Growing up, Zoë Gustason knew about her Potawatomi ancestry but little about Tribal traditions. Raised in Big Bear Lake, California, she graduated from Tombstone High School in Arizona. As a Potawatomi Leadership Program intern, Gustason experienced a summer of self-discovery in 2016.
“Going to the PLP program really, really helped me out with solidifying and defining myself more as a person,” she said. “This is who I am, and no one else will ever be able to change that or take that from me.”
By learning about Potawatomi culture, she gained the confidence to be herself through claiming her heritage. Now Gustason studies psychology at Cochise College in Sierra Vista, Arizona. The past two years, she hosted a dreamcatcher-making event during a Youth Arts Festival sponsored by the college.
“I teach them a little bit about my culture, and to respect it and to love it,” she said. “That it’s not something to play dress up and play pretend. It’s someone’s lifestyle.”
“Growing up, I did more sports like soccer, softball, cross-country, and I’d roughhouse with the boys. I wasn’t really much of a ‘let’s put on heels and walk around on a stage’ type of girl,” Gustason said. “So, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and create a different presence for myself.”
She began participating in pageants recognized by the Miss America Organization while competing for the title of Miss Sierra Vista in 2014. She has earned some scholarships, such as the Quality of Life Award, to help her with college. The experience turned out different than she anticipated, and Gustason lived for it.
“Going into it, I had that stigma mindset that all these girls were just there competing for the crown. It is so not that way at all. It is more a tight-knit sisterhood. So many strong women come together for one common purpose which is to encourage and support one another in their goals and passions. There’s a really strong community, and all these strong lady leaders work towards making a difference in their local communities,” she said. “Growing up, I always wanted to be a part of something ‘bigger’ than myself – to make my mark on the world to cause change for today. That is the goal of the MAO, and this was something I will continue to always be involved in.”
Since then, she has competed in several pageants and won three to four scholarships in recognition of her platform, First Love Yourself – or F.L.Y. A contestant’s platform outlines their plans and efforts for positive change
in the world.
“The inspiration for F.L.Y., First Love Yourself, came from after getting myself out of a really toxic, narcissistic relationship, which really brought down my self-esteem and my self-confidence,” she said. “I really began to question my self-worth and who I was as an individual.”
Her platform promotes self-love, which includes individuals putting their own well-being first and not judging themselves by their relationship status. Gustason considers independence and body acceptance as hallmarks of a positive outlook.
“You don’t need someone holding your hand the whole entire way, and that’s something that my platform mainly focuses on,” she said. “If you want to see a movie and no one wants to go with you, go see that movie by yourself and go experience it for you. If you want to go to a different state, just go. You don’t have to be inviting other people.”
Some of Gustason’s favorite solo activities include binge-watching NCIS with a bag of popcorn and her cats, going on nature hikes with her cellphone off, and soaking in the tub with a bath bomb, a book and a couple of candles. She encourages everyone to take the time to stand up for themselves, too. “The greatest experience comes from when you are quiet and alone with yourself and your thoughts — to be able to discover who you are as a person and to get away from all the negativity and the hatred that other people might say about you,” she said.
Gustason shares her platform through social media in addition to pageants. On F.L.Y.’s Facebook and Instagram, she connects with men and women who share similar experiences and posts encouraging, uplifting messages.
“For example, ‘You got this, and I know that today is a tough day, but you are still beautiful. Don’t you forget that,’” she said. “And ‘I know you probably have slip-ups some days, but don’t allow it to get to you. You are only human, and all humans make mistakes. Be the one that does not allow your mistakes to define you, but instead grow you into the person you wish to be.’”
Gustason also reaches out to survivors of the emotionally abusive relationships. She feels that the emotional abuse often receives less attention than the physically abusive situations. She talks about her past to show others they are not alone, and it feels therapeutic to her.
“I know that I am reaching out to someone else who feels the same way and may be possibly saving someone from that kind of relationship,” she said. “It’s a lot to take on, but the end result is so rewarding to know that in the end, I have made a difference. It’s for my fellow constituents in my local community, and nothing else could make me happier.”
Gustason also serves others as a patient sitter for those admitted to Canyon Vista Medical Center with behavioral health needs. After starting the new position, she quickly realized the 13 to 18-year-olds need self-love too.
“I like to take my time and speak with those kids and hear their story as to why they are there. Often the reason why they are there is because of trouble at home or not being given the love and attention they need as children. I tell them, ‘You are very much loved. It may not be by the people that you wish, but you are very much loved. If anything, I love you for being able to be here to get the help that you need. That’s self-love right there,’” she said.
Gustason has many plans for her future with one of them is to become a youth counselor after college and use her platform to help her clients grow emotionally.
“People may never know of that hidden strength within themselves until someone comes out and has the guts to say it,” she said. “I will always continue to speak out in order to bring it to light.”