Santana Young Man Afraid of His Horses — or "Young Man" for short — said that she was a shy girl before she first got involved in pageants at 17.
"It made me more outgoing," Young Man said. "I got to meet new people, I became more comfortable talking to them. I'm not in my own little bubble as much."
That was six years ago, and now, at 23, she's moved from trying out for Miss Oglala District to vying for the bigger title of Miss Indian World. The competition kicks off Thursday at Kiva Auditorium in the Albuquerque Convention Center in Albuquerque, N.M.
The Miss Indian World pageant is a part of the 33rd Annual Gathering of Nations Pow Wow, described by the event's website as "North America's Biggest Pow Wow," featuring contestants from the United States and Canada. The pageant begins with talent presentations on Thursday, followed by the crowning on Saturday at the powwow.
More than 20 contestants will compete in talent presentation, public speaking ability, interviews with the judges, and a dance competition through powwow music. The winner will be a cultural goodwill ambassador for all native and indigenous people on behalf of the Gathering of Nations for one year.
That's something Young Man hopes to do. She holds the title of Miss Oglala Lakota Nation.
"I want to be a good role model to the younger ones," Young Man said. "When you're royalty, you have to hold yourself in a good way, not only in powwows but in other events. You need to be a good role model for younger girls, tell them not to go down the path of alcohol, for example."
Young Man is a student at Oglala Lakota College studying tribal law, something she first became interested after watching "Erin Brockovich," the Oscar-winning film about the famous legal clerk and environmental activist, when she was young.
"I saw how she started learning about the law and found she had a passion to help people," Young Man said. "I want to be able to help my people. We need lawyers to represent our people, to be a voice for them."
Young Man said that she was particularly focused on finding a way to help juvenile offenders, to motivate them to stay away from the bad and be someone they can trust.
The contestants in Miss Indian World may choose any talent to represent themselves and their culture. Young Man will perform a spoken-word piece, saying that she found a way to express herself when she was shy through written word.
"I loved to write," Young Man said. "I started writing poetry, I took Shakespeare and English classes, and I fell in love with it. It helped me express myself."
Young Man's piece will focus on women's role in traditional society.
"Women create life and help raise kids to become who they are," Young Man said. "I wanted to express that women are sacred in our tribe."
Young Man said that she was most excited for the dance portion of the competition, however.
"Speaking still makes me nervous, but when I listen to a song, I get excited," Young Man said. "I dance for my family and for those who can't dance."
More than anything, Young Man hopes to represent not only her tribe, but all tribes for the next year.
"I'd make a good ambassador because I'm passionate about my culture," Young Man said. "I want to focus on the youth for my tribe and for other tribes. I want to show them they can do whatever they set their eyes on. I want to represent my people."