In April 2010, at the annual Gathering of Nations powwow, Dakota became the first Mohawk to be crowned Miss Indian World. Since then, this member of the Mohawk Nation Turtle Clan has traveled all over the continent, giving presentations on environmental sustainability, and engaging with Aboriginal youth in a number of ways.
“It’s been a phenomenal experience,” says Dakota. “Every community I go to, they welcome me in; they want me to feel like an intimate member of their community in the time that I’m there. Being a part of that experience, I’ve been able to see how Indian communities have grown at this point as a result of colonization, and how people are dealing with it—and how communities are focusing on their future at this time.”
Dakota has been focused on her future since childhood. Growing up in southern Ontario’s Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, she always knew she wanted to maintain and promote the traditional skills and knowledge she’d learned within her family. Both her parents worked full-time—her father as an ironworker, her mother as a teacher—but they still chose to live off the land. “We were very subsistent,” says Dakota. “It was a lifestyle that meant a lot to me because when I looked around me, I realized that people were highly dependent on things that aren’t necessary in our lives.”
Dakota also knew from a very young age that she wanted a university education, and that she wanted to find a career in which she could honour and celebrate her heritage as an Onkwehonwe person. After graduating high school, she spent two years in a Mohawk immersion program so that she could better understand her language.
The course of study further fueled her appreciation for her Mohawk culture and traditions, so she enrolled in Indigenous Studies at Trent University. But when the school announced a new program that merged Dakota’s interest in indigenous culture with her passion for the environment, she knew she’d found her calling. She jumped at the chance to switch to Trent’s Indigenous Environmental Studies program.
“Trent [was the first institution] in Western academia to acknowledge indigenous worldviews as being of value in terms of focusing on environmental studies and sustainability,” says Dakota. “They’ve created a venue where you can become educated and have an official degree acknowledging that worldview.”
In 2010, Dakota graduated with honours, becoming the first person to complete Trent’s new program. Not long after, she was named Miss Indian World and embarked on an incredible journey that offered her the opportunity to share her newfound knowledge with young indigenous people across North America.
Dakota’s commitment to the role earned her the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation’s (NAAF) Special Youth Award, to be presented on March 11 at the 2011 National Aboriginal Achievement Awards. “I’m really, really excited,” she says. “Of all the highly qualified individuals across the country [who applied for the award], it was so nice to be recognized among them.”
Becoming Miss Indian World also provided a break from academia. “I took the year to be Miss Indian World and to be nothing else,” she says. “For the first year of my life, I’m not a student.”
The change has been welcome to Dakota, who not only spent nearly two decades as a hard-working—and high-achieving—scholar, but has also already dabbled in several prospective careers. As a teenager, Dakota hosted a radio show in Six Nations of the Grand River. She also wrote for her community newspaper, taught local elementary school students, and made what she calls a lifelong commitment to volunteering with the Six Nations Fire Department.
That’s not to say Dakota doesn’t fully support the idea of higher education. As she says, “When you go to university, it’s your opportunity to take a step outside of your life… My undergraduate degree gave me perspective for what it is that I want to do.” But she appreciates equally the value of real-world experiences and learning outside the walls of an educational institution.
Although Dakota’s formal duties as Miss Indian World will be complete in April 2011, she plans to spend another year organizing and attending events throughout North America’s indigenous communities. “There is still demand for me, so I’m still going to be doing a lot of travel,” she says. “Between being a NAAF ambassador and Miss Indian World, a lot of opportunities for me to engage native youth across Indian country just suddenly burst open. I’m counting on taking this year to fulfill the needs of those other communities and integrate myself with what it is that I’m going to be doing with my academic future.”
That academic future includes further pursuing her chosen field of study. She’ll soon be applying to graduate school, and hopes to enroll at Trent University, York University or Guelph University for September 2012.
Dakota understands that attending university can be costly. But she encourages young people to do what they can to make it possible, if they’re considering a career that requires, or would benefit from, post-secondary education. For Aboriginal students in particular, she points out that NAAF offers many bursary opportunities. “NAAF is there to help you focus on education, not on financial burdens,” she says.
When Dakota returns to school, her goal is to build her knowledge base so that she can continue to give back to the land that has offered her so much. “My hopes are to bring my education and my new perspective back to my community to work in a community development capacity,” she says.
Through her graduate studies, Dakota will focus on creating a development blueprint for her community in Six Nations of the Grand River. The blueprint will serve to outline how residents can develop the area in holistic, environmentally sustainable and economically sound ways. “I want to see my community become a role model for innovation in environmental sustainability—eating green, eating local,” she says.
Looking at the bigger picture, Dakota sees no reason why indigenous people shouldn’t be looked upon as environmental role models for the country at large. After all, Aboriginal communities in North America thrived by living off the land “for generations immemorial because the ideas they developed worked for [their environments],” she says.
Dakota intends to apply her education so that she can highlight the innovative ways in which Aboriginal people have maintained their subsistence. By empowering others with that knowledge, she hopes to help people move forward in a way that benefits not only the environment, but a range of communities across the continent.
“I want to be in the environmental studies field [so that I can serve] as a reminder of the innovation of indigenous people,” says Dakota. “I want to tell others to look back and focus on those ideas, and see how it is that we reestablished them as being a part of environmental sustainability and innovation in the future.”