"The first thing I tell anyone when I describe Miss Arctic Circle is that it's not a beauty pageant," explained reigning queen Elizabeth Ferguson. There's no evening gown runway, no swimwear category ("Thank God!"). There is a talent portion, but you're unlikely to see any flaming batons. For her talent, Ferguson showcased her photography and talked about the importance of picture-taking to preserve a culture.
Because that's what Miss Arctic Circle is all about: culture. A Kotzebue native, Ferguson has firm roots in her Inupiaq heritage. But those roots didn't stop her from moving to Minnesota for school—and her independence didn't prevent her from coming back home to create opportunities for other young people.
"From a young age, I was always on the go," Ferguson said as she reflected upon her childhood spent chasing after her older brothers and visiting her grandfather's fish camp. "I guess that hasn't really changed."
As a kid, Ferguson wasn't a tomboy or a girlie-girl—she was everything, went through every phase. In middle school, she tried cross-country running, volleyball and basketball, but she found her niche with cheerleading.
"It was a good outlet for us girls to spend time together in a really healthy way," she says. "Middle school is usually drama and little fights. I didn't realize until later on how big an impact that had—doing cheer and getting so close to the girls on my team."
She described the Kotzebue Huskies cheer team as a "Cinderella story," with the girls going from failure at their first competition in Nome to becoming three-time champions at the Top of the World Cheer and Dance Competition. It was an early lesson in team effort and personal perseverance.
"There were six of us, all working toward the same goal, and sometimes it felt like we were cheering not only against the other teams, but against the judges and the crowd and our maybe-not-so-supportive administration. People think it's just dancing, but it's so hard on your body. I love the challenge of it."
Ferguson was surprised to find that same camaraderie and sense of sisterhood at the competition for Miss Arctic Circle. As a pageant that emphasizes culture over beauty, Miss Arctic Circle offers young women an opportunity to share the history, language and experience of their diverse heritages.
"I don't think I would be comfortable in a regular pageant," Ferguson said. After being crowned Miss Arctic Circle, she went on to compete for the title of Miss World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, which she also won. "With both, I never felt pressured to be beautiful or look a certain way. The only thing being judged on looks is your regalia—like, how authentic is your fur parka?"
Her pageant regalia is a story in itself, having come from several family members, including one Iowa aunt who shipped a parka that arrived only four hours before the pageant's grand entrance commenced. Ferguson's mentor, Cathlynn Greene, loaned a pair of mukluks worn by her own mother.
"A lot of the stuff I wore was made by seamstresses and people who had already passed, and it was, like, the last thing they'd stitched together," Ferguson said. "There was a lot of history there."
You can go home again
For someone who is always on the go, Ferguson is nevertheless consistently drawn back to her own community. She was crowned Miss Arctic Circle in Kotzebue, surrounded by friends and family. And after moving to Minnesota to pursue a degree in psychology, she decided to become a paramedic instead—a career switch that led her back to her hometown.
"I think kids often have this perception that there's nothing here in town for them," she said. "But our community has a lot to offer, a lot going on."
That's due, in part, to Ferguson herself. Part of the responsibilities of most titleholders, like Miss USA or Miss America, is to raise awareness around an issue about which she cares. But the reigning Miss Arctic Circle isn't interested in just talking about issues; she's interested in action.
Her middle-school-aged sister, Victoria, inspires most of Ferguson's efforts, including the youth council she and a few friends just started. "I love working with kids that age because they're still malleable," she said. "They're starting to think about different issues, and if you can get to them at that time, maybe you can change their perception."
Ferguson is helping organize an advisory board for the council, which has already hosted a week of events promoting suicide awareness and raised money for breast cancer awareness. "We're just trying to show that young people are interested in giving back to the community and that we are a real presence in town," she explained.
This summer, Ferguson penned her Miss Arctic Circle entry essay while chaperoning a handful of kids at an East Coast Six Flags. The trip was a reward for kids who had participated in an essay contest Ferguson organized for middle-schoolers during her stint as an intern for the Northwest Arctic Bureau. The winners of the contest later took on the Gen-I challenge, which encourages community engagement among Alaska Native youth.
Despite her hectic schedule, Ferguson decided to take the challenge, too, and wound up hosting a two-day youth leadership summit in Kotzebue—an effort that landed her a spot at the White House Tribal Youth Gathering, where she just happened to meet First Lady Michelle Obama.
"Michelle Obama is so sweet! I only had a brief moment with her, but she was so genuine," Ferguson said. She got to hug the First Lady and hear her speak to the group of 1,000 participants.
At the gathering, Ferguson garnered some attention for her outfit, which included her Miss Arctic Circle jade-and-ivory tiara and her sash, with her title spelled out in sealskin. Appearance, though, was the last thing on Ferguson's mind; she was already thinking about the future.
"It was a cool experience because now I know what to expect," she said. "Now I can work a lot harder to get more youth from our area this opportunity."
Jamey Bradbury is a freelance writer in Anchorage. She also writes for Alaska Life Publishing and Alaska Contractor Magazine.
This article appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of 61°North. Contact 61°North editor Jamie Gonzales at firstname.lastname@example.org.