By: Kaitlyn Heyt
Tall, thin, perfect makeup, flawless hair, and gorgeous outfits: that is what comes to mind when hearing the word “model.” Most people would assume that someone who competes in a beauty pageant has no real substance or deeper purpose beyond their good looks. They believe that someone who wins a beauty pageant cannot also be someone who is deeply invested in truly representing their culture, being an activist for their people, or making a positive impact on the world around them.
But, someone who wins a beauty pageant can be more than just their outward appearance. A model can also be someone who uses their platform to inspire change and to advocate for the movements and ideas they believe in. A model can give representation to a minority as well as provide these individuals with inspiration and empowerment.
Ashley Callingbull is currently proving this to the world through not only her impressive modeling and acting career, but through her activist work. Callingbull is a 29 year old from the Enoch Cree Nation of Alberta, Canada. In 2015, she was the first Indigenous woman to be chosen as Miss Canada. She later went on to become the first Native woman to win the Mrs. Universe Competition (White). Callingbull decided to selflessly use the media attention and interviews she received after this milestone victory to call attention to Native issues.
Callingbull receiving her crown after being named Mrs. Universe (Photo from a Huffington Post article)
As a Native woman, Callingbull understands first-hand the lack of representation this group receives. Issues Native women face, such as increased rates of sexual assault, are often ignored and tossed aside by most people, including those who work in government. Instead of idly sitting by and allowing this mistreatment and denial to continue, Callingbull is bringing attention to these issues Native women are currently facing. Callingbull uses her platform to urge Indigenous people to vote, as well as to bring attention to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Movement (MMIW). The MMIW movement works to spread awareness and fundraise for Indigenous women who face various types of violence. This is incredibly important because “four out of five Native women are affected by violence today” (“MMIW”). This is an astounding number of women. But, what is even more astounding, is that most people do not know about this issue. Callingbull is working hard to change this by raising awareness.
This work that Callingbull is doing goes beyond typical philanthropic work. She is an advocate for weighty subjects that most people would prefer to ignore. The easy option would be to remain silent: not risking your career, fame, or reputation. But, in breaking the silence and ignorance surrounding Native womens’ treatment, Callingbull is not only an important activist, but a champion of Native women everywhere. Callingbull shows the world that Native women are powerful, brave, and fighters. As a champion of Native women, Callingbull is a source of hope. She is hope that the stimga surrounding sexual assault against Native women will not go on forever as she inspires more brave voices to speak out for change.
Callingbull’s dedication to advocacy for Native women stems from the hardships and experiences of her childhood. At a young age, she was physically and sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend (Petz). This left her terrified, hurting, and lonely. In addition, she faced racism from other kids at school. They bullied and taunted her for her heritage, at one point, even throwing rocks at her.
After facing such traumatic experiences, it would be easy for someone to hide from their true identity. It would have been easier to pretend to be someone else and run away from their past. But instead of running away, Callingbull decided to turn to her grandparents for support. In doing so, she grew close with her culture, which allowed her to find a sense of strength, purpose, and belonging. “This is my true identity. So I pushed myself into the culture, I embraced it in every aspect of my life” (Callingbull). Through this healing she received from her culture, Callingbull used it to fuel herself to be successful. Now, she urges other Native youth to turn to their cultures for hope and strength.
“Never be ashamed of being First Nations or Indigenous from any other part of the world because that is who you are and that is what shapes you as a human being” (Callingbull).
Through her work and advocacy, Callingbull is able to show the world the importance of having pride in one’s heritage and believing in themselves.
This love Callingbull has for her culture is infectious and permeates all of the work she does. This motivation is evidenced in one TED talk she gave at a REDx event, titled “What I Know Now.” Callingbull begins her speech by discussing her past and her story. In doing so, she establishes an emotional, honest, and raw connection with the audience. Callingbull moves on to discuss the work she is now involved in, providing a sense of not only her accomplishments but the advocacy and charity work she is a part of. Callingbull begins to pursue her purpose of the speech: encourage others to engage in volunteer work and help those around them. “There’s a bigger picture than you. Everything is bigger than you. The more you can give back to the community or your people, you’ll be able to make a big change” (Callingbull). As someone who is not content sitting back and patiently waiting for change, Callingbull engages a tone that urges her audience to get involved. This tone highlights the severity and extent of the issues Native women are facing.
“Enough is enough. How many sisters do we have to lose for people to care about us?” (Callingbull).
This highlights not only the essence of Callingbull’s work, but the essence of her character as well. This essence is passion. Callingbull shows the world, through all of the amazing work she does, how to be fearless in working towards a goal. Whether it be advocating for the MMIW movement or urging Native youth to connect with their culture, Callingbull reveals her passion. This passion serves as inspiration for those around her as she spreads her ideas and fights for what she believes in.
Callingbull during her REDx talk (Photo from First Nations Drum Newspaper)
Callingbull is not only an advocate outside of the fashion competitions. Instead, she uses her style and fashion choices during the competitions to bring attention to the issues she feels are important, as well as to provide an accurate representation of her culture. Upon arriving at the competitions, she did not try to hide her Native identity, despite standing out from the other contestants. “When I got there, I didn’t blend in with everyone else. I wore First Nations designer clothes. I wore buckskin. Everything I wore was basically telling everyone, ‘she’s Native and she’s proud of it’” (Callingbull). Despite the desire we all have to conform, she decided to face this fear and uncertainty, standing up for her culture. Callingbull serves as a role model and sends the message that it’s important to always stay true to yourself. This is important for Native youth to see as they often struggle with their identities. In addition, she uses her style to accurately portray her culture, informing people and increasing awareness surrounding Native traditions and fashions. “I’m going to represent my people as best as I can and I’m going to do it in a proper way” (Callingbull). She is boldly confronting the idea that Native styles, such as headdresses, are solely costumes without deeper cultural meaning. She shows the proper way to represent a culture and shows the world the importance of properly respecting Native traditions and clothing.
One example of an outfit Callingbull competed in was a red dress that had faces of various Native women on it. This dress represents Native women who were murdered or missing, bringing attention to the MMIW movement (White). This dress reveals how Callingbull shows the world that there is more to fashion than just what is on the surface level, just as she shows the world there is more to Native culture and identity than on the surface seen by the world. Similarly, Callingbull shows the world that there is more to Native women than being seen on the surface by society as solely sexual objects. Native women are resilient, strong, and beautiful — as represented by this dress.
Callingbull in a dress representing her culture (Photo by Facebook user @ashleycallingbullofficial)
Callingbull has also joined the We Matter Campaign, providing an inspirational video message to Indigenous youth, showing them that they can accomplish great things while embracing their identity. Her empowering video can be found here:
Callingbull holding a sign supporting the MMIW movement (Photo from National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls)
Callingbull’s work is continuing to pave the way for more Native women as she serves as a positive role model and a source of hope. Callingbull is providing representation, as well as inspiration, to those who need it most. She has demonstrated to the world exactly what it means to be a courageous, empowered, and selfless Indigenous woman.
“I’m proud to be a First Nations woman and I’m not going to care about what anyone else says about me. I’m going to be proud until the day I die” (Callingbull).
Callingbull shows us all that with strength from your culture and the power of advocacy: anything is possible. Change is on the horizon.
White, Samantha. “Former Mrs. Universe Ashley Callingbull on Speaking Out Through Style.” CBC News, 21 Jun. 2018. Web. 5 Sep. 2019.
Petz, Sarah. “First Nations Mrs. Universe Winner Shares How Culture Saved Her.” CBC News, 19 Feb. 2019. Web. 5 Sep. 2019.
“Ashley Callingbull, First Nations Woman, Wins Mrs. Universe, Fighting Stereotypes.” CBC News, 31 Aug. 2015. Web. 5 Sep. 2019.
Callingbull, Ashley. “What I Know Now.” REDx Talks, 2016. Web. 12 Sep. 2019.
“MMIW.” Coalition To Stop Violence Against Native Women, 2019. Web. 12 Sep. 2019.
“Ashley Callingbull – We Matter Campaign.” We Matter Campaign, Youtube, 16 Dec. 2017. Web. 14 Sep. 2019.