Evangelisto, Miss Winona, becomes first indigenous woman to win Miss Minnesota
Evangelisto explains her evolution from being taught to be ashamed of her heritage to becoming a proud Native American
WINONA, Minn. — Rachel Evangelisto made pageant history on Friday, June 17, 2022, by becoming the first Native American to win Miss Minnesota, representing southeastern Minnesota as Miss Winona.
So we talked to the newly crowned 25-year-old woman about what the victory means to her and other indigenous people, how she overcame her own self-esteem struggles as a young Native American woman, and how it is that she came to represent Winona, even though she doesn’t live there.
PB: So you were raised in Rapid City, South Dakota, and graduated from the University of Minnesota Morris. You live in the Twin Cities. So how did you end up representing southeastern Minnesota as Miss Winona?
Evangelisto: So my first exposure to Winona was through family that used to live there. The reason I actually decided to run for Miss Winona was my cultural background. I’m an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which is a Lakota/Dakota tribe. And Winona itself is on Dakota land, and I knew that it has this really rich history with Native American cultures and my people.
PB: So you don’t have to have been raised there, but you have to have some kind of connection. Is that right?
Evangelisto: It’s technically an open competition, so you don’t have to be from there. But in my judges’ interview, they asked me why I love Winona, why I want to be Miss Winona. So they really make sure that whoever is crowned the next Miss Winona has a really strong connection, and we’ll do great things for the area.
PB: So let me test your knowledge of Winona lore? Who is one of the stars in “Stranger Things” that was born in Winona?
Evangelisto: Winona Ryder
PB: Yes! Do you like the show?
Evangelisto: I do. I haven’t watched the next season, so if you have any spoilers, don’t tell me.
PB: What do you see as the significance of being the first indigenous woman to be crowned Miss Minnesota?
Evangelisto: It’s the honor of my lifetime. It’s something that I dreamed about. As a young woman, I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence. I didn’t really know my place in the world, and I felt a lot of hatred for being Native American. And when I looked at the organization, I never saw anybody that represented me or my culture. So, to be the one that I know I needed to see when I was a little girl gives me goosebumps and is an honor.
PB: You’ve said that growing up, you weren’t raised connected to your tribe. What changed?
Evangelisto: I think actually going to the University of Minnesota Morris was kind of that big turning point, because, you know, I wasn’t super-connected with my tribe. But once I got to Morris, they had indigenous professors and students and colleagues and other indigenous people from all across the country. So, I just got connected. And I saw positive examples that I’ve never had before.
PB: You mentioned the challenges you faced as a Native American? Can you describe what that was like?
Evangelisto: Little kids using racial slurs against me. And I remember kids making fun of me. There was an event when I was a teenager, where I was wearing a ribbon skirt, which is a traditional kind of Native American clothing. And I remember walking down the street when a car pulled up next to me. And I remember the driver shouting at me to go back to my reservation and the passenger threw a large cup of their trash and used tobacco spit at me. I remember it covering my body. And that really influenced my teenage years.
PB: That’s a horrible story. I want to ask you why you think your victory is important not just for you but for Native Americans in general?
Evangelisto: Often, indigenous people have been pushed to the wayside and have not seen themselves properly represented within any of our institutions. And I’m really proud to see that my generation is really pushing forward to bring that representation. Indigenous people face so many issues, like missing and murdered indigenous women, an overabundance of our children in foster care and child protection, an overabundance of indigenous people within our prison system. There is a lot of generational trauma that comes with that. And to see someone like me who has experienced that trauma and hatred and rose above it essentially, because I wanted to bring the community along with me and just show indigenous people that if you have a dream, you can achieve it.
PB: If there was one stereotype or misperception about indigenous people you would like to change, what would that be?
Evangelisto: The first thing that's most important to know is that there's 574 or so federally recognized tribes and 200 non-federally recognized tribes. And many people like to think of Native Americans as kind of pan-Indian stereotype, when really every single one of those 700-plus tribes is incredibly different. All have their own language, their own culture, and their own traditions.
PB: Some people look at beauty pageants and see it as an artifact from a different time. Some roll their eyes at them. Why do you think they are important?
Evangelisto: I think the fact that I have won over $26,000 in scholarship money, that I’ve graduated debt free, and I have the potential to go to law school with very little debt because of the organization. So many people see that one night when Miss America is crowned (Evangelisto will compete for Miss America on Dec. 16.). But they forget that there’s 364 days when people like me, other state and local candidates, are committing their lives and time to service work to help their communities because they love it.