Nuu-chah-nulth woman walks the talk

By Shauna Lewis, April 26, 2011

Vyna Brown will compete in the 28th Annual Miss Indian World pageant staged in Albuquerque, New Mexico April 28 to April 30.

Vancouver — 

Vyna Brown is a triple threat with brains, beauty and brilliant tenacity. She is certain to return from the 28thAnnual Miss Indian World pageant 2011 with an experience that will last a lifetime.

This year, the 24-year-old Nuu-chah-nulth/ Heiltsuk woman will be the only woman from British Columbia competing in the pageant held in Albuquerque, New Mexico April 28 to April 30.  Of the 26 contestants competing, seven are from Canada.

And she couldn’t be more ready to take up the challenge.

“Growing up on the reserve (in Bella Bella, B.C) I had really cultural strong parents and they were also good business people, so I had good mentors,” she explained. “But what I noticed was a lack of strong female mentors doing things in their communities,” she said.

At the young age of 15, Brown researchedonline and found the Miss Indian World Competition. “I wanted to see what Native women were doing in the rest of the world,” she explained.

Brown said she was awe-struck by the sheer power and determination of the pageant contestants.

“I said ‘Wow! I want to do that someday. I want to know what it takes to do that.”

With the support of her now late maternal grandmother, Elsie Robinson, Brown held on to the dream of competing.

“I didn’t want to do it until I was ready,” she said, explaining why she waited nearly 10 years to be a part of the pageant.

Today, Brown said it’s important that Indigenous girls know they have a chance at a healthy future, despite a variety of obstacles they face.

“I believe that Native girls deserve strong role models. We deserve to see ourselves in a positive light.” [And] “not [through] the Pickton case, the trials [and] not always on the streets as hookers,” she said. “In the media we are stereotyped and portrayed as victims,” she said.

“Growing up I always heard we had three strikes against us,” she said. First, you’re a woman, and then you’re Native and third you’re below the poverty line. So we are going to have to work three times as hard to get anywhere in this society, and as a young girl that is overwhelming.”

“ I remember being in school and thinking, ‘Wow, I have a better chance of getting pregnant and getting hooked on drugs and alcohol than I do graduating, according to statistics,” she said. “I remember thinking that this doesn’t feel right.”

Brown hopes to challenge the dominant negative stereotype of First Nations people.

But she’s had to do some soul-searching to understand what competing in Miss Indian World meant, and how she would best represent her Indigenous community. For Brown, being a true role model is crucial to her journey.

“I’ve seen it too many times in our communities where people tell you to go to school and follow your culture and then they’re not walking the walk and talking the talk,” she explained.

“I don’t want to be negative, because I know we all have our own personal struggles and I know we are still healing from the results of residential schools and the intergenerational effects [of residential schools]” she said. “We are all allowed to make mistakes, but I think that if you’re going to put yourself in the role of responsibility then you have to take it on fully and you have to walk the walk.”

Brown said her family has been a huge supporter of her dream and they have helped her tremendously in the months prior to the competition. Brown said a loonie/twoonie auction held in her hometown of Bella Bella, as well as other various fundraising efforts, have helped her raise the $5,000-plus needed to attend the pageant.

Brown, who lives in Vancouver, said she recently spent time at her Aunt Vina Robinson’s home in Qualicum in central Vancouver Island where she enrolled in what she called a week-long “Miss Indian World boot camp.” There, her family helped her learn songs and dances she will perform for the talent portion of the pageant. Brown also said she faithfully participated in the Nuu-chah-nulth tradition of ‘ocean baths,’ where each morning she would cleanse her body, mind and spirit in the ocean in an attempt to find balance and calm.

Asked what she thinks about the often controversial belief that beauty pageants objectify women, Brown has her personal beliefs.

“I really don’t feel that this is a beauty pageant,” she said. “I’m not even looking at it that way at all.”

Brown said the competition is more a cultural representation of self than an aesthetic one.

“It is all about our traditions and never really about how people look,” she said.

“I think that pageants can be healthy,” she added. “I think they’ve changed a lot.”

At 5 foot 11 inches with long fair hair and sparkling eyes, the amazingly beautiful plus-size (or as she likes to call it “real sized”) model has been beguiling the camera lens for a few years. Brown moved to Vancouver from Ladysmith in her early twenties after she was recruited, at a friend’s suggestion, to model for one of Vancouver’s modelling agencies.

Brown said she was often ridiculed in her community and throughout high school for her fair features and size 13 body.

“They wanted women who looked like Brittney Spears and Christina Aguilera,” she said. “They wanted these petite girls, and I was never that so I never felt beautiful,” she admitted.

Now Brown knows differently.

“I’m very proud of it,” she said of her blond locks. “I am mixed. I have other races in me,” she acknowledged. “I strongly identify with being Indigenous. That’s how I grew up, that’s how I was raised,” she explained. “But I’m very proud of my [fair] hair. I’m very proud of what I look like. This is what the Creator gave me. The Creator brought me into this world for a reason,” she said. 

She believes all women and girls should embrace and celebrate who they are.

“If you feel good about yourself then it shouldn’t matter what anyone else feels,’ she said. “ And if you do feel good about yourself then that will reflect on other people.”

“We all sway,” said Brown of growing up and occasionally making poor choices. “ Good or bad, we all have issues. We all have our stories.” But Brown believes remembering who you are throughout the difficult transitions is important for growth and self-awareness.

“If you focus on all that negative crap, that’s all you’re going to get,” she said. “But you have to have the strength and the awareness and the strength in your mind and your spirit to push all that aside.”

Currently, Brown utilizes her advocacy skills as a cultural youth and community engagement coordinator at the Knowledgeable Aboriginal Youth Association [KAYA] in Vancouver. She also is a certified yoga instructor , holding  private classes out of her apartment complex.

But while Brown has her hand in various endeavors, she said modelling is her future focus.

“My goal, ultimately, is that I really want to travel the world and see where I can take modeling,” she explained.

However, for now, Brown is keeping her eyes on the pageant crown and embracing the opportunities that await her.

“I feel like I’m ready,” she said of the competition. “I’ve learned the lessons, I’ve paid my dues and I deserve this. I deserve to be happy.”

“I’m approaching it [the pageant] with the attitude of ‘Yes, I want to win,’ but at the end of the day it’s about the journey,” she said. “It’s about the experience. I’m going to enjoy everything I’ve learned along the way and I’m going to enjoy it to the fullest.”