It took hugs from Kayleigh Spencer’s fellow pageant contestants for what had just happened to sink in. “I just felt in awe,” said Spencer. “I was holding back tears and I was really excited and really happy, but it just didn’t feel real.”
Over the weekend, in Oujé-Bougoumou, Spencer was crowned the inaugural Miss Eenou/Eeyou Nation. And while the crowning was the end of one journey, that began months ago at the local pageant in Mistissini, it was also the start of a brand-new one.
“For the local pageant we had to fundraise and represent a local entity. I was representing the youth council,” said Spencer. “My talent for that competition was public speaking and I wrote a speech about engaging our youth, the importance of education, and respecting the environment.”
Her title of Miss Mistissini came with duties like the ceremonial puck dropping at a local hockey game, other public appearances, and representing Mistissini in the Regional Pageant. Her new title also comes with responsibilities, one of which is representing the entire Cree Nation at the Miss Indian World Pageant at the Gathering of Nations Powwow this summer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
An elementary school teacher, Spencer admits she had never thought of herself as a beauty queen. “I thought it was super random for them to ask me because I’m sporty and always out playing with the youth and stuff,” said Spencer. “So for them to ask me if I wanted to be in the princess pageant, I was just like, ‘What?’”
But this was a different kind of pageant. “It definitely wasn’t about who had the prettiest hair or the best eyebrows,” Spencer told the Nation. “It was about appreciating culture and empowering young girls. After they explained that to me I was all for it.”
Spencer credits Ashley Callingbull as one of her inspirations, not because of how she looks or the fact that she won Miss Universe. Instead, Callingbull “used her victory as a platform to address real issues that affect Indigenous people, which is what I hope to achieve through this.”
The regional pageant was divided into three parts: a talent section, an interview portion and an essay. Spencer wrote her essay on celebrating traditional gender equality and Indigenous female remodels.
“For the interview section they asked me if an Elder had given me a teaching that stuck with me,” said Spencer. “My Grandpa passed away when I was four so I didn’t get to know him for long, but he told me something that my whole family lives by to this day. He said, ‘Your tongue is the strongest weapon you have in your body, and you can use it for good or bad, but whatever you use it for comes back to you.’”
The women in the competition were personally coached by the current Miss Indian World, Danielle Ta’Sheena Finn of the Standing Rock Sioux. That experience stood out for Spencer. “It was so crazy because she’s super down-to-earth and we felt like we were all friends by the end of the experience,” said Spencer.
And the icing on the cake of her win was that she’ll be joined at the Gathering of Nations by one of her fellow Miss Eenou competitors, Miss Waskaganish, Melissa Gilpin. “We’re going to have two girls going to Albuquerque in a few months to represent the whole Cree Nation – that’s pretty sick!” exclaimed Spencer.
When she got back to Mistissini, the entire community celebrated the victory with a parade. “A fire truck was leading the way and honking its horn and people were following behind in their cars,” said Spencer. “But it wasn’t just for me, the community had a crazy weekend. We had a hockey team that did well, we had a snowmobile racing team that won in Chisasibi, and so it was like a triple whammy for the town.”
And it seems as though the victory is still sinking in for both Spencer and Mistissini. “Every time I see someone out in the community, they’ll come up to me and say, ‘Congratulations,’ or jokingly bow to me,” Spencer said with a laugh. “And this will all happen while I’m on my way to teach my Grade 5 class.”