- Category: news
- Created: Friday, 25 October 2013 14:54
- Published: Friday, 25 October 2013 14:54
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BY ANDREW MATTE, THE LEADER-POST
To understand what makes a modern-day princess, we must look back several generations.Whitney Oakes, Miss First Nations University 2013, is taking full advantage of an inherited gift from ancestors known for their unique ambition and passion for family, tradition and nature.
A family history that includes personal and public victories continues to yield results from seeds planted generations ago, says Linda Oakes, a doting grandmother to a recently crowned princess.
“When I look back, I think about my great-great-grandfather,” Linda says.
“He always said that this was our land. He said we should respect our land. And I feel that too. And I feel proud to live the same way,” says Linda, a resident of the Nekaneet First Nation near Maple Creek.
“He was always known for his silent struggle.”
This spring, Linda’s granddaughter became a princess for reasons other than a public or political battle. While the pageant didn’t technically qualify as a contest because she was the lone contestant at this spring’s First Nations University Spring Celebration Pow-wow, Oakes claimed victory well before pageant day by meeting self-imposed goals that qualified her as a contestant.
In recent years, Oakes has taken greater interest in aboriginal culture and renewed her passion for dancing at powwows, wearing outfits decorated with her own beadwork and jingle dresses crafted by her mother. While attending high school, she bristled at racist comments from classmates and helped create a group for students interested in celebrating aboriginal culture.
But it was frustration with shyness that made her seek the princess crown. The perfect introvert antidote, she hoped, was to force herself into uncomfortable situations to coax her from her shell.
“People think I’m funny, but that’s only because I’m awkward sometimes. I’m just shy,” says Oakes, 18, a second-year FNUniv student. “I knew that by running for princess, I’d be forced to talk more and meet more people.”
To be considered princess material, Oakes wrote an essay on the history of FNUniv that detailed her views on the importance of post-secondary education.
The requirement that best tested her resolution was a speech to a group of judges.
It was her crowning achievement.
“I’m pleased with what happened,” Oakes says.
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The first struggle for Whitney Oakes came on her birthday. Her mother Colleen’s pregnancy was deemed risky before doctors ordered bed rest and asked that she travel to the Regina General Hospital from her home on Nekaneet as a precaution. In December of 1994, 16-year-old Colleen Oakes gave birth to twin girls who were dangerously premature. They weighed fewer than three pounds each, but Whitney and Britney became healthy enough to go home from hospital after a few months.
The sisters — Whitney is younger by about a minute — grew up within an extended family where aunts, uncles and grandparents lived nearby. With eight siblings, three of them half-brothers, Whitney and Britney grew up on the First Nation but lived in Alberta for several years before returning to southern Saskatchewan.
Before high school, their mother insisted her daughters be educated in a big city, so they moved to Regina where Britney and Whitney attended Balfour Collegiate. The sisters did well academically and were careful to steer clear of trouble, heeding advice from their elders who warned them of drugs, alcohol and the pitfalls of teen pregnancy.
“I was a teen mom and their mom was a teen mom. I wanted the girls to break that cycle,” grandmother Linda Oakes says. “I told them they should be enjoying their youth and they should make sure they get an education. There is plenty of time to start a family.”
Oakes admits to being nervous when the sisters left the reserve for the Queen City. “They’re country girls. They’re not city girls. But I am so proud of them.”
But nefarious substances weren’t a focus of the sisters. Instead, their frustration with racist comments from classmates prompted the sisters to help launch a club called BEAD (Balfour Education Aboriginals Diversity) for students interested in aboriginal culture. The group, which exists today, was made up of the Oakes sisters and four others who gathered to chat and share beading techniques.
While Whitney describes the racist incidents as “occasional,” it was enough to get her thinking about what it meant to be aboriginal.
“They’d say that First Nations people are freeloaders and that we complain about everything,” Oakes says. “I think they should learn more about treaties and that kind of thing. Most people don’t know why we get some of the rights we do. They need to learn about our history.”
By the time she graduated, she wanted to get closer to her culture and decided to return to dancing at powwows. She stopped dancing when she was five but found that she was missing out, especially when family attended out-of-town events.
“I wanted to get back in touch with powwows. My family is always travelling to different powwows and that kind of thing and I felt left out,” she says.
“And whenever I went to powwows, I’d see all the people dancing. And I always wished to be out there with them.”
Her re-introduction to dancing led to a meeting with Erin Isnana, the 2011 Miss First Nations University of Canada whose dancing and pageant experience inspired her.
“I liked the way she danced. I saw her run and saw her get crowned. That is when I promised myself to get back into dancing and run for the princess.”
All of the attention paid to her sister sits well with Britney.
“I’m very proud of her,” Britney says. “She has always been shy. And I’m shy too. But going into the pageant wasn’t for me. So I support her.”
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Richard Missens, who teaches a marketing class at FNUniv and is chairman of the committee that organizes the 30-year-old annual powwow, believes Oakes is uniquely qualified to serve as ambassador of the university at public events.
“I think that speaks to her leadership qualities,” Missens says of Whitney’s work at overcoming her shyness.
“She lives a clean lifestyle, meaning she isn’t involved with drugs and alcohol. And as a young ambassador, I think she is a fine representative of our community.”
Missens dismisses suggestions that the absence of pageant participates other than Oakes is a symptom of disinterest among students. Even though this year was the first time it went ahead with just one contestant, the Miss FNUniv role was created just six years ago. A labour dispute affecting the Brandt Centre forced organizers to postpone the April powwow to May, which resulted in a significant drop in attendance from previous years.
“I know that it’s a concern. But we had to move the date at the last minute and that affected a lot of people. Also, this is only the sixth year for the pageant so a lot of people still don’t know about it. We need to work at getting that message out,” Missens says.
The pageant was introduced to help encourage young people to carry on traditions that many fear are being lost.
“We know that there is a great concern about our elders that our language is being lost and that our culture is being lost. We’d like to encourage young people to help protect that,” Missens says.
Dustin Brass, the Aboriginal Advocate at Balfour Coillegiate, says Whitney and her sister struggled in their early years at high school but excelled after Grade 10.
“Their motivation and ambition I think comes from their family. I think they saw where they were in life and where they could go,” says Brass, who wrote a recommendation letter to FNUniv as part of Oakes’ pageant application. “Both sisters were encouraged by the family, in particular their mother and grandmother.”
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Whitney describes becoming immersed in aboriginal culture as uniquely satisfying. She now spends time with her family travelling to powwows, including treks to Alberta where her father and uncles participate in a drumming group. She also adds her tiara and sash to her jingle dress when she attends powwows as a representative of FNUniv.
“It’s hard to describe, but I just like the feeling of it, the feeling I get when I’m dancing,” Oakes says. “I don’t think about anything. My head is clear and I don’t have to worry about anything.”
She also enjoys working on her outfits with her mother, a project that has helped smooth over their sometimes rocky relationship, Oakes says, adding: “We sometimes have arguments.”
As part of her obligations as Miss FNUniv, which comes with a $1,000 scholarship, she must attend public events and make speeches, though Oakes says there has been little in the way of formal duties.
Now in their second year at FNUniv, Britney is enrolled in the education program and Whitney is taking arts with hopes of being accepted into the education program next year. Like much of last year, the sisters began this semester commuting four hours each way from the Nekaneet First Nation. They hope to find an apartment they can share using the monthly $1,000 grant they receive from their band.
“Driving here is hard sometimes, especially when we have to get up at 4 a.m. to be at school for an 8:30 a.m. math class,” Whitney says.
As for Whitney’s assessment of her success overcoming her shyness, she admits it’s a work in progress.
“It’s like I can’t talk loud and I mumble. And when I talk to a crowd, my face gets instantly red,” she says.
“What I sometimes do is I go up to random people sometimes and talk to them.
“I find that helps.”