Social Issues

First Indigenous Miss Minnesota competes in Miss America pageant

Woman poses with sewing materials
Miss Minnesota Rachel Evangelisto sews a ribbon skirt, something she says she wears out in public to celebrate her Indigenous culture.
Courtesy of Miss Minnesota

Rachel Evangelisto is the first-ever Indigenous Miss Minnesota, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Thursday night she'll compete for the title of Miss America; you can watch the Miss America Pageant at 7 p.m. Central.

Woman smiles for photo
Rachel Evangelisto
Michael Haug Photography

Evangelisto is from Hennepin County and was crowned Miss Minnesota 2022 in June. She has a Bachelor’s of Political Science/Pre-Law from the University of Minnesota Morris. She plans to eventually be in the courts advocating for Indigenous youth and families.

Although busy with glittering ball gowns and perfecting her kung fu talent routine earlier this week, she spoke with All Things Considered host Tom Crann for a Q&A ahead of the big competition.

What are you feeling as you look ahead to the Miss America competition?

Evangelisto: It means the absolute world to me. I started competing within the Miss America organization when I was 13. And I had a lisp; I was so shy. I hardly spoke above a whisper and I felt a lot of shame for being Native American because that was the common narrative where I grew up, it was a really negative thing.

So for me to now be the first Native American woman within this role, it's huge because I know the difference it would have made to me as a little girl.

I have heard you say in your Miss Minnesota role, you have put community and culture in the center. Tell me more about how you're doing that.

Evangelisto: Yes. That’s something that was really important to me when I started this. I didn't want to like trade up my culture, my cultural identity in any way for clout online. And I didn't want to sell my soul in any way.

So I really wanted to be authentic in what this journey meant to me and other Indigenous people. I very much go into spaces wearing beaded earrings and ribbon skirts and being as proudly Indigenous, outwardly and inwardly, as possible.

You grew up watching pageants and competing in them. What drew you to them?

Evangelisto: Honestly, I just had a friend that tried one, and she was like my best friend at the time. I think we were in sixth grade, and I wanted to try it too because I even recognized: Little Rachel Evangelisto then wanted something more out of life than what she was getting.

Some people might see pageants as outdated or objectifying. To you, what makes them relevant today?

Evangelisto: You know, I've been an advocate of this organization for well over a decade and I remember watching Miss America when it was in Las Vegas, and it was heavily based on swimsuit. And at the time I couldn't even understand why we were so focused on looks when, really, Miss America is a spokesperson and an advocate for her cause and for the organization.

And so as Gretchen Carlson came in and took over leadership, she made those major changes: Cut out swimsuit and added something called a social impact pitch.

So many people, you know, they see the crown and the sash and the glittering ballgowns and it is very exciting. But there's 364 other days of the year where we're advocating for change, where we are calling for action from our community, and that we genuinely all want to make a difference and I think that's a really beautiful thing to see of young women today.

Is there a place for politics in the Miss America pageant?

Crann: In the past, contestants were always for world peace. You are very focused on the Indian Child Welfare Act, which recognizes tribal sovereignty in child custody and adoption cases. It's also before the Supreme Court now and has become politically charged. Is there a place for politics in the pageant?

Evangelisto: Oh, absolutely. There has to be. The beautiful thing about Miss America is that it's all-encompassing. So everybody has a spot, has a place to advocate for what they care about, whether you're a Democrat or Republican, or a Minnesotan or South Dakotan.

And we all have a space that we can advocate and use our voices to make change. And for me, I've done that through an Indigenous representation — which not everybody begins to understand, and not everybody totally accepts.

Tell us more about the work you do with Indian Child Welfare Act.

Crann: And how do you see that work intersecting with your role as Miss Minnesota and potentially as Miss America?

Evangelisto: I have to. It's my bread and butter. It's my biggest passion in life is the Indian Child Welfare Act. So I will absolutely continue to advocate for Native children everywhere, whether that's as Miss Minnesota or as a future attorney.

Correction (Dec. 16, 2022): A previous version of this story stated the incorrect University of Minnesota campus. This has been corrected.

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