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The five judges of the 2016 Miss Indian World pageant didn’t stand a chance.
Once ASU law student Danielle Ta’Sheena Finn stood before them last Saturday night in front of a capacity crowd at the 33rd annual Gathering of Nations at the University of New Mexico arena in Albuquerque, they might as well have raised the white flag.
It helped that Finn had a clever strategy in place — make those judges smile big.
“I wanted the judges to crack because they sat so still and were stoic,” said the 25-year-old member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She was chosen from among 24 Native American women from different tribes and traditions.
“I was really cheesing it out as I was giving my answers and eventually I got them to crack — every single one of them. I made them all smile. So that’s why I guess I won.”
It’s hard not to smile when Ta’Sheena Finn enters a room. Her infectious laugh, megawatt smile, bubbly charm and eternally optimistic outlook have taken her far from her humble beginnings in Porcupine, North Dakota, population 200.
Finn says her parents did an excellent job of shielding her from the hardships of life as she reflects back as an adult.
“I didn’t have the best educational opportunities and wasn’t provided with the things that others had,” Finn said. “I grew up on the reservation, and we ate commodity cheese in one of the poorest counties in the state. But I never looked at it that way, though. To me, it’s still a beautiful place regardless of the small population, poverty level or jobless rate. It’s still home.”
As Miss Indian World, Finn will not be able to see home for a while. She’ll be traveling around the world for an entire year as a goodwill ambassador. She’ll visit Native and indigenous communities and deliver three key messages on education, suicide prevention and language preservation.
Finn freely admits her education was a struggle. Although she did well, she dealt with racism, isolation and encountered a major health issue, which included the removal of a few tumors in her neck. Through it all, she obtained a degree in criminal justice with a minor in international business at Minot State University in Bismarck, North Dakota.
“The message there is very simple,” Finn said. “Never give up. I went through a slew of treatments and surgeries and still graduated in four years.”
Her message regarding suicide prevention is more nuanced. She said the Standing Rock Nation has been hit with a suicide epidemic ever since she was born and that her tribe has declared three state of emergencies in her lifetime.
“Suicide is the second-leading cause [of death] for Native youth in the United States, and everything is reactive rather than proactive,” Finn said. “A lot of times youth are not being heard and no one’s looking for the signs.”
Finn said a large part of the issue is that suicide is a taboo subject on the reservation and literally is a word that is not supposed to be mentioned among her people.
“That’s something Natives don’t want to deal with culturally, and we should say something and speak up,” Finn said. “I don’t feel like the old way is working, and so I’m going to talk about it. We all need to walk out of the darkness together.”
Finn also wants to walk towards restoring indigenous language, which she says is dissipating at an alarming rate. She learned this when she volunteered as a language teacher in Head Start and taught basic Lakota to 3- to 5-year-olds.
“I want to instill a desire in Native people to start learning their language,” Finn said. “Learning the language is healing in a lot of ways, and it makes you more of a balanced person spiritually, culturally and mentally.”
“That’s [suicide] something Natives don’t want to deal with culturally, and we should say something and speak up. I don’t feel like the old way is working, and so I’m going to talk about it. We all need to walk out of the darkness together.”
— Danielle Ta’Sheena Finn, ASU law student and newly crowned Miss Indian World
Kate Rosier, the executive director of ASU’s Indian Law Program at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, said the key to Finn’s success is being a well-rounded person.
“Our program has been very successful at recruiting talented Native American students who are connected to their communities and want to serve Indian country. Danielle is one of these talented law students,” Rosier said. “She knows where she comes from and understands the challenges tribes and Native people face daily. She is smart, talented and always the first to volunteer on community projects. During her first year of law school she had the highest number of volunteer/pro bono hours in her class. Danielle will be a great Miss Indian World.”
Striking a balance has been a challenge for Finn lately. Her life has been a swirl of non-stop activity ever since she flew back from Albuquerque on Monday.
She has to ace three exams by the end of this week so she can clear the way to make her first appearance as Miss Indian World at Lehi Elementary School in Mesa. After that, she’ll be packing her bags as part of a Disney cruise that starts in mid-May, taking off from San Diego and making various stops in Mexico.
This summer she’ll head to England, where she’ll participate in a monthlong study-abroad program at Queen's University as part of her legal studies at ASU and plans to graduate with a juris doctorate in December. She says she’ll take a breather after, studying for the bar exam in February 2017.
Finn’s ultimate plan is return to North Dakota as the general counsel of her tribe.
“Our tribe usually hires non-Native attorneys, and they just don’t have that same level of commitment to our community,” Finn said. “They see it as a job and can leave every five years. I would stay there for a lifetime because these are my people and I want to fight for them every day.”
Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now