UNITY Midyear Conference Reinforces Native Youth Empowerment

Hundreds of Native American youth, representing Tribal communities from across the country, gathered for the annual United National Indian Tribal Youth, Inc. (UNITY) Midyear Conference held February 12-15, 2016 in Mesa, Arizona. The event promoted a program focused on youth leadership development, training for youth leader advisors, networking, and cultural exchange.

The conference was kicked-off with a celebratory reception, highlighting UNITY’s 40thAnniversary and the unveiling of the prototype of the UNITY commemorative Pendleton blanket. Attendees were welcomed by Brian Weeden and Sassamin Weeden of Mashpee Wampanoag, UNITY’s first National UNITY Council brother and sister Co-Presidents. “What an exciting time for UNITY, we have experienced tremendous growth over the years, and it is great to see this Midyear conference grow from almost 70 people just four years ago, to nearly 400,” said Brian Weeden.

City of Mesa Mayor John Giles gave an official Arizona welcome to all the attendees, highlighting the tribal communities that surround the Phoenix area, including Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, Gila River Indian Community and the Ak-Chin Indian Community. “We are on tribal land right now,” Mayor Giles said, acknowledging the fact the city was once occupied by the ancestors of Arizona tribes.

Themes of education, empowerment and encouragement were integrated in messages from keynote speakers, panelists and workshop presenters during the four-day conference. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do anything because you can! Rise! Start understanding your power just like our ancestors did,” said Gary “Litefoot” Davis (Cherokee), entrepreneur, actor, author, musician, and President/CEO of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development.

Additional highlighted speakers included: Arizona State Senator, Carlyle Begay (Navajo); 1984 Summer Olympics bronze medalist for springboard diving, Ron Merriott; Special Advisor to the President on American Indian Affairs at Arizona State University, Dr. Brian Brayboy (Lumbee); and National Congress of American Indians’ Senior Program Manager, Policy Researcher, Carolyn Angus-Hornbuckle. A special prayer was given at the start of the conference by Chesley Wilson (San Carlos Apache), who was featured as an elder in the movie The Revenant.

Several Native youth leaders also took center stage with presentations highlighting current issues they are facing in their communities. “When I brought up the mascot issue in high school, on Columbus Day, I showed up in fancy shawl regalia, to show we are still here. People were like what? I also wore a sign about how Native people were raped and tortured. The principal said you can’t be protesting. I said I’m just educating. Then, people starting posting on social media about what I was doing, even threatening to hurt my sister who is in the 4th grade,” said Cielo Garcia (Lakota Sicangu), student activist fighting the mascot issue at her high school, keynote speaker of “I was cyberbullied while trying to change my high school mascot.

Teressa Unaliin Baldwin (Inupiaq), the National UNITY Council Northwest Representative and a panelist on “Protecting Mother Earth. What can you do to help!” said, “I was taught traditional values (in Kotzebue, Alaska) to provide for my family. But in 10 years, we won’t be able to live there anymore. Eventually by 2050 it will be covered with water. I will be telling my children, nephews and nieces, this is where I used to live. Now is the time to address climate change. We can boycott bottled water and I know we can’t boycott everything but what we can do, is be very conscious. We live off the land. Be environmentally aware. As Native people, we should be doing that intuitively.”

The National UNITY Council, made up entirely of Native youth leaders, held a special Business Meeting to discuss topics and planning for the 2016 National UNITY Conference – Celebrating 40 Years of UNITY. At the meeting, many topics and social issues were proposed and discussed at length for consideration. The youth leaders did pledge to address violence against women in the coming year, as one of their main initiatives.

Renowned trainers who are specialized in working with Native youth and Native youth advisors, included Robert Johnston (Choctaw/Muscogee Creek), Juanita Toledo (Jemez Pueblo), Chance Rush (Hidatsa/Arapaho), and Marcus “Emcee One” Guinn. They engaged attendees in special activities, presentations and exercises throughout the four days, encouraging networking and interaction among conference attendees.

Cultural sharing was featured at the conference each morning with special song and dance from the O’odham Tribes, Apache Tribes, and the Hualapai Tribe. In addition, Cultural Night featured an exchange amongst conference attendees, with many dressing in traditional regalia and sharing cultural dance, song and spoken word, representing their communities and traditions.

During the conference, Josh Tso (Navajo) made a special announcement regarding a new campaign UNITY will be launching this spring. The “UNITY Fitness 40 Program” will promote physical fitness, challenging UNITY youth and their communities to 40 minutes of fitness activity, 4 times a week, for 40 weeks. The campaign honors UNITY’s 40th anniversary year, and will include special surprises throughout the program for those who actively participate. Additional “UNITY Fitness 40 Program” details will soon be revealed.

Support for the conference was lead by Arizona State University’s American Indian Initiatives program that sponsored the Career and Education Expo featuring several organizations, educational institutions and career-focused exhibitors. Bank of America was a strong and visible presence, supplying not only financial support, but also volunteers who supported the conference throughout its entirety. The San Carlos Apache Tribe, Yavapai-Apache Nation, 12News/Tegna, Native Peoples Magazine, and the Nick Lowery Youth Foundation also provided sponsorship and underwriting for the UNITY Midyear Conference.

UNITY will hold its next big event, the National UNITY Conference, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma from July 22-26, 2016. The conference is slated to bring together UNITY’s largest gathering to date, 2,000 attendees. Registration is now open at a discounted rate through April 15. Additionally, the host hotel is taking reservations and is filling up quickly. For more details, CLICK HERE.