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UNITY brings large group of Native youth to the nation's capital

Participants light the ceremonial UNITY fire at the opening of the 39th annual United National Indian Tribal Youth conference in Washington, D.C., on July 10, 2015. Photo from Facebook

Conference builds on excitement from White House gathering
By Andrew Bahl
Indianz.Com Staff Writer

More than 1,800 young Native Americans crowded a downtown Washington, D.C., hotel on Friday for the opening of the 39th annual United National Indian Tribal Youth conference.

The mood was festive as representatives of more than 200 tribes came together for a series of speakers, cultural events and workshops. Many of the attendees had also been a part in the first-ever White House Tribal Youth Gathering, which UNITY helped organize, on Thursday.

The conference began with the lighting of the UNITY fire outside of the Renaissance Downtown Hotel near the White House. The ceremonial flame will burn throughout the conference.

Youth enter the ballroom at the Renaissance Downtown Hotel for the Parade of Nations during the 39th annual United National Indian Tribal Youth conference in Washington, D.C., on July 10, 2015. Photo by Alyssa Macy / Spilyay Tymoo

Participants then moved inside to a ballroom for the Parade of Nations. Tribal youth, many in traditional dress and waving tribal flags, were greeted by raucous cheers from their colleagues.

Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam, delivered the keynote, inviting the youth to participate in the Second Million Man March in D.C. this October. His address intertwined the struggles of Native peoples with those of other groups.

“Justice of LGBT people is on the horizon and justice for women is easier than the justice Native people deserve,” Farrakhan said.

Farrakhan also lambasted what he called government exploitation of Native lands. He encouraged the crowd to push back against those actions.

Minister Louis Farrakhan speaks at the 39th annual United National Indian Tribal Youth conference in Washington, D.C., on July 10, 2015. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

“When a stranger comes in and takes your land and takes his wealth off our land—that’s not a stranger, that’s an enemy,” Farrakhan told the youth. “Take pride in who you are. When you walk the earth, walk with a little heaviness because all of this land is yours.”

Before moving into the evening activities, which included a series of regional meetings and team building exercises, conference attendees heard from a panel of tribal leaders. They encouraged the youth to demand accountability from officials back in their communities.

“I challenge all of you to go back home and challenge your leaders and force them to make time for you,” said Pamela Mott, the treasurer of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation in Arizona. “Because our time as leaders is short and I’m ready to pass the baton.”

Tribal leaders also emphasized the importance of the youth in shaping the future of Indian Country, a common theme throughout the day.

Tribal leaders participate in a panel discussion at the 39th annual United National Indian Tribal Youth conference in Washington, D.C., on July 10, 2015. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

“Indian Country is alive and well because of you,” Cedric Cromwell, the chairman of the
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts, told UNITY. “You have grown with yourselves, you have so much ahead of you and you represent such powerful nations."

"You are incredible," Cromwell said.

Over the weekend, participants heard from marathon runner Alvina Begay, Miss Indian World Cheyenne Brady and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Suzan Shown Harjo. They also took part in a run and walk around the city.

Today's events include a panel on the role of Native women and a banquet featuring actor Adam Beach. The conference concludes tomorrow.

UNITY was founded in 1976 by J.R. Cook, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, to help Native youth develop leadership and other skills. After more than three decades at the helm of the organization, Cook stepped down from his executive director role in 2013.

Mary Kim Titla, a former television journalist who is a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, now serves as executive director.

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