The Arctic Sounder

Women, youth and children showcase beautiful regalia at Indigenous pageants in the Arctic

Katlyn Jade Iñuģiksuq Smith felt gratefulness and sadness wash over her, while she was unwrapping the ribbon seal parka.

Last week, Smith, 20, won the 2023 Miss Arctic Circle in Kotzebue, wearing the regalia that belonged to the late Mary Lou Sours, a traditional seamstress who died in December 2022.

“When I first saw the ribbon seal parka after it was shipped here, I felt really emotional and honored to be using it after Mary Lou passed. I just stared at it in awe and thought about my time with her,” Smith said. “I got so happy whenever I heard her name during the regalia portion of the pageant, which meant that she made a good amount of everyone’s regalia they brought.”

Smith has worn this parka before: in 2019, she said she ran and won the Miss Teen Arctic Circle “for fun and to have a boost in confidence before heading to college.”

The experience made Smith realize she can influence her community and build leadership skills. That’s why, after taking time to focus on the Native Youth Olympic games, she decided to run for Miss Arctic Circle this year.

Last week, before each judging event, Smith said she would wake up an hour before and feel calm. But as she waited for the judging, the anticipation, mixed with nervousness, would build quickly up. Having family, her boyfriend and the whole community by her side supported her through the day.

“During my thank you speech,” she said, “I paused and looked at everyone around me, and realized that they are all people who have given me support and inspiration to keep doing what I love and represent our people. I realized that our community really is a big family.”


For Sours’ daughter, Alannah Jones, watching Smith taking the crown in the regalia made by her mom was also an emotional moment.

“It was a very special way to honor my mom and all of her work,” Jones said. “I know she’s touched the hearts of so many in Kotzebue.”

[Traditional Iñupiaqiaq seamstress Mary Lou Sours is remembered for her passion for craft, teaching and life.]

Sours was very engaged with the pageant committee, sewing various items for babies and young women.

The Miss Arctic Circle pageant was not the first time the regalia items were exchanged between the Sours and Smith families, said Katlyn Smith’s mother Pam Smith. Years ago, Mary Lou Sours wore a parka made by Esther Jessup for Pam Smith’s mother, and a few years ago, Sours also made Katylin Smith’s graduation maklaks.

And then there was the 2019 Miss Teen Arctic Circle when Sours offered her ribbon seal parka made by her grandmother.

“My mom was so thrilled to fix it up and add a sunshine ruff to make it even fancier for Katlyn to use,” Jones said.

Sours started with re-doing stitching and mending a tear on the arm, posting her progress on her website Iñupiaq Custom Mary Designs. Then she removed the dyed black silver fox fur, added on a black wolf sunshine ruff and placed wolverine fur on the trim.

Before the contest, Sours also sent the family a pair of matching mukluks — the ones that are in the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“She was excited every step of the way,” Pam Smith said. “When Katy won, she rushed over. She said ‘I bet she’d win Miss Arctic Circle.’ She said to reach out to her if Katy would do that and WEIO. She’d love for her to display her work.”

Now Smith is finally running for the 2023 WEIO, which runs in Fairbanks from July 12 to 15.

“I’m honestly terrified when I think about the WEIO pageant next week, but I’m also excited because it’s an opportunity to meet new people, speak for my community, and celebrate our cultures,” she said. “It is awesome just to try the things you think you’re too afraid to do.”

Lovie Harris Baby Beauty Contest

Beautiful fur parkas were spotted all over the region last week during several Indigenous beauty pageants.

In Kotzebue, 17 babies showed off their regalia during the Lovie Harris Baby Beauty Contest in Kotzebue.

RayAnn Agnik Schaeffer-Henry became the overall grand champion and the winner in the most traditional category.

The win felt like a huge accomplishment to Schaeffer-Henry’s mother, Alyssa Schaffer. At only 22, she said she just came back to skin sewing after taking a break for several years.

Last year, Schaffer entered her daughter into the contest as well, but her mother was in charge of the sewing process. This year, while there was still a lot of help from other family members, Schaeffer was more involved, making her daughter’s parka and maklaks with such materials as sealskin as well as squirrel, wolverine and beaver fur.


“Those are pretty big projects even though they were made for a small person,” Schaeffer said. “It was a labor of love.”

The labor was also time-consuming: the family finished the parka 25 minutes before the child needed to be over at the school, and her mukluks were finished two hours before the contest.

“We almost put her in her parky from last year,” Schaeffer said.

But everything was done in time, and the year-and-a-half Schaeffer-Henry wore the full regalia and showcased a headband crown that resembled the Miss Arctic Circle Crown and was adorned with a red band,

“For the red, to me, it kind of represents the missing and murdered Indigenous women,” Schaeffer said. “That’s kind of why I chose that color.”

As a prize, Schaeffer-Henry, who is the daughter of Alyssa Schaffer and Adrian Henry, won a round-trip ticket to attend WEIO.

“We’re pretty excited being able to represent the NANA region because I know a lot of people from here are able to make it to WEIO,” Schaeffer said.

The Lovie Harris Baby Beauty Contest had two age categories, one from 0 to 11 months old and another from 12 to 24 months, said organizer Shylena Lie.


In the youngest category, from the 11 participants, Glen Michael Qipiktuk Coppock took first place, O’Shea Jamar Papigtuk Smith took second and Georgianna Rose Qisiilaaq Lambert was third. In turn, in the 12 to 24 months category with six participants, first place went to Greyson Hayes Pakik Strickland, second to Hali Vain Siiqaa Walker and third to Lucas Jax Nuvraq Burnor.

During the contest, family members borrowed or sewed traditional items for their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Many of this year’s outfits were created specifically for the pageant, Lie said. One family sewed their child’s regalia to reflect their cultural connection to the ocean, Lie said. Another family intertwined the Fourth of July celebration theme into the parka by using red and white colors, Lie said.

“When you see those new creations are these young parents – because these are a lot of young parents that are sewing for their children — you just see this blossoming and blooming year after year,” Lie said. “You see new skin sewers coming to the surface, you know, sewing for their babies and children. I think that’s great.”

Lie’s late aunt was Lovie Harris, the seamstress who was crucial in keeping the event going. Harris passed away about 20 years ago, and the contest was named in her honor.

“She was like a master seamstress and she loved providing clothing and sewing for people and making traditional items for babies and just, you know, people in the community,” said Lie, for whom Harris sewed outfits when she started Indigenous dancing. “It really made me feel connected and it really made me feel honored, just knowing that used to be something that my aunt organized…. Just seeing all the wonderful creations and knowing that people are still utilizing our culture and heritage.”

For Lie, this was the first time organizing the event. But before that, she has been involved in the pageant as a parent for the past six years, having her children showcase Indigenous regalia.

“It really made me feel connected to my culture and heritage,” she said. “I encourage everybody to continue our culture and not to be discouraged. … There’s always people willing to help out there if they want to learn to sew, especially for their children, and I would love to be that person for them to reach out to.”

Top of the World contests

In Utqiaġvik, only one youth, Anissa Houston, was a contestant and an automatic winner of the Miss Teen Top of the World.

No one was running for the Miss Top of the World contest this year, said one of the organizers of the Fourth of July events, Michelle Pearl Kaleak.

Five children participated in the Utqiaġvik ’s baby contest this year, walking around the crowd a few times for the seamstress judges to take a look at their regalia.

Jerica and Qaiyaan Leavitt’s baby, AmberLee Leavitt, won the baby contest.

The girl was wearing atikłuk and mittens, made for Kivgiq back in February and kamipiak, or traditional boots, made for the Nalukataq celebration last month, Jerica Leavitt said.


But preparing for the Top of The World was still a work-intensive task for Jerica Leavitt: she made her daughter’s headpiece and qusuŋŋaq, or fancy parka, specifically for the contest.

Leavitt started working on the outfit back in May. She knew she needed to complete the most time-consuming part — the qupak, or decorative trim — as soon as she could, before the geese hunting season. Then, after Nalukataq ended, she started sewing and assembling everything else together, spending long nights on the project.

“It’s all a puzzle and includes so much, from pattern making, knowing what types of stitches to use, how to cut the furs you need from wolf to wolverine to muskrat to beaver and calfskin, and how to put it all together,” Jerica Leavitt said. “Sewing garments is a way to keep our tradition thriving.”


Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.