, Sheridan, Wyoming.


MIA June 2015
Miss Indian America XIII Wahleah Lujan waves to an adoring crowd, in the back of a convertible cruising down Main Street in Sheridan. Credit: All-American Indian Days collection, THE Wyoming Room, Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library, Sheridan, Wyoming.


Tepee Camp
The tepee camp is where American Indians met and shared experiences with many other Indians outside of their tribe. Here you see the camp in all of its glory. Credit: All-American Indian Days collection, THE Wyoming Room, Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library, Sheridan, Wyoming.


Being Miss Indian America for a Year

Miss Indian America pageant winners spent a year traveling around the United States and Europe, speaking about their Indian communities and trying to correct misconceptions about them. The reigning Miss Indian America was considered to be a cultural ambassador between Indian and non-Indians, often speaking to groups of people who had never been around Indians before. Through speaking engagements, public appearances, conferences, and other events, Miss Indian America represented and advocated for their respective tribal nation, culture, and land while promoting the contest and encouraging positive Indian-white relations. The winners worked to break down stereotypes about Indian culture and history, represented the All American Indian Days (AAID) organization, their tribes, and their families throughout the year. In addition to her mandatory year-long residency with a host family in Sheridan, Miss Indian America was accompanied by a chaperone, usually a woman, during her reign.

MIA International Tour
Sarah Ann Johnson, MIA XIV (1967-68), left, in Paris, France with Michele Portwood, MIA XI (1964-65), right, who served as Johnson’s chaperone, during the MIA international tour. Credit: Photographer Unknown. All-American Indian Days collection, THE Wyoming Room, Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library, Sheridan, Wyoming.


Wahleah Lujan MIA XIII
Wahleah Lujan, MIA XIII (1966-67), left, meets with Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, center, and First Lady of the United States Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, right. Credit: Photographer Unknown. All-American Indian Days collection, THE Wyoming Room, Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library, Sheridan, Wyoming.


Margery Haury and Nixon
In this photograph from 1970, Margery Haury, MIA XVI (1969-70), meets with President Richard Nixon, center, and Senator Cliff Hansen, right, the former governor of Wyoming. Several MIA winners attended presidential inaugurations during their yearlong goodwill tour. Credit: Photographer Unknown. All-American Indian Days collection, THE Wyoming Room, Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library, Sheridan, Wyoming.

Why It All Ended

From its conception, the MIA pageant struggled with funding, though finances worsened in the 1970s when the regional economy was in the doldrums. AAID, the organization which hosted the contest, also faced political controversy at the time with the rise of the American Indian Movement in the early 1960s and the “Red Power” movement in the early 1970s.  Indian activists sought greater control over Indian affairs, and aimed to draw recognition to the continued prejudices and injustices against Indian people. Fewer Natives participated in the late 1970s. They wanted instead to represent their own cultures on their own terms and in their own spaces.  New Indian-organized and led events, such as the Miss Indian World pageant and the National Miss Indian USA pageant, gained relevance and popularity, taking the place of the MIA contest. 

In 1983, the pageant was postponed by a year, as the MIA board attempted to find both sponsors and participants. In 1984, the board elected to move the pageant from Sheridan to Bismarck, North Dakota: Bismarck’s United Tribes International Powwow.  During its five-year tenure in Bismarck, the MIA pageant saw some renewed success. However, the North American Indian Foundation (NAIF), who hosted the MIA contest in Bismarck opted to end the contest in 1990 due to waning interest. The NAIF dissolved in 1999, and with it, the Miss Indian America contest altogether. 

The Sheridan WYO Rodeo board now, in 2021, holds the copyright.

Last MIA 1989
Jorja Oberly, Bobette Wildcat, Wonda Johnson, Deborah Secakuku, deana harragarra pictured in Bismarck, North Dakota in 1989 when the last Miss Indian America was crowned. The newer Miss Indian America logo is visible in the upper left hand corner. The new logo signified the revitalization and new direction for the Miss Indian America pageant. Credit: Photographer Unknown. All-American Indian Days collection, THE Wyoming Room, Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library, Sheridan, Wyoming.


Wonda Johnson
The final Miss Indian America winner Wonda Johnson poses for a picture in Bismarck, North Dakota, 1989. Credit: Photographer Unknown. Provided by Wonda Johnson.

Reunions and Legacy

Almost thirty years after the last MIA contest, local historian and librarian Judy Slack reached out to past winners and invited them back for a reunion at the 2013 Sheridan WYO Rodeo. 

The rodeo board honored the former MIAs by naming them the Grand Marshals of the parade. Twelve past Miss Indian America winners, nearly half of the surviving ones, returned to Sheridan. The title holders attended the rodeo and danced at the Crow-sponsored powwow. They were also honored at a luncheon where many of them spoke about the importance of MIA and the townspeople of Sheridan to their lives.  Joe Medicine Crow, once the master of ceremonies, attended the luncheon to honor the women and the town. Many of the women had gone on to successful careers as artists, lawyers, educators, and all-around advocates for their communities.

The reunion was the first time many past Miss Indian America winners had met each other. It was the 60th anniversary of the crowning of the first Miss Indian America, Arlene Wesley who was present with her family at the reunion.  The gathering ignited a sense of sisterhood among the past winners and jumpstarted many collaborations, including several more reunions and new projects to promote American Indian women.  They include the first art show to feature Native American women artists held in Sheridan in 2015 with four former MIAs sharing their artwork.

What began as a dream of a small western town and members of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne nations has become an ongoing collaboration that continues to promote improved Indian and white relations and the lives and rights of American Indians.

MIA Reunion 2013
Many of the people who came back to celebrate MIA pageant and the town of Sheridan at the 2013 reunion include: Standing: Left to right Wonda Johnson, Susan Arkeketa, Melanie Tallmadge, Sharron Ahtone, Michele Portwood, Vivan Arviso, Charles Russell (Lucy Yellowmule’s son), deana jo harragarra, Jerilyn Lebeau, and Sarah Johnson.
Seated: Left to Right Claire Manning, Joe Medicine Crow, and Arlene Wesley
Seated in front: Luzenia Russell, and Taliya Russell (granddaughters of Lucy Yellowmule)


Sheridan WYO Rodeo 2013
The Sheridan WYO rodeo organizers welcomed back the MIA pageant winners in 2013. Miss Indian America has long been a source of pride and heritage for the town. Their images appear in the local library and ranch store.


Kalif Shriners at the Sheridan WYO Rodeo Parade
The Kalif Shriners organization was one of the original sponsors and promoters of the Miss Indian American pageant. They are shown here on their commemorative float during the parade at the 2013 rodeo and reunion. Photo credit: Cindy Ott


In 2022, the Miss Indian America Collective donated trees to the Kendrick Park and the City of Sheridan in the arboretum next to the Elk Pasture.  A bench was installed in 2023.  These are a gift to the people of Sheridan County who gave so much to AAID & the Miss Indian America pageant from 1953-1984.  Thank you Sheridan !!

Kendrick Park tree donation
MIA XXVII Jerilyn Lebeau Church, MIA XXV Susan Arkeketa, MIA XXII deana harragarra waters, MIA XI Michele Portwood Robinson and Annita Wolf Black (daughter of MIA VIII Brenda Bearchum)  2022


Blessing the land
Butch Jellis, Rick Waters, deana harragarra waters, and Leonard Bends. Leonard and Butch blessed the land before the trees were planted.

Photos of MIA Winners

Portraits taken by Don Diers, Archie Nash, Rochford Studios, Ziemer Studios and Grunkemeyer Studios. (Photographs were taken by several different studios. This list might not be complete.)

Arlene Wesley
Miss Indian America I – 1953
Yakama Nation


Mary Louise Defender
Miss Indian America II – 1954


Rita Ann Mclaughlin
Miss Indian America III – 1955
Hunkpapa Lakota


Sandra Gover
Miss Indian America IV – 1956
Skidi Pawnee


Ruth Larson
Miss Indian America V – 1957
Gros Ventre


Delores Racine
Miss Indian America VI – 1959


Vivian Arviso
Miss Indian America VII – 1960


Brenda Bearchum
Miss Indian America VIII – 1961
Northern Cheyenne


Ramona Soto
Miss Indian America IX – 1962


Willamette Youpee
Miss Indian America X – 1963
Sisseton-Yankton Dakota


Michele Portwood
Miss Indian America XI – 1964


Sharron Ahtone Harjo
Miss Indian America XII – 1965


Wahleah Lujan
Miss Indian America XIII – 1966
Taos Pueblo


Sarah Johnson
Miss Indian America XIV – 1967


Thomasine Hill
Miss Indian America XV – 1968


Margery Haury
Miss Indian America XVI – 1969


Virginia Stroud
Miss Indian America XVII – 1970
Keetoowah Cherokee


Nora Begay
Miss Indian America XVIII – 1971


Louise Edmo
Miss Indian America XIX – 1972


Maxine Norris
Miss Indian America XX – 1973


Claire Manning
Miss Indian America XXI – 1974


Deana Jo Harragarra
Miss Indian America XXII – 1975
deana jo harragarra


Kristine Rayola Harvey
Miss Indian America XXIII – 1976
White Mountain Apache


Gracie Welch
Miss Indian America XXIV – 1977


Susan Arkeketa
Miss Indian America XXV – 1978
Otoe-Missouria-Muscogee (Creek)


Melanie Tallmadge
Miss Indian America XXVI – 1980
Winnebago-Minnesota Sioux


Jerilyn Lebeau
Miss Indian America XXVII – 1981
Cheyenne River Sioux


Vivian Juan
Miss Indian America XXVIII – 1982


Deborah Secakuku
Miss Indian America XXIX – 1984


Ann Louise Willie
Miss Indian America XXIX – 1984
White Mountain Apache-Paiute


Jorja Frances Oberly
Miss Indian America XXX – 1985
Osage-Comanche-Nez Perce


Audra Arviso
Miss Indian America XXXI – 1986


Linda Kay Lupe
Miss Indian America XXXII – 1987
White Mountain Apache


Bobette Kay Wildcat
Miss Indian America XXXIII – 1988


Wonda Johnson
Miss Indian America XXXIV – 1989

AAID 1950’s Rodeo Clips


These film clips from the 1950s were taken by George F. Thomson.  George’s son, Thomas Thomson, granted us permission to share them with our viewers. We greatly appreciate the Thomson’s for sharing these family films with us. The following have been identified: (first few minutes 1953 – Lucy Yellowmule & her court (00:01 & 01:31)), Bill Eaton & Ernie Ernst (at left Bill Eaton & at right Ernie Ernst 00:12), (possibly 1954) Mary Louise Defender (02:15), (possibly 1954) Arlene Wesley (03:04 & 05:38), Neckyoke Jones (05:38) – if you recognize anyone, please let us know.  We will try to identify participants by using minutes/seconds in the film. Thank you!

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