UNITY Co-Presidents Meet with the White House
On Monday, April 26, Special Assistant to the President for Native Affairs, Libby Washburn (Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma), Senior Advisor for Intergovernmental Affairs and Director of Tribal Affairs at The White House, PaaWee Rivera (Pueblo of Pojoaque), Department of Interior’s Indian Water Rights Office Deputy Director Tracy Goodluck (Oneida, Mvskoke) and Associate Director at The White House Office of Public Engagement, Hannah Bristol joined a virtual listening session with Native American youth from across the country to discuss their priorities. This listening session was held in partnership with the United National Indian Tribal Youth, Inc, the Center for Native American Youth (CNAY), and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).
The UNITY Co-Presidents shared not only the Top Ten Issues facing Native youth, but they offered detailed solutions and examples of how Native youth are stepping up to create community changes. Each year the National UNITY Council (NUC) gathers to vote on the Top Ten Issues facing Native youth across the country. Youth Representatives from the 325+ Youth Councils vote on their regional priorities and brainstorm community service projects as solutions. The collective impact grows with each youth council working together on these initiatives, youth are empowered knowing they are not facing these issues alone.
Youth participants in the Listening session shared their perspectives on the challenges facing Indian Country. Robert “Scottie” Miller, (Swinomish) UNITY Male Co-President, recognized the importance for culturally grounded mental health resources for tribal communities. “We passed a resolution to continue the I Will Live campaign, that campaign is a response for the need of mental health resources during the pandemic. Native youth may find it hard to ask for help – so Youth Councils are hosting local trainings, UNITY Fires and media campaigns to share warning signs and resources for persons with thoughts of suicide. In a typical year, Native American youth die by suicide at nearly twice the rate of their white peers in the U.S. It is alarming and we want to do something about it!”
Female Co-President Kiera Toya, (Jemez Pueblo) discussed how the National UNITY Council expressed the need resources to address generational incarceration and educational disparities. People under the age of 21 make up 42% of American Indian/Alaskan Native populations in the United States, so Native youth confinement is a special concern. With a detention rate of 255 per 100,000 in 2015, Native youth are approximately three times more likely to be confined than white youth (83 per 100,000). The Healing Indigenous Lives Initiative in partnership with OJJDP has hosted four virtual Town Halls this year where youth shared their stories about the impacts of family incarceration and dropping out of school has made on their lives. As a result Youth Councils across the nation are learning how to develop personalized plans to create safer communities.
NCAI Youth Commission Co- President Jessica Lambert (Choctaw Nation, Registered First generation descendent of Eastern Band of Cherokees) shared her passion to address environmental contamination in Indian Country. When speaking with White House representatives, Jessica advised ways to combat the dumping of toxic waste which disproportionately impacts tribal lands, “We have to address lack of research on environmental contamination for Native sites. We must fuel collaborative public health research led by Natives and provide more funding and technical assistance.”
CNAY Youth Advisory Board Secretary Owen Oliver (Quinault (Chinook), Isleta Pueblo) discussed placemaking and the importance of tribal partnership. Owen discussed his call to action to create a tribal liaison across every federal agency, including building paid pathways for Native youth to work in the government. Owen advises the National Park Service is the place to begin connecting culture to working with a federal agency. “National parks were built without us in mind, it’s time we gain this agency to write that education, write that curriculum.”
This conversation also held space to recognize the successes of Indian Country. Jonathan Arakawa (Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe), NCAI Youth Commission Co-Vice President shared, “I am the product and the answer to my ancestor’s prayers to academically experience my own rich and vibrant culture.” Jonathan shared his recommendations to address the systemic failures of the education system, including the need to, “rebuild trust with tribal nations with compassionate truth telling, profound respect with individuals willing to share, equitable support systems for our children, and a land acknowledgement to show respect for the people and to ancestors.” He highlighted the many successes of adopting accurate Native histories taught in the public school systems, including the Native Knowledge 360 initiative led by the National Museum of the American Indian.
Youth leaders discussed COVID-19’s impact within each of their communities. Kiera Toya (Jemez Pueblo), UNITY Female Co-President shared, “As a Pueblo person, we are tied to culture and language and that bond is so strong to us. This pandemic has affected a lot of communities. Youth have been creating spaces virtually where they can speak their language, learn again, and reconnect with tradition and culture.”
Isabel Coronado (Mvskoke (Creek) Nation), CNAY Youth Advisory Board member reflected on the importance of prioritizing pathways into federal agencies. “There are so many youth that should be here in this conversation as well. They are doing the work across every issue and department. I’d recommend engaging Native youth in an ongoing way across agencies – we are voters, we are impacted, and we have solutions.”
The White House leadership expressed their gratitude and commitment to amplifying the voices of Native youth. “Your voices have been heard and it will continue to be heard. It’s one of my priorities to have youth voices in this Administration,” shared Tracy Goodluck. PaaWee Rivera assured those present this was the first of many listening sessions and collaborative discussions between Native youth and the White House. “Your voices will always be welcome here, and we look forward to continued conversation and engagement.”
All of the youth organizations involved would like to express our collective gratitude for the White House staff who joined this valuable listening session and their commitment to Indian Country.