The White House Tribal Youth Forum
The White House and Nike N7, alongside the Center for Native American Youth (CNAY) at the Aspen Institute was proud to gather Native and tribal youth to participate in the White House Tribal Youth Forum. This forum featured high-level administration officials, special guests from Nike N7, and Native youth discussing a variety of topics and the intersections of mental health for Native youth.
This national audience was welcomed by Executive Director of CNAY, Nikki Pitre (Coeur d’Alene Tribe), Senior Advisor to the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Director of Tribal Affairs, PaaWee Rivera (Pueblo of Pojoaque) and General Manager of Nike N7, Sam McCracken (Sioux and Assiniboine). To ground the forum, Hannah Aiwohi (Native Hawaiian) provided an invocation to open the event. “We use this chant to help guide us as we seek knowledge and to clear our minds of any negativity. With that said, I hope today will be meaningful and productive as we engage in these important discussions about the future of our Native communities.”
Opening remarks continued from Director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, Julie Chávez Rodriguez. “The voices and ideas of tribal youth are important to be listened to. You bring with you the knowledge of your communities, the wisdom of your ancestors, the power of your stories, innovations and creative solutions to our nation’s biggest challenges.” The intentional remarks provided by Julie laid the foundation for our first panel discussion, the importance of Native representation in federal service.
Panel One: Importance of Native Representation in Federal Service
A core outcome of this forum was not only amplifying the perspectives of Native youth, but to increase their connection to public service. To begin the forum, PaaWee Rivera was joined by Special Assistant to the President for Native Affairs, Libby Washburn (Chickasaw Nation) and Senior Advisor to Secretary of the Interior, Raina Thiele (Dena’ina Athabascan (Tulchina clan) and Yup’ik). The discussion was moderated by CNAY Youth Advisory Board Member, Mikah Carlos (Salt River Pima-Maricopa). Mikah began the session by reflecting on the challenge Native youth face who may be living apart from their communities to pursue a career in the federal service. When asked how he maintains his strength and motivation, PaaWee shared, “One of the fundamentals aspects of many of our Indigenous cultures is the importance of place and that specific place. Many of our creation stories, our languages, are centered around each individual place we are from. I think one of the ways, especially in DC, is that we have a great Native community. We have an incredible support network.” Libby continued the discussion by encouraging youth to join in the creation and call for policy change, “Don’t be afraid to push us. The more you do that the more people are going to pay attention as well. We need your voice in the policy space. It’s great to jump in now and start to let your voice be heard.”
Panel Two: Food Sovereignty and Food Security in Indian Country
Professional cyclist and co-founder of the Dream Catcher Foundation, Shayna Powless (Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin) joined the forum to moderate the discussion, food sovereignty and food security in Indian Country. The conversation featured CNAY Youth Advisory Board Chair, Anthony Tamez (Wuskwi Sipihk First Nations Cree and Sicangu Lakota), 2016 Champion for Change, Christie Wildcat (Northern Arapaho), and 2017 Champion for Change, Sam Schimmel (Kenaitze Indian Tribe and St. Lawrence Island Siberian Yupik). These young leaders were joined by Deputy Secretary Jewell Bronaugh of the United States Department of Agriculture. Sam opened this discussion by centering the critical importance of food beyond physical health, “Our traditional foods are not just foods, they align our body, they align our spirit,” he continued, “when we have access to our traditional foods, we have access to our traditions, to our identity, to our peoples. That’s central. All of these things are connected.”
Anthony went on to share his experience of young people in urban areas. “As urban Natives, we are still able to practice our culture, grow our traditional foods and harvest our ancestral medicines. It may take a little longer and may be harder at times, but that’s just one of the things that Native people are – we are resilient in everything that we do.” While these speakers continued to share their efforts to continue cultivating traditional foods, Dr. Bronaugh was actively learning the ways the USDA can be more intentional of supporting food sovereignty. “In many ways, it is your generation, you, who have raised awareness about the need to restore those Indigenous food ways and return to Indigenous foods and medicines. I’m happy to see us making progress.”
Christie left young people with encouraging words to get involved in this work. “Even if it’s just stepping into the kitchen with my own grandmothers and learning their recipes, I want to make sure those are being learned and preserved and passed on to my children. This is a way to find a connection between generations, between elders and youth, and a way to reclaim culture. If we reclaim our culture, that’s a way to preservation,”
This discussion was concluded with remarks from Notah Begay III (Navajo, San Felipe, and Isleta). Notah, the only full-blooded Native American to ever play on the PGA Tour, joined the forum to share words of wisdom to Native youth. “I know many young people out there are thinking about or considering, what do I want to do with my life. How can I go about making the biggest impact in my community? That’s what sets us apart as Indigenous people, that in many of our considerations of where we see ourselves in five, ten years, we never forget our communities.”
Panel Three: Addressing Mental Health in Indian Country
The Center for Native American Youth was founded to ensure Native youth can lead full and healthy lives grounded in their culture. At the White House Tribal Youth Forum, mental health was the primary focus of discussion. Moderated by Senior Director of Engagement and Advocacy in Nike’s Global Communications team, Kathy Baird (Sicangu Lakota and Oneida), our third panel focused on mental health in a variety of lenses. The panel featured Youth Advisory Board Vice Chair, Isabel Coronado (Muscogee Nation), 2020 Champion for Change, Jazmine Wildcat (Northern Arapaho), and Remembering Our Sisters Fellow, Cordelia Falls Down (Apsáalooke Nation and United Keetoowah Band). The forum was joined by Secretary Becerra of the Department of Health and Human Services and Secretary Cardona of the Department of Education.
Secretary Cardona began the conversation by exploring the ways the education system can better support the well-being of Native students. “You know how important it is to forge new partnerships while honoring the beautiful culture and traditions of your tribes and communities. The Administration shares your commitment to advancing equity, excellence, and justice in education. A key part of that effort will be to make good on our responsibility to further tribal sovereignty and self-determination. Native students should have the opportunity to learn their languages and histories.” Secretary Becerra added to these remarks by sharing, “At HHS, we will keep prioritizing behavioral health, we will keep partnering with tribes to identify solutions and to save lives. You have my word; we will not forget about this generation of tribal youth.”
Jazmine has led many initiatives to destigmatize mental health in her community and across the country. “I’ve used activism and volunteering to act as a coping mechanism for mental health.” By engaging in her peers, she hopes to “encourage other people to speak out about what they believe,” and to find healing in fostering positive change. Cordelia reflected on the direct impact the pandemic had on her mental health, including a sense of isolation while being apart from her community while attending graduate school. “I was thinking, what’s important to me as an Apsáalooke woman? What the pandemic taught me and what I’ll always carry with me is that Creator did not put me on this earth to overwork. We were given gifts and I want to practice those gifts. I was put here to live my life as an Apsáalooke. Before I’m a student, before my job, before anything that’s who I am.” She closed by sharing, “Culture is healing, and it’s vital, and it’s lifesaving.”
This forum highlighted the many ways systems can better support the health and well-being of tribal nations. Isabel has dedicated her life to changing the criminal justice system through policy and advocacy. “I understand firsthand the impacts of these systems,” she shared, “once our parents are taken away, we face further obstacles such as housing instability, financial hardship and especially a lack of mental health resources.” Isabel provided space to reimagine the future of young people, “We have the opportunity to empower our youth that meet these harsh systems. Instead of our youth aging out of foster care and not having a place to stay, or a steady job, they should be attending the top universities in our nation. Instead of our youth who are in the juvenile justice system and being further traumatized, they should be equipped with services that heal them.”
As the discussion ended, Secretary Becerra shared an important message, “I said when I started. We are looking at the future leaders of this country and I think I was proven correct after the three of you spoke. And you know and I know that there are many other peers that are ready to take on that mantle of leadership with you and I’m looking forward to it.” Secretary Cardona included, “You bring a lot to the table. It’s our job systemically that we elevate across the country Native culture and languages. It’s my honor as Secretary to part of this process, but in order to be successful we have to continue to listen and act together.” Moderator Kathy ended the panel we an important reminder to our audience, “We have a resilience, a hope and a joy in us that’s worth discussing.”
Panel Four: Climate Change and the Environment
CNAY is grateful that the White House Tribal Youth Forum brought together champions of not only Native youth, but of our planet. Former Secretary of the Interior and CNAY Advisory Board Member, Sally Jewell, joined to moderate an important discussion on the environment with Native youth leaders. In addition to Sally, the Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Brenda Mallory, and the Department of the Interior, Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau participated in this conversation. CNAY Youth Advisory Board Secretary, Owen Oliver (Quinault / Isleta Pueblo), Remembering Our Sisters Fellow, Gracie Aragon (Pueblo of Acoma) and 2019 Champion for Change, Autumn Adams (Yakama Nation) joined this conversation.
Chair Mallory provided opening remarks to this panel that centered on the importance of ancestral knowledge systems. “We will be incorporating traditional, ecological knowledge into decision making. We know this is one of the many important bodies of knowledge that contributes to the scientific, technical and social advancement of the United States and our collective understanding of the natural world.” Deputy Secretary Beaudreau built on this statement by adding, “All public lands are tribal lands, and that’s truth. Out of that truth comes a lot of power and insight into the way forward to care for and steward public lands that are sustainable and responds to the climate crisis.”
The panel continued with a special focus the power of place, something that has been the long-time focus of Owen Oliver. “We need to break down what it means to Indigenize. Indigenizing the future can be scary for some people to hear.” He continued, “It’s about learning from our ancestors, thinking about the future, and not just being people of the past but having these ideas that we are going to grow together. It’s about building the future we want to see not just for us, but for our kids.” Autumn brought forward a similar reflection of generational knowledge by taking a “hands-on role,” with the passing of stories and traditions to her younger siblings. Gracie, who works with the Pueblo Action Alliance, reflected on the root causes of extractive industries facing her community. “When we operate, in my opinion, from a value of ownership, we cheat people original to this land out of their right to practice their lifeways on their lands. It’s a conflict of two different value ships, one of ownership and one of stewardship.”
Following this panel, Executive Director Nikki Pitre welcomed Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo). “I still remember the day you were sworn in,” Nikki began, “and standing in the rain with you as we shared words of encouragement, we were blessed with rain that day and it’s a memory I will forever cherish. Secretary Haaland continues to be fierce for all of us.” Secretary Haaland joined the forum and recognized the determination and strength of Native youth in her remarks.
“It’s always inspiring to hear from those who will inherent these lands, this air, and these waters that all of us care for. I want to recognize the incredible maturity that all the Indigenous youth have demonstrated. Each Indigenous leader here is a dream that our ancestors had when they faced hardship and survived against seeming insurmountable odds. I’m grateful for the voices of our youth and encourage all of you to speak up for your future. I want you to know that we are listening. The young leaders that give me hope for our future. In many ways, you are the adults in the room. When I see you all in the room, you are all lightyears ahead of where I was in my 20s.”
Secretary Haaland included words of encouragement for Native youth. “There will be a lot of people telling you that you can’t do everything you set out to do. They will say those things can’t be done, but I’m here to tell you they can, you can. When I was running for congress, there were plenty of people who said I couldn’t do it and it had never been done before. Till of course I won.” She closed by sharing, “I encourage all of you to keep the pressure on. Keep speaking out and speaking up and stay in touch with me as well so that all of us leaders are accountable for our actions. Be fierce.”
After a remarkable afternoon of dialogue and calls to action, the White House Tribal Youth Forum ended with an exclusive performance with NBC’s The Voice star, Brooke Simpson (Haliwa-Saponi). Brooke began, “It’s so beautiful that we have a moment as great as this one that focuses on mental health, inclusivity, the well-being, belonging, and empowerment of Native youth.” Following her performance, PaaWee provided closing remarks, “It warms my heart and makes me whole to spend this time with you and listen through stories. As I reflected early in the program, the work we do is consequential here and the voices we here from the tribal youth help ground us in decision making.”
There is power in creating intentional spaces for Native youth to not only gather, but to lead. We hope the White House Tribal Youth Forum is the first of many platforms for Native youth to share their solutions to our nation’s most pressing challenges. The Center for Native American Youth recognizes that there were many who made this forum possible. Thank you to the White House, our relatives at Nike N7, our many moderators and emcees, including Rory Wheeler and Hannah Bristol.