WASHINGTON — Strengthening self-identity, defining the “U” in unity was the concept of the 39th annual United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) conference. The event held in Washington, D.C. was also the organizer for the first-ever White House Tribal Youth Gathering held as part of President Obama’s Generation Indigenous (Gen-I) initiative and his commitment to improve the lives of Native youth across the country. Over 1000 youth were able to meet and listen to the First Lady, Michelle Obama give her speech.
Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian community (Arizona) tribal member Martha Martinez, said she was still overwhelmed from meeting the First Lady. “It’s amazing that all these leaders came to meet us and speak to us. And to see the White House is pushing to get the Native Americans involved we have a lot of issues and it shows they are listening to us. To have to UNITY bring us all together it was a wonderful experience. How many Native Americans can say I met Michelle Obama? I was able to talk to her and I told her we are ready, the youth are ready to take on the challenges.”
Native Actor Adam Beach
Over 1600 Native youth were registered for the conference. The site held workshops and panel discussions that encouraged them to be more active participants for their tribes. Suzan Shown Harjo, Native rapper Supaman, Miss Indian World Cheyenne Brady to Hollywood Actor Adam Beach talked with the youth, giving them words of encouragement.
Beach a member of the Saulteaux First Nations, gave the keynote address Monday night, he talked about his thoughts of suicide growing up and how he overcame it.
“The thing that empowered me, I remember when I was 16, I was walking around and I was wanting to kill myself. And one time, me and my friends were taking this course called flying on your own, about dealing with trauma. After the third day, it got too crazy for me and I left. And one of my traditional teachers came and talked to me. He gave me a stone and said it was my grandfather. He told me to give it everything, hate, love, respect. And one night I said you want it man, you want this, I will show you. I broke down, I was swearing, laughing, crying. I opened my hand, I found something I was able to connect with something I wanted to run from. I went back to my traditional teachers and said I want more and they said good, you keep that stone until you are done with it. And when you are ready you will give it to someone to who needs it more.”
Other presentations came from Indigenous communities from outside the country with a group coming from Taiwan and Maori from New Zealand. Both groups engaged with the native youth with singing and dancing.
For Southern Ute (CO) tribal youth attendee Issac Suina he said he attended sessions which emphasized culture knowledge. “It is important to learn where you come from. We are losing our language and only the elders speak it. I been learning to speak from my aunt and uncle. I been asking them questions. Our youth are interested in our culture, they ask me how to say things in our language.”
Passing on culture traditions was present everywhere especially with a fire that was kept burning outside the hotel for anyone wanting to pray. It was started on the first day of UNITY. Firekeeper, Kevin Bonds, Tule River Indian Tribe (CA), stated that when the conference was done, that the ashes would be shared with whoever wanted them. “Whatever what was said and done here, is in those coals. They can take it and spread it around in the wind or bury it. There is life in those ashes.”
UNITY draws 1,500 Native Youth to Washington, DC
UNITY began through the efforts of J.R. Cook, a Cherokee from Oklahoma, who has worked with Native youth in leadership development for more than three decades. The organization was started in 1976 and current executive director is Mary Kim Titla, San Carlos Apache tribe. More information can be found atwww.unityinc.org
Haka with UNITY participants