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A Historic Time for Tribal Youth

After visiting Standing Rock Sioux Nation in North Dakota, the President asked his staff to find new avenues of opportunity for Native youth.

Just over a year ago, the President and First Lady sat in a small classroom on the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in North Dakota with a group of six Native American youth. When they left that room, the President and First Lady were moved and inspired. Having heard the stories of hardship the youth had to face and overcome, and the trials that so many other Native children face, the President asked his staff to find new avenues of opportunity for Native youth. The Generation Indigenous (Gen-I) Initiative was launched on the heels of this visit.

The Gen-I initiative focuses on improving the lives of Native youth through new investments and increased engagement. This initiative takes a comprehensive, culturally appropriate approach to ensure all young Native people can reach their full potential.

On Thursday, July 9, we were incredibly proud to welcome more than 1,000 Native youth from all over the country — representing 230 tribes from 42 states — to Washington, D.C., for the first ever White House Tribal Youth Gathering. First Lady Michelle Obama spoke to the youth about their promise and their important role as leaders — making sure they know they have allies at the highest levels.

“Everyone in this room has your back. 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.”

— First Lady Michelle Obama

The Tribal Youth Gathering brought Native youth together with members of the Cabinet, senior White House officials, federal agency staff, and nonprofits. Native youth were encouraged to take action and to value their voices and perspective.

The gathering wasn’t just about listening. Rather, it was about spurring action and change. Every participant completed the White House Native Youth Challenge, creating a project designed to spark positive change within their communities. The ideas we received were moving and innovative, providing a small example of the desire of so many Native youth to help their communities succeed.  One student wants to teach young girls in her tribe to sing Native songs using hand drums — creating opportunities to learn about their history and culture. Another aims to teach his Tribal elders about technology — helping them access programs and resources. And one student plans to have 100 Native students write letters of hope with stories of overcoming obstacles to raise awareness about suicide prevention. This kind of leadership at such a young age gives us great hope for the next generation of Native leaders.

Secretary Burwell, Attorney General Lynch, Secretary Jewell, Secretary Castro, Administrator McCarthy, Cecilia Muñoz, Director of the Domestic Policy Council, and Senator Heidi Heitkamp joined youth to discuss healthcare, public safety, and youth opportunity.  In conjunction with the Youth Gathering, the Administration announced commitments to continue supporting Native youth, including through higher education grants, health and mentoring initiatives, and expanded economic opportunity. Youth also took part in a technology innovation fair.  The reception featured a panel discussion with Native basketball player Jude Schimmel and a performance by Canadian music group A Tribe Called Red.

At the conclusion of the gathering, Native youth were empowered to use the networks they built with peers to better their local communities. Native youth were also encouraged to connect with each other through the National Native Youth Network — a White House effort in partnership with the Aspen Institute’s Center for Native American Youth and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

This gathering was planned and implemented with the help and input of Native students — and it showed. The discussions were honest and substantive. Students were engaged and eager to offer their thoughts. Friendships were made and bonds forged. And a federal commitment to Native youth was renewed.

The day after the Gathering, the National Lieutenant Governors Association passed a resolution supporting the White House’s recently launched Gen-I State Challenge to Support Native Youth. The resolution was sponsored by Lt. Governors from Montana, Connecticut, Iowa, Indiana, Washington, Alaska, Pennsylvania and Michigan and asks state leaders to:

  1. Convene a meeting with tribal leaders and others to discuss ongoing initiatives and areas in which they might be able to collaborate and form partnerships to improve the lives of Native youth.
  2. Draft a report outlining recommendations for expanding Native youth opportunity.
  3. Publish and share the report.
  4. Take action by announcing an intent to implement at least one specific recommendation made in the report.

The White House encourages all governors and lieutenant governors to consider taking the State Challenge and to join the Administration as we continue to work to expand opportunity for all young people across the country.

The week following the Tribal Youth Gathering, the President traveled to the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma to launch ConnectHome, a new initiative with communities, the private sector, and the federal government to expand high speed broadband to more families across the country.  During his visit, the President highlighted the connectivity struggles of Gen-I Youth Ambassador Kelsey Janway of the Choctaw Nation, and prior to his remarks, he met with youth from the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Muscogee (Creek) Nations where the youth discussed issues important to their families and communities.

Raina Thiele is Associate Director of White House Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement. Tracy Goodluck is a Policy Advisor for the White House Domestic Policy Council. Alison Grigonis is Senior Director in the White House Office of Cabinet Affairs.