Spirituality gave new miss a second chance

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

DURANGO, Colo., April 16, 2012

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W hen Sunshine Perry, 19, was still in the womb, her pregnant mother fell in the bathtub and an ultrasound confirmed that the baby had journeyed to the next world.

But her father, Dude Perry, refused to listen to the doctor's diagnosis. Instead, he turned to a traditional Shoshone-Bannock sweat-lodge ceremony, and conducted a prayer for his unborn child and wife, Shirley Keeswood.

"When we finished we went back to the hospital and told the doctor to run another ultrasound on her to see," Dude said, adding that the doctor refused and instead wanted to flush out the mother's womb to avert the threat of infection from a dead fetus.

"I told him no and said we just had a ceremony for her, and I told the doctor, 'If cost is a problem I'll write you a check right now. Do it again,'" Dude said. "And so they did it. As soon as they put that machine on her, they picked up her heartbeat and it started really going."

To properly honor this blessing, and in keeping with traditional Shoshone-Bannock custom, Dude went down to the river - Down Bottoms - to bathe and meditate on a name for his daughter.

"In our belief, when a baby is born we go into the water and we pray," Dude said. "When I was sitting in the water, the sun was hitting on me. It made me feel warm. That is where 'Sunshine' came from, and 'Woman With Two Lives' (her middle name). The way I see it, she's on her second life."

Asked how she felt about the story, Perry replied, "It was crazy but that showed how much we believe in our culture and sweat and spirituality. It's a real good story. I like it. My dad told me about it."

Perry's parents divorced in 1991 and she grew up under her father's care in Fort Hall, Idaho, on the Shoshone-Bannock Reservation.

But Perry, who is Ta'neeszahnii (Tangle Clan), said she knew from the beginning that she would someday attend school in the Southwest to reconnect with her mother and her Navajo roots.

She set her sights on attending the University of New Mexico, but discovered Fort Lewis College when her father landed a job with the Southern Ute Tribe in Ignacio, Colo.

"Fort Lewis was kind of an accident, actually," Perry said, explaining that she attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe for one semester before transferring to Fort Lewis.

"Throughout high school, I really wanted to go to UNM because my mom is from here," she said. "I didn't grow up with her and I wanted to be closer."

As it turned out, Perry's matriculation at Fort Lewis College, where she is majoring in Native American studies, brought her even closer to her mother, who lives in Shiprock.

Today, Perry holds the distinction of being Miss Hozhoni, ambassador for the 125 tribes - the Wanbli Ota Club - represented on campus. She won the coveted title March 31 during the 48th Annual Hozhoni Days Celebration.

"I just felt that I could do a good job and it's something I really wanted to do," said Perry, whose ultimate goal is to win the Miss Shoshone-Bannock title. "I'm always in the Native American Center on campus."

To secure the crown, Perry had to best five other contestants, and she did so with her knowledge of Shoshone-Bannock culture during the traditional and modern talent competitions.

For her traditional talent, Perry demonstrated and explained the seven-step process in harvesting a deer hide and also made buffalo, deer, moose, and elk jerky.

"I kind of really wanted to do fry bread but it's not really traditional in the way that they wanted it," Perry said of the contest criteria. "So I chose the meats because that's something we used a long time ago to sustain ourselves."

For her modern talent, Perry sang a round dance song about grandparents.

"It was different from all the other girls," Perry said. "They were really modern."

Now as the reigning Miss Hozhoni, it is Perry's job to promote cultural awareness on campus and in the broader Durango community.

For Keeswood, seeing her daughter win the crown was a moment she will cherish.

"I'm really proud of her," she said. "I am glad of what he (Dude) did with her. She's in college now.

"It's really hard when your kids are separated," she added. "When they have time they call me. Sometimes I visit them or they visit me."

If there is one thing Perry is grateful for, it's her second chance at life, which she credits to her father.

"My dad was a good role model in showing us that we can be anything we want to be," Perry said, adding that she's a role model to her 11 siblings. "They look up to me."

"I know she has it in her," Dude said as he fought back tears. "She will make her Navajo side proud and Shoshone-Bannock side proud."

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