By Cheryl Cedar Face
2015 Mrs. Universe Ashley Callingbull visited the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation on Nov. 6 to speak to the youth about perseverance and the importance of education. Callingbull, of the Enoch Cree Nation in Canada, was the first Indigenous woman to win the Mrs. Universe title.
Callingbull was welcomed to Fort Berthold at an event held at the Northern Lights Building in New Town. Bypassing an invitation to attend the Indian National Finals Rodeo, Callingbull instead chose to visit Fort Berthold in order to share her story of determination with community youth. The event was hosted by the MHA Education Department, with Damon Brady acting as Master of Ceremonies. Four Bears Councilman Frank Grady, Miss Indian World Cheyenne Brady, designer Norma Baker-Flying Horse, and local funnyman Tito Ybarra were also in attendance.
Damon Brady opened the event by welcoming Callingbull to the MHA Nation and presenting her with a song written and performed for her by Yellowwolf. The song featured Callingbull’s traditional name, which is Shining Rock. Brady praised Callingbull’s passion for education, as well as for her many accomplishments.
Councilman Frank Grady also welcomed Callingbull to the community, and discussed the importance of the message she brought with her.
“Sometimes we want to provide for our family so much, we forget that our children are left on the wayside. So to you young adults, teenagers, and little children, I appreciate you for being here to listen to a very important message from a very important woman,” said Councilman Grady.
“Such an inspiration to our Native people, the accomplishments this woman has achieved in her young life. It makes me proud knowing that every one of you young people can bring that back to us,” he continued. “Such a powerful message of hope, experience, and endless possibilities for our youth, and especially our young women.”
Callingbull’s speech detailed a childhood filled with sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. She also endured years of racism and discrimination at school, facing bullying as soon she stepped off the school bus every morning. She had grown up in extreme poverty, rarely having enough to eat and had her only pair of shoes stolen from her.
“I had the lowest self esteem possible,” said Callingbull. “The littlest things meant so much to me, and they were taken from me.”
Callingbull’s torment ended when she and her mother moved to her grandparent’s reserve, where her culture provided her with the tools to heal herself.
“I had so much anger and so many mixed emotions,” Callingbull said. “I realized that I wanted to be happy, but how could I do this?”
Callingbull’s grandparents were spiritual people deeply invested in their culture. Callingbull devoted herself to learning from them, and discovered a path toward health and happiness.
“My culture saved me. I was able to find happiness through my culture,” she said. Callingbull is a jingle dancer, and abstains from all alcohol and drug use. “I saw how negatively alcohol and drugs affect people’s lives,” she said. “And I didn’t want to go through that anymore.”
Callingbull said that as she dedicated herself to healing, she discovered that by helping others, she helped herself. School became her number one passion, allowing her to skip two grades and graduate early. Callingbull eventually went on to get degrees in astrophysics and communications.
Throughout all this, she worked for various charities. Her desire to help people eventually led to her participating in beauty pageants as a way to bring attention to her favorite charities. “My way of healing is through helping other people heal,” Callingbull said.
Callingbull participated in the Miss Canada competition, and eventually became Miss Canada International, allowing her to travel the world and talk about issues facing First Nations people. “I’ve always had a big mouth,” said Callingbull.
Eventually, competing in pageants became too exhausting, and Callingbull focused on acting. It wasn’t until her mother began pushing her to compete for Mrs. Universe that Callingbull became aware of the competition. Mrs. Universe differs from regular beauty pageants in that it doesn’t focus primarily on the contestant’s looks. Instead, the pageant judges contestants on their charitable work and contributions to their country. Callingbull won the pageant in August 2015.
Since her win, Callingbull has been dedicated to using her title to spread awareness of Native issues across North America. As a result of her voter campaign in Canada, First Nations people voted in record numbers. While the campaign was a great success, Callingbull has received backlash from conservative citizens. “Mrs. Universe isn’t just a title for me,” said Callingbull. “I want to make change and not care what the backlash is.”
“I’m doing good for the First Nations of Canada,” she continued. “And I’m damn proud of it.”
While Callingbull said that she has healed a great deal through focusing on the traditional way of life, she said that healing takes a lot of effort, even in the present. “Every day is a healing process,” said Callingbull. “To this day, I’m still healing.”
Callingbull closed her speech by discussing the thought processes that helped her survive a brutal childhood filled with a great deal of pain. “I believed I was meant for something more than I was given,” said Callingbull. “I believe that we’re all made for something more. Our culture makes us beautiful. We’re still here. We’re still strong.”
Following her speech, Callingbull was presented with a dress made for her by Norma Baker-Flying Horse, who designs dresses for Miss Indian World, Cheyenne Brady. Flying Horse also presented Callingbull with a Pendleton blanket from MHA Chairman Mark Fox, whom she said is a huge supporter of Native people accomplishing great things.
Cheyenne Brady also discussed Callingbull’s accomplishments being a positive representation of all Native people. “You represent all of us as well,” said Brady.
Callingbull’s speech and accomplishments proved inspiration to many members of the community, including comedian Tito Ybarra. “I thought her speech was right on as far as issues in Indian Country go, not only in Canada, but also here in the States,” he said. “I just want to say that she’s the answer to a lot of prayers, I believe, that have been happening throughout Indian Country.”
During her speech, Callingbull said that she had developed a personal motto during her years of healing. “To love and live fearlessly.” And to the crowd filled with children, teenagers, and young women, she asked that each audience member try to do the same.
Photos by Tilden Bird. For more on the story, pick up this week’s issue of the MHA Times.