Tikigaq woman vies for Miss United States crown
The last time Rosemary Berg was in Point Hope, it was for her mother's funeral.
It was 2013, and a lot had changed since she was six.
"First, I was adopted," she said. "My mom, her lifestyle couldn't support me and two of my siblings, so we ended up being put into foster care as children. I think even from a young age I dealt with my self-worth, questioning, 'Am I good enough?' My parents don't want me."
She was adopted by a family in Anchorage, who she said, always reminded her of her roots, her heritage, and her culture.
But despite moving into a caring home, she always had a niggling feeling.
"A feeling of, I want to do all these different things, become the best athlete, the best student, the strongest, the smartest, because I want to prove that I'm not worthless," she said. "I think that's something that's been in my whole life."
She has always considered herself Tikigaqmiut — of Point Hope — though other pieces of her identity were not always so clear cut.
She grew up in the city, went through high school there, acted like a teenager, felt like a teenager.
When Rosemary was 19, she went off to college. She worked hard and got good grades, but fell in with the wrong crowd.
One day, everything changed.
"I was sexually assaulted," she said.
"I had placed this identity in myself as being pure and a good person...and once that happened, I think it just tied into that belief of myself not being good enough."
She fell into a downward spiral. She gained weight, suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, ended up in a series of bad relationships.
"They treated me the way that they had been shown how to treat women. It was a hard time," she remembered.
By the end of 2011, Berg had hit rock bottom.
"I was so depressed and so hurt from all of the different things that had happened that I was like, I can't live life like this. There's no hope in it. I try to prove myself and then it would just fall into pieces."
She made it through the holidays, barely. By New Year's Eve, she'd come up with a plan. Rosemary walked to one of the nearby churches where they were holding a New Year's Eve service. She thought to herself, 'OK. If nothing happens, I'm done with my life.'
"In the church service, the pastor came and prayed for me and said a Bible verse over me. He said: 'You shall not die but live and proclaim the goodness of the Lord in your life.' He had no idea I was going to end my life."
She credits that night with saving her life and helping her find what she considers to be her purpose in it.
"I set out on a journey to be relentless in overcoming everything I had faced, whether it was rejection or sexual assault or domestic violence or depression or PTSD," she said, and helping others do the same.
Berg enrolled in counseling and six months later, decided to run for the Miss World Eskimo-Indian Olympics title and was crowned.
"Miss WEIO was the gate for me to share my story. I had to realize that I refused to be brought down by something that is negative," she said.
From there, she began working with a program called Youth With a Mission. She travelled to Brazil where she spent time in the Amazon leading workshops on self-worth for women. The group headed north to a city where they walked the Red Light District, spending time with prostitutes, "being a brightened face in the midst of the thing they were going through," she explained.
"I got to work in a safe house which was incredible being around young girls that had been in similar home life situations that I had been in when I was a child," she said.
She created a group called "Dare to be Darling" to "inspire, encourage, and empower women to overcome things in their life that make them feel unworthy of being called 'darling.'"
"I think it can speak to so many girls that face obstacles in their lives and say, 'You are altogether beautiful. There is nothing wrong with you,'" she said.
She traveled to New Zealand, Hawaii, and then back to Alaska, working with women the entire time.
Berg said once she was back in Anchorage, she considered running for another pageant.
"It was something I always wanted to do but I sort of counted myself out because of the different things I had been through. I don't have it all together," she said. "The past two years I just traveled around the world, and in that time I just got this boldness about myself and I decided, if I don't at least try to run for Miss Alaska, I think I'll regret it."
She filed her paperwork and began preparing herself mentally, physically, and emotionally for the challenge.
Physical preparation for Berg has been serious. She works out daily, pushing herself to her limits.
"There are times where it is so hard, I'm beyond sore and I can barely do a sit up. There are times where I've cried in the middle of my workout," she said. "But every single time I'm in that place, I remember before when I was learning how to overcome the different obstacles that I had like dealing with depression or PTSD after facing trauma. There were days where I cried every single day and that was the hardest thing I had gone through in my life. So, I think the discipline I am learning physically through training every day is the same discipline that I had to remind myself that I am worthy and there is hope in my future."
The Miss United States pageant is held in August in Las Vegas, Nev. As part of the competition, Berg will have to participate in the swimsuit contest. Though swimsuit competitions have been fraught with controversy in the past, Berg said for her, it's all positive.
"In 2011, that night when I was contemplating suicide, I was 290 pounds at that time. So, for me coming into this pageant, it's in some ways showing myself at that weight, 'Oh man, if you only knew what you could do. If you only knew the strength you had inside you, you wouldn't be in the place you are.' I think that every time that I get into a workout preparing for the fitness section of the pageant, it's reminding myself that I'm so much stronger than I know," she said.
It's a strength she wants to share with other women and girls. She's working toward a master's degree in organizational leadership and plans to focus on leadership, mentoring, and coaching for women, which she said, was inspired by her birth mother, with whom she rebuilt a relationship as she got older.
"I think from a young age, I was inspired to specifically speak to women because of my mother's story," she remembered. "It was hard even as a kid seeing my mom not know that she's valuable. So, I think that really does stem from desiring to love my mom and show her the worth that she had for her life."
Thinking back, she remembered the nickname her mom used to call her when she was a child.
"She always called me a beauty queen," Berg said.
Her mom would be proud of her, she said, of where she is now and what she's accomplished. She'd cheer her on when she goes onstage later this summer to represent Alaska, Point Hope, and her fellow strong women at the pageant.
Despite the trials she's gone through, Berg said she's lucky.
"I love my life," she said. "I just love it."
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at email@example.com.