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What You Don't Know About Indian Princesses

15/07/2015 11:30 BST | Updated 09/07/2016 10:59 BST

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Indian Princess Alumni: Amelia Crowshoe, Sahvanne Weasel Traveller

Photos courtesy of Calgary Stampede

Think about the words, "Indian Princess." What comes to mind?

If you're in the UK, you're probably thinking about a wealthy, exotic young woman from a royal family in India and who is adorned in gold. If you're in North America, you're probably thinking of a regal First Nations (native) woman, adorned in beautiful animal skins or bright feathers, and who lives in a tipi.

And if you are in Calgary, Alberta, you're probably thinking of the beautiful Indian Princesses who have played a significant role in the world-famous Stampede Exhibition and Rodeo since 1965, and who travel the world to encourage tourism and to educate our global neighbours about not only the Stampede but our First Nations People.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede's Indian Princess program. Initially, its main goal was to be an ambassador for the Stampede and Indian Village during the ten-day annual celebration. However, since its inception, the role and duties of each year's pageant winner have grown and expanded so that over time, it has essentially become a full-time job for an entire year.

To fully appreciate the significance of this program, it is essential to look back at one decidedly ugly piece of Canadian history - and how one man saw it for what it was and sought to repair the damage.

The Indian Act is a Canadian federal law that has undergone many amendments since it was first passed in 1876 but it has always been highly invasive and controlling. Even now, there are ongoing issues but back in 1912, they were much worse. In fact, in an attempt to force Aboriginal people to adopt colonial values and lifestyles, it was against the law for them to practice their culture and traditions. For some time, they were not even allowed to leave the reserves without permission.

In 1912, along came Guy Weadick, an American performer and promoter, who thought Calgary would be a fine place to create a frontier show, complete with cowboy championships. After all, this was cowboy country, barely past its "Wild West" days. And there was no shortage of "cowboys and Indians" in this corner of the world.

Weadick was adamant that the First Nations had to be a part of this celebration of Western heritage and culture because they were living here long before anyone else. He invited all tribes of Treaty 7 to attend the first Stampede but it was against the law for them to take part. So Weadick went to the government and lobbied successfully on their behalf, insisting that the First Nations had to be a part of the entire event to showcase their culture and who they were. Indian Village was born out of this partnership that was built on mutual understanding and trust.

It was my great honour to speak with some of our lovely Indian Princess alumni recently and to learn about the program. The Indian Princess competition involves horsemanship, conversations in a large group of people with secret judges watching how the girls interact and communicate, and finally an interview with a panel of judges, asking what the young women know about their culture and about the Stampede. They also want to know how the applicants feel about the Indian Princess program.

Amelia Crowshoe, Centennial Indian Princess in 2012, was only too happy to tell me her answer to that question. "Growing up, I thought it was an opportunity to be an ambassador, not just for Treaty 7 and for Stampede but also for my fellow Treaty 7 young women. We don't just live on the reserve; we're all over the place...We still hold that identity strong... [Each of us has] grown into a modern native woman who's proud to be who she is and proud to share that with people."

Crowshoe is a member of the Piikani Nation and was raised in the traditions of the Blackfoot Tribe. Her family had a tipi in the first Indian Village, a tradition that has continued every year since. "The Buffalo Hoof Design that my grandpa uses in the village was photographed at the first stampede in 1912," she adds, proud of her family's heritage. But when asked about being a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal the humble young woman goes quiet, uncomfortable with discussing this great honour.

Crowshoe went to China twice during her reign as Indian Princess. Promoting the Stampede as well as Canadian tourism, she found herself on the Great Wall (photo above), jingle dress dancing, something she does competitively and for the love of it.

Already having a Bachelor's Degree in Communication and Culture, Crowshoe is considering returning to school for a combined Juris Doctorate of Law, and a Master's in Business Administration.

Our lovely 2010 Indian Princess, Sahvanne Weasel Traveller, is also a member of the Piikani Nation. "Being a Blackfoot woman, my parents raised me to be traditional and proud. I enjoy pow wows and dance. I enjoy going to ceremonies and going to Sun Dance and the Indian rodeos... I'm very proud of being an Indian girl."

Having finished SAIT's legal assistant program recently, Weasel Traveller is looking forward to a career with a good law firm. "I'm open for anything, but I really like corporate law. It's interesting, I like the business side of law."

When asked how the Indian Princess program changed her, she replied, "It made me feel confident; it made me a stronger person to be who I am, be more proud. Yeah, I'm a First Nation woman... and it helped with public speaking and opened a lot of doors for me."

I asked about her favourite part of the Indian Princess experience. "In the community and at pow wows, little girls come up and say, 'You're a princess! I want to be a princess!...I tell them, 'Try really hard, don't give up...always have goals for yourself...keep at your dreams."

Beautiful advice for anyone...

For more about this author, visit www.libertyforrest.com