Native Youth Ambassadors with IHS Director Yvette Roubideaux and N7 General Manager Sam McCracken, December, 2014. Photo credit: Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
WASHINGTON — Native youth across the country are actively serving their communities and establishing plans for a bright future. When federal officials tour Indian Country this summer, the first Cabinet Native Youth Listening Tour is on their agenda — a response to President Barack Obama’s call to hear directly from Native youth.
“Because Native youth make up 40 percent of tribal citizens, it is imperative to have Native youth at the table when discussing topics which impact Indian Country,” Cierra Little Water Fields, Cherokee, told MintPress News.
“We will be taking our tribal nations into the future. We need the opportunity to listen to the elders and leaders from tribal nations.”
Cierra is one of 36 White House Youth Ambassadors selected because of the work they’ve done in their communities. Their visit to the U.S. capitol in December marked the first time that a youth component was included in the White House Tribal Nations Conference since Obama began the conferences in 2009.
“For years not enough attention was paid to the youth,” said Erin Bailey, director of the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute, an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington. “They’re too often invisible. This creates a platform and expanded resources, funding, mentors and scholarship opportunities.”
Each community is unique in its needs and in its achievements, Bailey says, but Native youth most frequently voice their concerns about the need for safe activities; the preservation of culture, language and tradition; access to health resources, including suicide prevention and mental health resources; the availability housing and community centers, as well as shelters in their communities; the inequity of racism and prejudice; education; economic security for families; and the disproportionate number of young people living in foster care.
Challenges of today’s youth
Though she’s only 15, Native Youth Ambassador Cierra’s resume of achievements and activities is long. A two-time survivor of melanoma, as well as a survivor of a sexual assault, she volunteers as one of five members of the Center for Native American Youth. Based in Washington, the policy program was established by former North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan to find ways to inspire Native American youth and recognize the positive impacts Native youth have in their communities.
Among her many accomplishments, Cierra serves as one of the eight members of the National Council of American Indians (NCAI) National Native Youth Cabinet. The cabinet is the executive and policy training component of NCAI’s National Native Youth Training Collaborative, which was formed for Native youth to share insights and represent issues facing their regions.
“I think we, as Native peoples, should be talking about the prevalence of violence against Native women and ensuring quality health care for all Natives,” she said. “I represent the young girls who haven’t had a voice in these important matters.”
Cierra was chosen as the youngest and first young Native American delegate to the United Nations 58th Commission on the Status of Women, a meeting held last year in which violence against Native women was discussed.
“Some [U.N. members] wanted to hear my opinion as a Native youth, coming to me asking what I thought. I spoke about health care in Native tribes, especially for women. We’re less than 1 percent of the population but experience more violence against women. Many victims don’t come forward because they’re not heard.”
After DNA testing connected Cierra’s sexual assault with five other cold cases and the perpetrator was identified, other young female victims felt empowered to come forward and report their own cases of assault.
She says that she initially didn’t want to come forward to discuss her sexual assault, but a supportive friend encouraged her to speak out.
“In these decisions we all need someone around to say it’s ok to be upset and let your feelings out,” she said. “With the cancer, too, we need that support.”
Cierra also travels the country to share her experiences with surviving cancer and finding healing through traditional knowledge.
“I first did a water ceremony for cleaning and starting new,” she said. “It took a heavy weight off my shoulders. I connected with our stories. In the Cherokee nation women make major decisions. Women give life. Cherokee women are sacred. We valued them and have close familial ties, especially through mother’s side.”
Cierra joined the Native People’s Circle of Hope, a group of cancer survivors from many nations, who get together every few months to talk and share resources.
“So many think, ‘I’m Indian, I’m not going to get skin cancer,’ but because ozone rays are harsher than our ancestors faced, we need to be aware of this,” she said.
Cierra was also instrumental in starting the Native Youth Summit of Oklahoma with 80 students who met in a school cafeteria to talk about academic resumes and being prepared for adulthood. With support from the school, the summit quickly expanded to include 200 youth from 19 tribes across seven states.
“If we compare statistics from the 1990s to today, we see things are improving,” she said. “It’s important to realize that.”
Cierra received the Cherokee Nation Distinguished Spirit of Life Award in 2013. This award is given to a cancer survivor who has made a tremendous difference in their community. She also assisted in writing a Tribal Resolution to create Cherokee Nation Leadership Day to replace Columbus Day within the 14 counties under the jurisdiction of the Cherokee Nation.
“I want people to know, especially youth, you are not alone,” she said. “There are those talking down at you because you’re young. Make your voice heard. Triumph.”
Kelsey Janway, a sophomore in high school, says going to the White House as an ambassador for Oklahoma’s Choctaw Nation was “motivating, being told to keep doing what we’re doing. The next generation will thank us.”
“It’s opening doors,” Kelsey told MintPress. “This is a door I can share. Whether it goes on or not, I want people to know what’s going on.”
The first female chairperson of the Choctaw Nation Youth Advisory Board (YAB), a group established in 2004 and currently covering 10.5 counties, Kelsey has seen more than 150 new members join since she became a member three years ago. YAB currently boasts about 400 members, both Native and non-Native.
“We’re taking initiative to change things,” she said. “It’s preparing us for what’s next, as adults. We want to see everyone succeed. We’ll always interact with each other so we work hard to show there’s no difference we can’t overcome.”
YAB members organize clothing and food drives to benefit their communities. After a half-dozen homes were destroyed by flooding in June, YAB members tore up the old floors and rebuilt them, talking to children about the process as they worked. They’ve also installed a recycling bin in a local school. When the bin is full, they take it to a recycling center and watch as the refuse is turned into new products.
“I’ve taken it [YAB] in a different direction because even since last year to this year people’s needs have changed,” she said. “We need to be effective right now.”
Healthy lifestyles and food choices haven’t always been as important as they are now. Heart disease and other chronic illnesses pervade Native communities, and Kelsey seeks ways to make healthy choices more fun.
“Stickball, a traditional Choctaw sport, drew 45 of us together and we had a game,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be boring. You don’t have to eat just lettuce. We just need different answers.”
About 60 “YABsters,” as they call themselves, showed up at College Connects last year, a day when representatives from several colleges brought information about continuing education. YABsters brought them food, carried boxes, helped to set up booths — activities which allowed them one-on-one time with the representatives.
They regularly attend tribal council meetings and school board meetings to listen and to discuss issues, and they participate in local business coalitions in four counties. Whether dressed up for banquets or dressed down for a trip to the recycling center, they’re volunteers who are actively involved in addressing the concerns of their communities.
“I’m a YABster, that’s what we do, we try to give everyone realistic opportunities,” she said.
Kelsey is currently working on an initiative called Only Giving for Valentine’s Day, which will organize teddy bears and chocolates to be distributed to men and women living alone in nursing homes. Even impacting one person, that’s one person changed, she said.
“We’re not limited. We have opportunities,” Kelsey said. “If we don’t take the opportunities, they become less and less.”
Kelsey belongs to 10 organizations that she considers 10 different groups of people she gets to work with and learn what can be done.
“As ambassadors we’re the seventh generation of Native Americans from stories passed down telling of when the Spirit would come back and fully encompass us,” she said. “We’re going to be those people who make the difference. We have a lot to contribute.”
My people, my roots
Kayleigh Okhuwa Tsawee (“Blue Cloud,” in the Pueblo language) Warren remembers playing in a creek where she grew up in northern New Mexico, but that creek has long since dried up.
“The creek is completely gone,” she told MintPress. “When water comes, it’s black. It smells like ash. It’s as if the Pueblo have lost a limb, a part of us.”
In June 2011 the worst fire in New Mexico history moved into the Pueblo’s canyon and wiped out 80 percent of it. Kayleigh said the beaver, elk and deer that once roamed the area have all disappeared.
“It looks like it was bombed,” she said.
Kayleigh was chosen as a White House Youth Ambassador to represent her tribe, the Pueblo of Santa Clara, a community of about 2,000. She spoke of the fire to the room full of people in Washington last month.
“I looked around and they were just sobbing,” she said. “I’d prepared what to say. I had talking points, but I didn’t expect all that emotion in it.”
Kayleigh had a traditional childhood. She spent a lot of time in the forest of their canyon, picking wild strawberries, asparagus and foods her ancestors used to nurture the families.
“My baby sister is seven years old, and [my] little nephews, [they] ask what the canyon was like because they hear people crying and talking it back to life,” she said.
“We lost a part of our identity when the fire came. Rain in the mountains runs through the canyon, which is baked hard and doesn’t absorb water. The water coming down has the potential to wipe out our entire community. Some sites have been wiped out. We’ve evacuated more than once.”
Kayleigh worked with the community’s youth program for 7 to 10 year olds last summer, and she made it a point to talk and connect with them.
“They spoke of moms and dads not home, parents out drinking and how scared they are wondering if their house will be suddenly gone,” she said.
Coming from a big family, she says her father “made sure we’re fully immersed in culture and spoke our language. We kept the values of community. We know where we’re from and who we are. It’s a very close-knit community. Everyone is very supportive of each other. We have those values — to serve your community when called to it.”
When Kayleigh attended an NCAI conference in Atlanta in October, she got involved with the National Native Youth Cabinet.
“I learned how to voice the needs of kids and those who don’t have a chance to,” she said. “I made sure I listened to people before I went. A main concern is culture. Our language is mostly spoken by elders. Our language is our lifeline to the roots of our culture. We’re concerned about keeping it going, keeping identity.”
When the fire started, people saw it coming. Leaders had to guide and organize the response, “and they were just as emotionally connected to the land. I don’t know how they did it. I looked out at the horizon. We could hear trees falling in the distance. We could see the tips of them burning red. I stood on the porch with my uncles and dad. I never saw men cry before.”
“I ask myself, how can I help fix this,” she said. “I don’t want any of my brothers, sisters, or our young to live a half life not knowing who they are.”
Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown, a high school junior, has always loved watching and playing football, but there’s one particular game that he dreads: the game against his high school’s rivals, the Calaveras Redskins.
It’s not the rivalry that’s upsetting — it’s hearing his school’s fans screaming, “Kill the Redskins!” or “Send them on the Trail of Tears!”
“There have been stories of our cheerleaders dressing up one of our own [students] in a Halloween ‘Pokehottie’ costume and dragging her out on the field and staking her in shackles against her will,” he said in a speech at the Center for American Progress in July. “They proceeded to dance around her, acting as if they were beating her and treating her like a slave.”
“This one is the most sickening halftime shows I have ever heard of, considering that our people really were beaten and treated in such a manner.”
Speaking following the release of a national report on the harmful psychological effects of using a “Redskin” as a football team mascot, Dahkota, a member of the Miwok tribe in California, said, “All of these screaming fans don’t know how offensive they are. Or that they are even in the presence of a Native. Most of the time, they don’t even know that Natives still exist.”
“I know firsthand the hurt and anger that is felt from the mocking and use of mascots,” Dahkota told MintPress. “In schools, Native students feel disconnected and have a hard time feeling accepted already. Adding the use of these mascots just adds to this feeling. In high school it gets worse, and it’s a fact that if you don’t fit in, you drop out. Mascots give a huge false sense of who we really are, or what we are like as real living people, since we are not really dead in history books.”
Dahkota was selected as the Center for Native American Youth’s 2013 Champions for Change program because of his accomplishments with Native Education Raising Dedicated Students (NERDS), an organization he founded when he was in eighth grade.
“Without the help of the Center for Native American Youth, NERDS would not be what it is today and I would not be on the path I am now,” he said. “I can’t say enough wonderful things about the people who run [Center for Native American Youth] and Senator Dorgan for starting such an amazing organization.”
He said that he would encourage every Native person to apply for or nominate a friend for the Champions for Change program, as it helps to open doors and provides mentors and direction that he says “will change your life.”
Looking at the problems that Native students were experiencing in his community, Dahkota realized they needed their own special community, a community that shares a similar culture and has experienced the same struggles and difficulties.
“The students needed a tight-knit group that they could join, which promoted education and well-being,” he said.
The mission of NERDS is to decrease the dropout rate of Native American high school students through peer-to-peer mentoring focused on improving grades and making up required credits. The programming includes 7th-12th grade study sessions, peer-led talking circles, cultural gatherings, and engagement with positive, sober, educated role models.
Cultural identity and knowledge of heritage are a large part of strengthening the success of Native students, he said.
“When students know their past and their culture, they are able to connect with other Native students more easily and fit into a unique group with common interests and backgrounds,” he said. “NERDS is trying to bring cultural awareness to students through various activities, like field trips to traditional sites and volunteering at cultural events.”
Dahkota is currently planning My Cousins’ Keeper, the second annual NERDS gathering, scheduled for Feb. 8. Approximately 150 students will attend and more than 30 booths will be set up, offering information on a range of topics, including universities, scholarship opportunities and professional organizations, to inspire and guide the future.
Dahkota says he’s looking forward to the White House Youth Ambassadors reconvening this summer.
“We are networking and talking weekly, and [we] all hope to share our different passions, like education, health, sacred sites and land preservation, stopping the Keystone XL Pipeline, stopping the use of mascots, and getting answers to why the incarceration of Natives is so high,” he said.
They’re also looking for ways to help with substance abuse prevention and suicide prevention in their communities, as well as ways “to teach America about who we are today and earn some respect rather than keep playing the victim because of the genocide of the past.”