Native youth hear from top officials at historic White House event

From left: Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, Sarah Schilling (Little Traverse Band of Odawa Indians) and Rory Wheeler (Seneca Nation) host a Fireside Chat on Youth Opportunity at the White House Tribal Youth Gathering in Washington, D.C, on July 9, 2015. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

First Lady delivers keynote at White House Tribal Youth Gathering
By Andrew Bahl
Indianz.Com Staff Writer

Roughly one-thousand Native youth packed a hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., on Thursday for the first-ever White House Tribal Youth Gathering.

The summit was held as part of Generation Indigenous, the Obama administration’s initiative to create opportunities and empower Native youth. Participants in the historic event represented 230 tribes and hailed from nearly every state, with some traveling as far away as Alaska and Hawaii.

“Youth are being heard like never before,” observed Kelsey Janway, the president of the Choctaw Nation Youth Advisory Board. “People want to hear from us and they want to have us be a part of things. They want to see us thrive.”

The highlight of the event came shortly before noon, as First Lady Michelle Obama arrived to deliver the keynote address. Her voice breaking at points, she discussed the emotional visit she and President Barack Obama made to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe a little over a year ago.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: First Lady Michelle Obama at White House Tribal Youth Gathering

“During our visit, they told us heart wrenching stories about substance abuse and homelessness and suicide -- crises that would overwhelm most young people. But not these young men and women," Obama said. "In the face of those challenges, not one of them had given up. Not one of them had lost hope. That is what moved us.”

The First Lady emphasized the importance of Native culture, noting that most of crops that feed the world today originated in the Americas. She also highlighted the beauty of Native culture, which she acknowledged past governments had attempted to “systematically target for destruction” through policies, law and regulations that “literally made your cultures illegal.”

“You represent so many rich cultures and such a proud heritage, one that has shaped this country for generations,” Obama said. “Make no mistake: your customs, your values, and your discoveries are at the heart of the American story.”

In her closing remarks, she stressed that the assembled youth had the power to tackle the sometimes seemingly insurmountable issues that Indian Country faces.

First Lady Michelle Obama addresses the White House Tribal Youth Gathering in Washington, D.C. Photo by Andrew Bahl

“I want you all to remember one simple but powerful truth -– that every single one of your lives is precious and sacred, and each of you was put on this earth for a reason," Obama told the youth.

"Everyone in this room has your back," she added. "Everyone who’s speaking at this summit -– all those Cabinet Secretaries, all those powerful people who have come here for you -- they have your back."

"And you definitely have a President and a First Lady who have your back," the First Lady said to loud applause.

The day started off with a welcome from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. She's been on the job for a little over two years and has met with tribes and youth across the nation.

“The most rewarding part of my job has come in my work that I have been blessed with in Indian Country,” Jewell said. “And we have many opportunities to do a much better job than we have done in the past.”

After Jewell’s speech, Cabinet officials, members of Congress and Native youth leaders addressed the group in a series of panel discussions. Topics on the agenda included health and wellness, public safety and youth opportunity.

In addition to Jewell, presenters included Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy.

The youth also heard from inspirational Native figures like John Herrington, an astronaut from the Chickasaw Nation who was the first enrolled tribal member to fly in space. He noted that he was essentially kicked out of college before he found an interest in the science and engineering field.

“You’re standing on the shoulders of your ancestors,” Herrington told the crowd. “Everybody here has an opportunity. You have to listen to those who come along and it can change your life. It can happen.”

Following the event, Nike N7 hosted a reception featuring Pueblo/Navajo golfer and philanthropist Notah Begay III; Jude Schimmel, a basketball star from the Umatilla Tribes and Lyle Thompson, a member of the Onondaga Nation. who recently won the highest honor in college lacrosse. Music was provided by A Tribe Called Red.


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