HOLLYWOOD — The buzz has continued even if the dust has settled a bit.
Cheyenne Kippenberger – formerly Miss Florida Seminole and now Miss Indian World – has been riding a wave of excitement since being crowned April 27 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
It’s the first time a Seminole Tribe of Florida member has been crowned Miss Indian World.
“I was very shocked, actually. My initial goal – you always have high hopes – was to get ‘best’ in any category. We haven’t [even] had that before,” Kippenberger said.
Kippenberger earned the crown – and two “best” awards – after four days of competition among 17 other contestants during the annual Gathering of Nations Powwow. She did it in front of sold out crowds and thousands of dancers and drummers from hundreds of Tribal Nations.
The 23-year-old from the Hollywood Reservation is the 36th Miss Indian World. She is the daughter of Joe and Susan Kippenberger. Kippenberger graduated from Keiser University in Fort Lauderdale with a degree in accounting.
Preparation for the competition happened in concert with Wanda Bowers who oversees the Tribe’s princess program.
Bowers said she kept it to herself, but when Kippenberger was crowned Miss Florida Seminole about a year ago, she had a feeling Miss Indian World was very attainable.
“I knew she had a really good shot at it,” Bowers said, although Kippenberger wouldn’t decide to run until much later.
The Miss Indian World pageant – held since 1984 – takes place each year at the Gathering of Nations, the world’s largest Native American powwow.
Native American women between the ages of 18 and 25 travel from around the U.S. and Canada to represent their tribes and compete in a series of categories.
The purpose of the journey and the title is to give the women a chance to showcase the culture and traditions of their tribes. The contestants serve as cultural ambassadors of their respective tribes and of Native Americans in general. They are expected to show poise, pride and positivity, and work to keep the diverse cultures of Native Peoples alive and thriving.
The Miss Indian World pageant has a reputation for crowning winners who have a deep understanding of their tribe’s traditions, history, ancestors and culture.
Kippenberger hit all those markers and expectations.
“[We] look forward to working with Cheyenne Kippenberger this year as she travels Indian Country representing all Native women and the Gathering of Nations organization,” Gathering of Nations directors said in a statement.
Throughout the four-day competition, contestants accumulate points based on how they do in public speaking, traditional talents, personal interviews, written essays and dance.
Kippenberger not only had the most cumulative points, but also took the award for best personal interview and best traditional talent – a demonstration of a traditional Seminole hairstyling.
After Kippenberger picked up the two individual awards, she waited with the other contestants on the floor of Tingley Coliseum to hear who would be runner-up and who would get the crown.
“I was praying really, really hard in my head and in my heart. I wanted to show my gratitude for the experience itself and be thankful for everyone carrying me through the experience,” she said. “I thought: There’s still a chance, there’s still a chance.”
The announcer soon said: “The next Miss Indian World comes to us representing the Seminole Tribe of Florida …”
“When I heard the ‘Sem’ I just started crying so hard. I tried to take a moment for myself, a moment to really take it in and put it out to the universe,” Kippenberger said. “It was an overwhelmingly happy moment. And genuine surprise.”
Road to the title
Kippenberger is just a couple months shy of what would be her one year mark as Miss Florida Seminole. (She was crowned July 14, 2018). However, upon winning Miss Indian World, that title is relinquished.
Applications for the next Miss Florida Seminole pageant on July 27 are being accepted now.
Kippenberger said she didn’t realize it at the time, but she’d been preparing for Miss Indian World even before she made the decision to send in her application.
“I was going around to each Reservation speaking [as Miss Florida Seminole]. When I finally did decide to run, I’d planned on doing the same [traditional Seminole hairstyling] talent, but how could I make it better? I was working hard on my dancing and was in full-on practice mode,” she said.
Bowers was encouraging Kippenberger to submit her application and it was even posted on her bedroom door as a reminder.
She kept it there until the end of January when she finally decided to run after consulting with her father.
Kippenberger immediately started working on her essay, portrait, and began to sell raffle tickets – which serves as a fundraising element for the pageant.
The fundraising was even more preparation for the competition, she said, because it forced her to step out of her comfort zone.
‘That big smile’
Bowers has seen many girls pass through the princess program over the years. She isn’t even sure how long she’s been overseeing it.
“Twenty five or 30 years; I don’t even count anymore,” Bowers said with a chuckle.
Bowers and Kippenberger began their journey together without really knowing one another.
“Wanda is the heart and soul of the Seminole princess program,” Kippenberger said. “It’s not something everybody wakes up and says they want to do. It’s hard. My experience with Wanda has been nothing short of amazing. She’s become one of my best friends.”
Bowers said Kippenberger’s age was an advantage because she had already been on her own, had graduated college and was well versed in Native American issues.
“We hit it off,” Bowers said. “We always had something we could talk about.”
Kippenberger concurred: “We’re so alike. It was always laughs and smiles. It’s not easy in some of these situations. It’s hard to navigate some of the things you have to go through, but much easier when you have someone like Wanda who knows the position and knows how to handle these things,” she said.
Bowers isn’t one to seek attention or credit.
“[Kippenberger’s] a talker. She can talk to anybody about anything. She smiles and is very friendly and cordial. She’s everything wrapped up into one package,” Bowers said. “That big smile draws you in. She’s so approachable. She worked so hard for that crown.”
Since returning home to Hollywood, Kippenberger said she’s received a great amount of support from Tribal leadership and Tribal members.
President Mitchell Cypress was the first person she spoke with after the competition.
“My dad said: ‘You have somebody on the phone.’ It was Mitchell. I’d run into him earlier that day. I’ve known him since I was a little girl. He was really kind and congratulating,” she said.
Hollywood Representative Gordon O. Wareham wrote a letter of recommendation for Kippenberger to assist in her Miss Indian World application submission.
“I’ve known Cheyenne Kippenberger for 22 years, and it’s been a pleasure to watch her grow up from a cute little toddler to a very responsible adult,” Rep. Wareham said in the letter he shared with the Seminole Tribune.
“Following in her grandmother’s footsteps, Miss Florida Seminole Lawanna Osceola, Cheyenne has taken to her new role of ambassador for our people and Tribe with the confidence of a dignitary. She is a positive role model and leader for Seminole people and would be a great ambassador for the Native American community,” he wrote.
Making her mark
Like Miss Florida Seminole, Miss Indian World is a one-year term.
“It’s not necessarily about filling the shoes of the girls before you,” Kippenberger said. “I do have an idea of the goals I want for my reign.”
Kippenberger wants to continue to promote Tribal mental health issues, including through her own personal experiences. She also wants to shed light on the lack of representation of Indigenous people in education, health care, mass media and more, she said.
Kippenberger said some barriers have been broken already, citing the first two Native American women elected to Congress last year.
“I think my plan is to push that momentum,” she said.