With her eyes closed and her heart racing, Autumn Rose Williams stood on stage as a finalist in the Miss Native American USA pageant and was preparing to turn to the woman next to her to congratulate her on winning.
But then she heard the announcers begin: “From Long Island…”
“I looked around and I was like, ‘I’m the only one from Long Island,’” she recalls. Suddenly, she was showered with bouquets of flowers and a new crown was placed on her head.
“It was definitely a shock,” said the 24-year-old Southampton resident of winning the title on Aug. 26 in Mesa, Ariz. She’s the first Miss Native American USA ever from New York and the first from the Northeast since the pageant began in 2011.
“I feel a certain responsibility to ensure that I am representing my culture as a Northeast native as much as possible,” she said.
"For me, Autumn was an exceptional choice because of her eloquence, poise, and conviction. Her platform on empowering Indigenous women was timely, given the current status of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and she presented a powerful voice in advocating for Indigenous women," said JD Lopez, one of the judges in the pageant.
Williams was raised on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation, which is home to about 700 people. She was born in the house that her grandfather still lives in today. And growing up, her great aunt lived on one side of her family’s home and her uncle on the other.
“It was awesome,” said Williams, who has three brothers. “I [would] run and play down the road and my parents would know that I’m safe . . . because it’s my family. They know who are around me. I was a very happy child.”
By age 3, she learned how to swim.
Her dad took her and her brothers out to Cold Springs Pond in Southampton, Hampton bays and West Woods for swim lessons. She would go to Shinnecock Bay for clamming but didn’t go as often to swim because of the erosion in the area at the time.
“You’re not Shinnecock if you don’t know how to swim,” she said, explaining that the name of her tribe translates to “people of the stony shores.”
And a few years ago, she picked up canoeing from a fellow tribe member.
“I didn’t really know that much about it,” she said, but for her, it was a way to connect to her roots.
One of the first times she went canoeing with her brother, she remembers watching him paddle and he looked like a natural.
“How do you know how to do this?” she asked him.
“I don’t know. I just know,” she remembers him saying.
She said it was a “beautiful” moment, “because as Shinnecock people, that’s something we’ve always done.”
Williams has lived on the reservation her whole life except for when she was off at college, studying public relations at Virginia Commonwealth University. She graduated last year.
That was also when she decided to run for Miss Native American.
She credits her decision to compete largely to the annual TV awards show “Black Girls Rock!” which celebrates black women’s accomplishments. (Williams is also half African-American.)
“As a black woman, seeing black women being amazing was like, ‘If I see it, I can believe it,’” she said.
But her Native American side felt a little underrepresented.
“I know we are doing amazing stuff, but I don’t see it on the larger scale,” she said. “So it pushed me. If I don’t see it, I’m going to be it.”
Her platform focuses on empowering indigenous women through culture and identity, and as part of her duties as the reigning Miss Native American, she is expected to make public appearances at least once a month to spread her message.
“I want native women in America to see and believe that they can do and be anything.”
She has participated in events in Washington D.C. and Denver, and just last week spoke to students at Southampton High School.
The Miss Native American USA pageant is a scholarship pageant, but since she’s out of school, she’s using some of the money for travel expenses and putting aside some for grad school.
And when she’s not wearing her crown, she’s working full time as a marketing and communications assistant at the Peconic Land Trust, which focuses on preserving Long Island’s working farms, natural lands and heritage. She helps produce newsletters, manage social media accounts, organize events and design graphics for the organization.
Williams doesn’t see herself living on the reservation for much longer.
“At 24-years-old? No. I want to explore the world,” she said. “I do eventually see myself moving into a bigger city, where I can grow in my career. Just have fun.”
But she knows that, one day, home will call her back.
“When I’ve gone out into the world and got to move up in my career and learn more and make new friends and meet new people, I eventually see myself coming back and maybe raise my own family here.”