When she was a little girl, Shemah Ladania Crosby remembers crafting traditional Choctaw dresses with her grandmother, Lena Denson, former First Lady of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. She was always in awe of her grandmother's skill and ability, but it wasn't until her grandmother's passing that Crosby was more inspired to learn the Choctaw language, beading, and dressmaking. It took losing her grandmother—and with her, all the indigenous wisdom she carried—for Crosby to truly realize how vital it was for her to understand more about her Choctaw culture and aid in its preservation.
Crosby's mom, Lalania Denson, is Choctaw, while her father, Oga Crosby, is Black. Shemah Crosby is an enrolled member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Her maternal grandfather, Beasley Denson, held the title of Miko, or Tribal Chief, of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians from 2007 to 2011.
Growing up, Crosby knew she wanted to one day become a Choctaw Indian Princess. But as a self-described shy little girl, she wasn't sure she would be able to achieve her dream. Each year, her elementary school hosted American Indian Day and held a Princess Pageant, which Crosby describes as an opportunity for students to dress up and run for the title to represent their school.
Crosby never won any of those pageants, something she says discouraged her. But that discouragement did not damper her desire to one day run for Princess.
A candidate must be between 16 and 20 years old to run for the role. When her time came last year, Crosby ran. This time, she wasn't just ready for the competition—she won it.
Preparing for the competition
Each year since the crowning of Patsy "Pat" (Sam) Buffington in 1955, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has crowned a Choctaw Indian Princess on the first day of their annual Choctaw Indian Fair. The Choctaw Indian Fair, a time for both Choctaws and outsiders to pay homage to Choctaw traditions and culture, is rooted in ancient ceremonies and festivities dating back to when Choctaws gathered at the ripening of the first corn in a ceremony called "The New Corn Ceremony" or "Green Corn Ceremony."
The road to becoming Princess is straightforward: To run, one must be an enrolled member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and have lived in the state of Mississippi—or on land trust in Henning, Tennennesse—for no less than six months before the pageant entry date.
Contestants must be enrolled in high school or college, and they must maintain an academic standing of either a 75 or 2.5 grade point average. They must already have knowledge of Choctaw culture. Prior to the pageant, contestants learn even more tribal history, visiting the Chahta Immi Cultural Center repeatedly and listening to elders. They conduct mock interviews and give each other test runs.
The day before the pageant, contestants take part in an interview, during which three judges ask questions on topics ranging from the candidates themselves, their cultural knowledge, what their tribe has done for them specifically, and broader examinations of candidates' understanding of situations across Indian Country.
On the day of the pageant, which is open to the public, contestants arrive in eager anticipation for the long competition ahead. There is the "Traditional Wear" portion, during which participants wear traditional Choctaw dresses and beadwork and explain the significance of the items they're wearing, and a newer segment called "Personal Presentation," in which contestants present themselves to the crowd and talk about their motivations, themselves, their culture, and how they envision using their ambassadorship.
The public part of the competition, which draws hundreds of attendees, lasts several hours—but as a contestant, the time flies by, Crosby remembers. In the end, members crown a new Princess.
Telling her story
Crosby says that she was quite nervous during the competition.
"I think the heat gets to you more than anything," she said, laughing. "You're out there in the middle of summer Mississippi and it's just, like, I had nerves going all over the place. I'm sweating. I can't really get my thoughts together because it's so hot—it's truly nerve-wracking. But once it's all over, it's all over."
She wore a pink dress, in honor of her pokni, or grandmother, Lena Denson, who passed away the previous year from COVID-19. Denson gave Crosby her name, Shemah, which means "to dress elegantly," and her traditional wear was indicative of her name's meaning.
Her traditional outfit, including the pink dress, moccasins, basket, and beadwork, was an amalgamation of the efforts of various women from throughout the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, all of whom contributed their time and labor to make the elegant attire come together for each of the contestants.
Since she was a child, Crosby has been fascinated by the intricate details in Choctaw dresses, shirts, and baskets. Specifically, she was always fascinated by the beadwork that adorns the items. In preparation for the contest, she learned more about the meaning and history of those details—and about the artisans who make the items, during her learning period on the path to becoming Princess.
"They all have this diamond design on them, and growing up everybody knew that those represented the eastern diamondback rattlesnake that would protect our tribe's crops during agriculture times," Crosby said. "But we didn't know the full story behind our traditional regalia, meaning the dress, the beadwork, the moccasins, and the baskets. All of that is meant to tell a story about the person that's wearing them."
She says that learning more about the regalia taught her more about her tribe, but also more about herself. Her favorite Choctaw cultural tradition is beadwork, which she herself enjoys doing.
Her traditional wear told her story: Crosby's dress featured meticulously embroidered butterflies, symbols of transformation. In a voice-over, she likened the butterflies to her own life as she was once a "timid little girl," before overcoming obstacles and "taking a leap of faith" like a butterfly.
The announcers said: "Representing Pearl River RV Park," but, at first, she didn't realize that she had won. She thought that one of the other contestants was the new Princess until others began opening up their arms towards her, moving in support of her win. Once the realization hit her, the tears—tears of joy, tears that represented her becoming the "pride of her people"—began to flow.
As Crosby made her way to the center of the stage, a shy smile spread across her cheeks. In the audience, people's cheers and screams were accented with thunderous applause. Crosby smiled as Chief Ben removed her pageant crown and replaced it with the one she would wear as Princess.
Elisah Jimmie, the previous year's Princess, who had reigned for two years because of the COVID pandemic, took Crosby's hand and reassured her as she was formally adorned with her new regalia. A childhood dream was finally fulfilled, and Shemah Ladania Crosby was the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians' 2021-2022 Choctaw Princess.
Reign as princess
The year since she became Choctaw Princess was "a blur," Crosby says. As the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians' goodwill ambassador, she has shared her culture with people all across the state and nation, visiting schools, libraries, and community centers. Some people, she says, did not even realize that the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians existed.
She said she was bewildered "to think that somebody doesn't know about my people at all, because we've been here for centuries. But that's just how it is. I would just encourage them to always keep an open mind for the indigenous population regardless of where they visit—whether they go across the country, across the globe or across the street. Always keep in mind those that were here first."
During her reign, Crosby made appearances at tribal and nontribal, local and nonlocal events, including ribbon cuttings and events across Mississippi, but also outside of the state, including visits to Henning, Tennessee—the first and, so far, only, federally recognized tribal land in the state.
"[I've gone] up there to meet the people, meet my tribal members, meet all the elders, meet the kids that are just so eager to meet me," she said.
Crosby served as emcee or Mistress of Ceremony for many Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians events, including the 2021 Nanih Waiya Day, the 2021 Veterans Day Parade, and the Standing Pine Elementary Day Pageant, which Crosby herself participated in when she was a student. She attended festivals and ceremonies, including the Bogue Chitto Spring Festival and American Indian Day festivals like the ones she participated in as a child. She participated in the Miss Mississippi USA and Miss Mississippi Teen USA pageants.
In March of this year, Crosby had the opportunity to attend a powwow for the first time, something tribes in the Southeast do not traditionally hold.
"It's always great to learn about other indigenous cultures," Crosby said. "[Going to] my first powwow, the Denver March Powwow—that was an amazing experience."
In April, she attended the Gathering of Nations Powwow, where she witnessed the crowning of the 2022 Miss Indian World.
"I wanted to be the pride of my people… Also, I wanted the people who passed on to be proud of me, too," Crosby said in an interview with the Neshoba Democrat shortly after being crowned. "All of my ancestors, particularly my grandmother, Lena Denson, the former first lady. She passed of COVID-19 last year. I am so glad we are at the Fair this summer, especially after the terrible year we had last summer."
As a half-Black Choctaw Princess, Crosby has had some unique experiences.
"Doing my hair, [which] is naturally curly, has been one of the biggest challenges," she said laughing. "I've been told that straightening it might just be the easiest thing to do, but I'm like, 'I don't think so, I don't think I want to do that.'"
Crosby said that she has been very supported by both sides of her family throughout her reign.
A rising junior at Mississippi State University, Crosby is an Anthropology major. Even her collegiate studies circle back to her indigenous heritage.
"For me just growing up, learning a little bit about my indigenous culture, I'd always wanted to learn more about other indigenous cultures," she said. "Not only indigenous in North America, but all across the world."
During her first semester back at State, her life as a college student collided with her life as Princess. She remembers going back and forth between her reservation and the college campus.
"I would have to miss a certain event because I had class, or I'd have to miss class because this event is so much more important—or I go to class, come back right the next day—it was extremely hectic," she said.
Crosby attributes her ability to manage it all to the dedicated support system she's had with her throughout the process. On July 13, in her final speech as Princess of this year during the 2022 Choctaw Indian Princess Pageant, she thanked the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians' Office of Public Information for getting her to all of her events and driving her to campus so she wouldn't miss class. She thanked the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, as a whole, for the way in which all members, from young children to elders, celebrated and supported her.
Crosby's community has been central to her success. She thanked her father for supporting her emotionally and being the rock she needed; she thanked her mother, her "best friend," for her "tough love," and for "putting everything to the side" for Crosby's year as Princess; lastly, she thanked her "angel," her grandmother, for her continued love and support.
The final walk
During the first day of the 2022 Choctaw Indian Fair this July, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians elected a new Choctaw Princess, Cadence Raine Nickey, who represented the Tucker Development Club. Before Nickey was crowned, Crosby had her final walk as Princess.
Holding her father's arm and accompanied by her sisters, she entered to enthusiastic applause and cheers—one person even screamed: "We love you, Shemah!" Chief Cyrus Ben presented her with a bouquet of flowers before giving her a hug. And her Pokni was with her, watching over her even at the end of her reign: Crosby and her sisters all wore dresses made by her grandmother.
Crosby's final dress as Princess was also the final dress her grandmother made. With finishing touches by other Chahta women, the chocolate brown dress glimmered under the stage lights. Crosby wore a matching traditional lattice beadwork collar and the diamondback pattern was present on the perimeter of the apron and on the cuffs of the dress.
With help from women in Cultural Affairs, Crosby also made her father's attire. The act of making it too was in honor of her grandmother; she said that she knew she was looking down at her as she made the piece.
"I know you were smiling down on me as I struggled with my diamonds and fought with the sewing machine."
Tears swelled up in Crosby's eyes before the first chords of Beyoncé's "I Was Here" began. As she waved and smiled, the crowd continued to cheer.
"Being able to present the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians as the Choctaw Princess is something every little Chahta girl dreams of," Crosby's voice-over said. She knelt down to receive a bouquet of flowers and a hug from a woman in the crowd. Beyond the woman, others, including many young children, gathered—a growing queue to celebrate the outgoing Princess. She posed with them for photos, hugged, chatted, and accepted gifts.
"If you would have told a 7-year-old me that I would grow up to be a Choctaw Indian Princess, she would have been too shy to even talk to you," her voice-over said. "I remember pageant night. I was sitting backstage, after my traditional wear, feeling so proud of myself, more than I ever have before. And when the time came and my name was called, everything froze and felt unreal. Well, now here we are, one year later, and it is still so hard for me to believe that I am a Choctaw Indian Princess."
Her speech was both celebratory and grateful. Intertwined with her introspective thoughts were messages of thanks to the tribe, her team, her supporters, and her family, including the steadfast support her father provided and the tough, but necessary love from her mother. Her Pokni, her grandmother, received a special tribute.
"Lastly, to the shy little girl I once was, we did it. We lived out one of our greatest dreams and have made our people proud," Crosby said, before announcing that she will be representing the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians as she vies for the title of the 2023 Miss Indian World. Her announcement came to thunderous applause.
For nearly half an hour after, despite the heat, people queued in lines on all sides of the stage to congratulate, hug, take photos with, give gifts to, and otherwise support Crosby. Many young girls, perhaps future Choctaw Princesses themselves, and Little Miss, Junior Miss, and Miss Choctaw Nation from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma all made their way to the 66th Princess, smiling, posing for photos, and bestowing gifts.
Despite two requests by the announcer to disperse and allow the event to continue, people continued to queue for rushed photos, gifts, and words of thanks and praise. When Crosby did finally stand up and wave, the crowd erupted in another round of applause and cheers. The 66th Princess hugged her father and sisters, all of whom were still on stage, before one last wave to the audience.
Before the announcement of the 67th Princess, Crosby presented each contestant with a rose. She and Chief Ben presented each award winner with their awards. They were the first to speak with Nickey after she was crowned.
At the end of her reign, Crosby is looking toward the future, which is relevant as this year's Choctaw Indian Fair was themed "The Choctaw Spirit Lives On." She has words of advice for the new Princess.
"There is no need to doubt," Crosby said. "I had so much self doubt throughout this entire reign. If I just sit back and took a moment to breathe and just look at my people and realize that I am doing the best that I can and I know that I am making them proud. She can do anything, she is capable of doing anything because she is worth it."
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