The Beauty Queen

Wearing the crown of Miss Native American USA, Sarah Ortegon inspires the next generation.

By Leslie Petrovski

Publish Date: June 24, 2014

Wearing the crown of Miss Native American USA, Sarah Ortegon inspires the next generation.
Ortegon, in a portrait shot by photographer Will Wilson.


A week before Sarah Ortegon (B.F.A. art ’13) went to Tempe, Ariz. in August to compete for the Miss Native American USA (MNAUSA) crown, she had to learn how to put on makeup.

“I also had to learn better posture and how to walk in my evening dress in high heels,” says the self-professed tomboy. “Tennis shoes are my daily wear.”

Indeed, the 2013–14 Miss Native American USA shows up for an interview wearing no makeup and a long-sleeve T-shirt and jeans, looking more like the newly minted MSU Denver graduate she is than a beauty queen.

Ortegon wears her crown lightly. Earnest and down-to-earth, Ortegon—who is Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho on her mother’s side, Basque on her father’s—applied to be a pageant contestant because she saw it as a way to transcend her natural shyness.

“It looked like something interesting to do and learn and meet different varieties of people,” she says.

Unlike the Miss America Pageant in which contestants must win local and state competitions prior to entering the national event, the MNAUSA pageant—now in its third year—requires an application process and interview to participate. Contestants must satisfy requirements such as U.S. citizenship, submitting proof of Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood, and other mandates. There is no swim-suit competition; MNAUSA instead focuses on promoting Native American traditions, leadership and goals.

To get ready for the pageant, Ortegon, who is the 10th of 12 children, made a beaded belt and earrings to go with her evening gown, as well as the jingle dress she wore during her talent showcase—traditional jingle dancing, which she only took up three years ago. She also presented some of her artwork.

When the pageant director, Tashina Atine, and the outgoing Miss Native American USA, Shaylin Shabi, placed the beaded crown on Ortegon’s head, she was shaking. “I didn’t even have a thank-you speech prepared,” she says. “They handed me two dozen roses and a heavy [Pendleton] blanket. I thanked everyone and thanked God. That’s how I was raised.”

Growing up, the Ortegon kids spent summers with their aunt and uncle on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Ortegon loved the powwows, the sound of the drums and the sight of jingle dancers. Her father, an independent preacher, wouldn’t allow her to dance growing up, so as soon as she could, Ortegon began learning the Ojibwe jingle dance.

“There’s nothing like that drum beat to drive you to want to move,” says Ortegon, who performs with Larry Yazzie’s Native Pride Dancers.

After graduating from Denver’s North High School, Ortegon enrolled at MSU Denver, starting first in pre-veterinary medicine but eventually migrating to art, soaking up several Native American studies classes along the way. She graduated from the University with her brother Joel Ortegon (B.A. modern languages, French concentration ’13) and plans to get a graduate degree in Native American studies and eventually teach.

At MSU Denver, she says, professors pushed her to really think about what she was creating. Her work, which combines beading with other media, was showcased alongside the art of other noted contemporary Native American artists in Cross Currents, a recent exhibit at MSU Denver’s Center for Visual Art. A solo show ran through May 2014 at the Wind River Hotel and Casino near Riverton, Wyo.

As Miss Native American USA, Ortegon has traveled in the Western United States, speaking at schools and appearing at powwows and other events. She seems acutely aware that she has a role to play in how the future unfolds.

“The younger generation is our future, and reaching out to them will change the future,” she says. “I want to let them know that not everything is handed to you and I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve done. Sometimes it’s lonely in the hotel room when I’m traveling, but I’m there for them and that’s my passion.”

See More of Will Wilson's work at willwilson.photoshelter.com