Bethany Yellowtail, 23, a Northern Cheyenne Tribal Member also with Crow descent, has come a long way from the tiny town of Wyola (population 215) on the Crow Indian Reservation to where she now resides in Los Angeles and holds the title of first patternmaker on the design team of hip-hop mogul Russell Simon’s popular urban clothing line Baby Phat.
Yellowtail was exactly the type of person Mary White, a Crow Indian who grew up in Pryor, was looking for to represent the debut of the Native Strong Magazine launch that took place Aug. 17 during this year’s Crow Fair.
White said the magazine is the culmination of ideas from American Indian tribes from Montana, California, Oklahoma and other western states that aim to inspire American Indians from ages 15 to 30 “to be proud of who they are and to live healthy, productive and positive lifestyles.”
“Inspiration” was the theme of the model casting call contest and follow-up concert accommodating the magazine’s kickoff.
It will cover everything from Native American pop culture, current events and native humor to serious social issues like high suicide and poverty rates plaguing reservations.
“We come from a lot of hardships, but we also have a lot of belief and faith in our culture,” White said. “We really want to bring up and highlight the good of our people.”
Native Strong Magazine’s motto, “In Beauty We Walk,” was brought to life by the model casting call where female and male contestants walked on a runway, answered a few basic questions, and sought to win a professional photo shoot to help their budding modeling careers and inclusion into the magazine.
The model casting call judges included Yellowtail and this year’s America’s Next Top Model contestant Mariah Watchman, a Umatilla Tribal Member from Pendleton, Ore. Watchman has Montana roots in Missoula – where she was born - and Wolf Point, where she spent considerable time growing up with her mom’s family on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
The 21-year-old Watchman was also one of the models who helped debut Yellowtail’s designs in Billings in April during a fund-raising fashion show for Crow Democratic primary congressional candidate Jason Ward.
“When we look at a contestant, we want a candidate to be confident and proud of who they are,” Watchman said of the judging criteria. “A model can always be a pretty girl or good looking, but what’s important to me is that they have a really good personality.”
At least a couple of dozen contestants from 4-year-olds to 20-somethings entered, although most contestants were in their teens.
One young woman, Natasha Laforge, said she wanted to go to college at Central Arizona College to study equine science and become a horse veterinarian. Another teen named Mika wanted to become a nurse after joining the Navy, while 8-year-old Tina wore a pink cowboy outfit and naturally aspired to be a cowgirl.
Bridgette Shields, an Assiniboine tribal member from the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, won the female model contest. Stephen Yellowtail, a Crow Indian from Wyola and Sheridan, won on the male side. Both contestants wanted to become models and positive role models for their communities as Watchman and Bethany Yellowtail were.
Watchman, who has modeled internationally since she was 15 after signing her first contract, said the Umatilla Reservation always gave her positive support whenever she came back home so she tries to give back to Indian reservations however she can. She speaks fluent Umatilla, is always quick to tell people she’s American Indian and grew up on reservations, and is proud to use her personal success to be an ambassador of sorts for all natives.
However, Watchman and Yellowtail both want to see all Native success become the norm and not the exception in mainstream culture. Yellowtail said, “We don’t want to stay doing casting calls on the reservation and be pigeonholed here, because we have beautiful models and women who are strong and have dreams to do other things away from here. We want to be successful inside and outside the reservation.”
In spite of their young ages and already high level of success in their chosen careers, Yellowtail and Watchman want to continue setting their personal bar of achievements higher to help inspire other native youths who may struggle to find role models.
“We’re not even at the peak of our careers,” Yellowtail said. “We’re on the incline.”
Watchman concurred, and related a story of how when she was eliminated from the “America’s Next Top Model” show, her disappointment was short lived after Tyra Banks told her while she might not be America’s Next Top Model, she could be Native America’s first supermodel.
Now whenever Watchman gives speeches to youth on Indian reservations, she tells them, “I was the first Native American to appear on ‘America’s Next Top Model.’ Who wants to be the first native to win it?”