Mahala Sutherland was still wearing her feather headband when the pageant judge placed the gold crown on her head.
From under the bright lights of the stage, she couldn’t help but smile at the combination: the eagle plumes collected from her tribal homeland and the shimmering red jewels.
It made her proud as the crowd chanted her name. “You deserve this, Molly,” one person cheered. “That’s our girl,” said another, as everyone began to stand in ovation.
Sutherland, 22, never expected to win this year’s homecoming royalty contest at Southern Utah University. But she’s honored that she did — and that she became the first Indigenous student to claim the title in the school’s history.
“Just having that mixture of my regalia with the crown,” Sutherland said, “it means so much. It means so much to students like me. We feel seen.”
She entered the pageant to showcase her culture in quiet rebellion to a time when her parents could not.
Growing up in a small town in central Arizona, Sutherland had been taught not to openly embrace being Diné, or Navajo.
Sutherland’s dad had been pressed to attend an Indigenous boarding school as a kid where it was against the rules to wear traditional clothing, like feather headbands, or speak his Native language; children that disobeyed were beaten. He still has scars, she says.
And Sutherland’s mom had been bullied by her white classmates in traditional public schools whenever she displayed her heritage. They hooted and hollered at her in the hallways, she told her daughter.
Out of their hurt, her parents grew afraid to teach their children about where they came from, Sutherland said. So they didn’t tell her much about Navajo traditions.
“There’s this trauma among my people that we don’t talk about,” Sutherland added. “My dad, for instance, doesn’t talk about his experience at boarding school. But it affected him a lot. He didn’t really feel comfortable teaching us anything or talking in our language. That’s why he didn’t pass it down.”
It wasn’t until she came to SUU, where she met other Native students, that she learned more about her culture. They taught each other what they were missing. The dances became her favorite part, so Sutherland chose that for her talent at the homecoming pageant, where other students sang opera or performed ventriloquism.
Sutherland passed up rhinestones for hand-beaded earrings. And she wore a handmade jingle dress in place of an evening gown.
‘Reclaiming who we are’
There’s a legend behind the jingle dress dance, from the Ojibwe Tribe, about a father trying to heal his daughter.
The daughter had become sick, unable to move, barely speaking. The father prayed to the Creator for a way to help her, and he saw a vision of a dress covered in beautiful silver bells. He started sewing it together and took her to a drum ceremony when it was complete.
The father carried the girl for the first rounds of the song, her dress jingling in his arms.
Then, she was able to stand with his help for the next round. She walked on her own after that. And by the end, she was dancing by herself.
“She was healed,” Sutherland recounted.
When Sutherland first learned the story of the dance at a club meeting of SUU’s Native American Student Association, she immediately connected with it. And she’s seen it as a way to heal her own family, almost like telling it in reverse, with the daughter in her version helping the father and her mother, too, heal from a pain that has been carried for generations.
On the stage of the pageant, Sutherland walked out in the jingle dress that members of the club helped her make. Three members — Jeremy Garcia and brothers Kyle and Justin Secakuku — also played the drums for her as she stepped up and down, waving an eagle fan to cheers from the crowd.
The hundreds of bells sewn on her dress rang out across the auditorium.
Sutherland has found a community with the Native American Student Association, where there are others like her who didn’t learn about their culture at home, those with parents who went through similar experiences.
“We’re taking it upon ourselves to learn now from anybody who’s willing to teach us,” she said. “We’re reclaiming who we are.”
And they’re doing it with the added challenge of being in Cedar City, a predominantly white town, and at a predominantly white university where the Native American population is 1% of the student body.
Kyle Secakuku, who is Hopi and the current club president, taught Sutherland the footwork for the jingle dress dance. He has taught himself through online videos. And he made her the red and orange and yellow beaded earrings that she wore; those took him four days to string together. He also painted her moccasins to match. He wanted them to look like mountains at sunrise or sunset.
Jeremy Garcia sewed her dress in a bright, fiery red, adding elements of turquoise in the Navajo tradition. He also incorporated contemporary designs, to signify a new generation.
The members of the club say they’re trying to take back a heritage that was stolen from them by a country that has continued to hurt Indigenous people. And like the power of the jingle dress, they say learning those restored traditions have been healing for them, too.
“They say that when you dance, it’s for everybody,” Secakuku said. “I think that also includes yourself. For us, it has to. We need that.”
A painful past
Sutherland blinked under the spotlight during the question and answer portion of the homecoming pageant. The judge instructed her: “Define what courage means to you.”
She was so nervous that she didn’t hear. “Um, can you repeat that?” she asked. Then Sutherland fidgeted and hugged her fringed shawl tighter as she thought about how to respond.
“I think courage is just going out there, even when you’re scared,” she said into the microphone. “It’s about not being afraid to stand out. I mean, that’s what I’m doing here.”
It was silent for a minute. Then the auditorium roared with applause.
The question made Sutherland think about how standing on that stage might be a start to addressing the wrongs that almost cost her an identity.
She points to her grandfather, a member of the Wiyot tribe in California. When he was a young boy, he was ripped from his home, taken from his parents and brought to a southern Utah boarding school, Sutherland said. The staff members would cut the kids’ hair, rap their knuckles with rulers until they bled and wash their mouths with soap. Some tried to run away; others died.
Sutherland’s dad, as well as his siblings, later suffered the same removal. And the treatment caused her dad to shut down.
“A lot of my relatives struggle with mental health now,” Sutherland said.
When her parents divorced when she was a kid, Sutherland didn’t see a lot of her dad. “He felt like he had to hide himself,” she said.
She grew up with her mom, Aurelia Chee, outside the Navajo reservation where Chee also struggled to connect.
Chee didn’t go to a boarding school but moved around the United States as a kid, attending mostly white public schools while her father was stationed at different military bases. Every school she went to, Chee recalled, she was picked on. It was difficult learning English after growing up speaking Navajo; and she was held back a year and mocked for it by her classmates.
When learning history, she was told Natives once lived on the land but didn’t any more. She didn’t feel like she existed. “It was so degrading,” Chee said.
She felt out of place, too, when visiting the reservation, where people said she didn’t belong. “I was scared that Mahala would bear a lot of what her dad and I went through, living between two worlds,” Chee said. “So I made a choice to pick one for her. I thought it would be easier that way.”
Sutherland grew up speaking English — never Diné — and attending a school with few kids that looked like her. When they’d sit together at the laundromat, her mom would teach her only small pieces of her heritage, a respect for the earth, a reverence for elders. Nothing more.
Chee says she’s glad her daughter had the courage to show her that wasn’t enough, even if she was scared.
Racism on campus
Sutherland didn’t tell her parents that she was going to be in the pageant. She didn’t think she’d win. And she worried she would be talked out of trying because of fear.
Sutherland already had her own concerns when she submitted the application two minutes before the deadline. She thought, “They’re going to pick someone who is white. And I’m going to open myself up to more hate.”
Sutherland said even without learning about her culture, there was no way for her parents to shield her from the remarks about the color of her skin. She’s had people come up to her on campus and touch her long braided hair or pull on her beaded earrings. “They pet me like an animal,” she said.
She’s had other students question how she’s there at all, saying they thought Native Americans were “supposed to be extinct.” That’s something she’s heard since elementary school, and a taunt repeated from her mother’s childhood, too.
She’s had a professor at SUU openly disagree with the textbook definition of discrimination and declare: “I’m white, and I think I can experience racism too. We should be proud of our white privilege.” She reported it to the administration.
Earlier this month, two American Indian students at the school were shot at with airsoft guns. They were dressed in Native regalia, returning from a cultural showcase, when a car of white men started chanting at them. Sutherland and Secakuku helped them fill out a police report.
When Sutherland won the crown, she received messages from students of color across SUU, thanking her for running. They told her what it meant to see another student like them on the stage. They said they didn’t feel invisible. They told her about their own experiences with racism and asked how they could address it.
A member of the Polynesian club sent her a long note that ended: “Just thank you so much for doing that.” There were more from the Latino student organization and the Asian American club.
The LGBTQ group also reached out, saying they were excited that Sutherland won the pageant the first year that it was gender neutral, using the term “homecoming royalty” instead of “Miss SUU” and “Mr. SUU.”
Secakuku said Sutherland made other students feel represented, even empowered.
“Her winning the title is just the first time many of us have felt noticed on this campus and not just noticed for being other,” he said. “It’s huge for us.”
Healing and teaching
Sutherland, who was president of the Native American Student Association last year, met with the president of the university then, to discuss better recognizing Native students. He agreed to hang flags from each of Utah’s tribal nations in the student commons of SUU, where there are flags from around the world. He also signed a statement acknowledging that SUU sits on Indigenous land.
“This position as SUU royalty,” said Daneka Souberbielle, chief diversity officer for the school, “will absolutely give her a microphone that is needed and will benefit the whole institution. But she would have found a microphone, regardless. That’s who she is.”
Sutherland is studying sociology with the hope of leading diversity efforts in higher education when she graduates. She wants universities to have more students like her, more faculty like her and more events where it’s not unusual for people like her to be on stage — or to win.
When Sutherland called her mom and told her that she was crowned in the pageant, her mom cried. Chee has been watching the recording over and over since.
Sutherland has “taught me so much about myself,” Chee said. “I look up to her. Seeing her and seeing how she’s so into understanding her Indigenous identity and being a Native woman, it’s really made me remember my responsibilities to the community.”
Since Sutherland was named homecoming royalty, Chee has started to teach her and her siblings to speak Diné. Sutherland’s dad is slowly beginning to talk more about what happened to him, and to dance, too.
Sutherland wants to start teaching younger Navajo kids about their culture. She also plans to push for schools to talk about Native Americans in present tense and for history lessons to include an honest look at the brutality of Indigenous boarding schools, and how that can impact generations.
When the pageant ended, she went to celebrate with Secakuku. As she stood in his living room, his 4-year-old niece ran out and saw Sutherland still in her crown and feather headband. The little girl shouted, “That’s so cool. I want to do that when I go to college.”
And Sutherland placed the crown on top of her head.