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Miss Universe contestant explores her Ojibwe roots

When asked if she will be the first person of Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa heritage to compete in the Miss Universe pageant, Carolyn Carter wasn't certain.

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When asked if she will be the first person of Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa heritage to compete in the Miss Universe pageant, Carolyn Carter wasn’t certain. “But I’m definitely the first person of Fond du Lac descent to win Miss US Virgin Islands,” said the attractive, outgoing brunette on a visit to Cloquet earlier this month. (Pine Journal photo)

When asked if she will be the first person of Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa heritage to compete in the Miss Universe pageant, Carolyn Carter wasn’t certain.

“But I’m definitely the first person of Fond du Lac descent to win Miss U.S. Virgin Islands,” she said on a visit to Cloquet earlier this month.

The 26-year-old was crowned Miss U.S. Virgin Islands in May, a title that followed previous appearances in the Miss World (2010), Miss Supranational (2011) and Miss Earth (2012) competitions.

Even with all that traveling - five continents and 38 countries - Carter had never been to Minnesota before. The fact that she was going to compete in the Miss Universe pageant in the Philippines this coming January meant visiting the reservation where her biological father’s side of the family comes from became even more urgent.

“I needed to figure out the other half of who I am,” Carter said in an interview with WKLK radio station general manager Kerry Rodd. “You have this immense international platform with Miss Universe and the ability to speak on a lot of issues.

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“I represent the U.S. Virgin Islands but I’m also representing the Fond du Lac tribe.”

Carter’s biological father, Bert Anthony Fairbanks, and her mother, now Paula Heller, separated when Carter (born in New Orleans) was about 2 years old, and he wasn’t a part of her upbringing. But she still was very curious about her Native American ancestry, and said she and her mother had been talking about a trip to Minnesota for close to six years. Carter identifies herself on her website, carolyncarter.com, as being Native American with Chippewa, Paiute and Klamath ancestors.

Earlier this month, Carter and her mother finally made it to Minnesota, where they were greeted by Carter’s cousin, Charles Begay, at the airport.

“He’s been amazing,” said Carter. “He gave me the warmest welcome.”

“Charlie’s mom and her grandfather, Bert Fairbanks Sr., were siblings,” explained Heller.

The two women were “feathers in the wind” after that, visiting the new solar panels and Black Bear Casino, watching people harvest wild rice, checking out the museum on the reservation, along with doing an interview with “Native Report” - a nationally syndicated television show - and at WKLK in Cloquet as well.

“I’ve been blown away since I’ve been here,” Carter said. “Everywhere we go, we meet the most amazing people and they invite us to go do something. So we go there and we meet new people and they invite us to go to their home and we go to their home.

“I’m also blown away by how on top of it and how ambitious the reservation is, with the solar panels and LEED-certified buildings and everything else,” she added.

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Carter wasn’t always into beauty pageants, although she did reveal that she was in her first pageant when she was 5. She got so scared she ran off the stage, according to her mother, and took third place anyway.

And she was a model, an occupation that began in etiquette school, where her teacher was a prior Miss Universe contestant.

“The seed was probably planted there,” Carter said.

The U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Guam all compete as their own countries for Miss Universe, even though they are U.S. territories. That’s why Carter can compete and Miss USA also can compete. In fact, the two of them will stand next to each other because it’s all in alphabetical order.

“How cutthroat is the pageant business?” Rodd asked during the radio interview.

Not very, said Carter.

“The pageant girls are phenomenal,” she said. “From watching ‘Miss Congeniality’ (the film), you’d think they’d be really snarky but they are some of the most inspiring women from around the world. You’re not competing against 80 other girls, you’re competing against yourself, to be the best that you can be and represent your country the best that you can.”

The women compete in swimsuit, evening gown and interview categories for Miss Universe. There is no talent portion.

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That’s OK with Carter.

“I can cook, I can paint and I love to swim,” she said. “None of those can I do on stage in a two-minute time period. If they gave me a week on stage, I could paint something really nice for them.”

But even without a talent portion, the competition is tough. Only 15 women make it to the final, televised portion of the Miss Universe pageant.

Both Carter and her mom agreed that the judges and others are watching even before the preliminary competition begins. When the contestants are doing choreography, they’re watching. And even when they’re visiting Carlton County, they might be watching.

“They’re watching now to see what events you’re doing and what photos you put out and what your personality is like, watching all your social media,” Carter said. “They want to see that you’re out there in the community. They want to see that you have a brain and you’re active, that you’re making a difference. …

“They want you to be a role model for girls. They don’t want 14-year-old girls looking up to women who don’t stand for anything and can’t speak to them. They want a positive role model.”

Carter has been involved in raising HIV awareness for three years, and that is her platform.

“One thing I noticed in my travels is that no matter whether you’re a first-, second- or third-world country, your country is affected by HIV and AIDS,” she said.

She explained how she and a friend started the Entusi Music Festival in Uganda, a free music festival that combines music with HIV education and testing.

“The point of the festival is that everyone who enters can get free HIV testing,” she explained. “And depending on your results, you get follow-up treatment options. But we also just spread facts and education about HIV and AIDS. We’re really promoting awareness of HIV and how to prevent HIV.”

Carter is the emcee for the event and noted that over the past two years, they have reached 12,000 people and tested just over 2,000 people.

With only a few days to visit the Fond du Lac Reservation, she admitted she wouldn’t be able to get a comprehensive picture of how life is here for people she doesn’t know, but may be related to.

But now she does know some people here, more than she knew growing up.

“I’ve been involved in Uganda and then I became involved in the Virgin Islands (with HIV awareness), so if I’m going to speak about being Native American then I need to know what’s going on,” Carter said.

2827400+PAGEANT0918c2web.jpg
When asked if she will be the first person of Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa heritage to compete in the Miss Universe pageant, Carolyn Carter wasn’t certain. “But I’m definitely the first person of Fond du Lac descent to win Miss US Virgin Islands,” said the attractive, outgoing brunette on a visit to Cloquet earlier this month. (Pine Journal photo)

Related Topics: CLOQUETCARLTON COUNTY
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