Remarks by The First Lady at White House Tribal Youth Gathering
The Renaissance Hotel
11:30 A.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Wow, look at all of you! (Applause.) Wow. How are you guys doing? Good? (Applause.) Having fun? (Applause.) That’s good. You guys, rest yourselves. You’ve been working hard. You deserve a seat.
Let me just say this -- I am beyond thrilled to be here with all of you today for the first-ever White House Tribal Youth Gathering. You all look so amazing. Wow. (Applause.)
Let me start by thanking Hamilton. Did I hear somebody call -- you called him “Hammy?” (Applause.) I want to thank Hamilton for his very kind introduction. And I also want to thank Secretary Jewell for her leadership on making this possible, as well as Secretary Burwell, Attorney General Lynch, who were also involved in co-sponsoring this event. I want to join Hamilton in thanking all of the members of Congress who joined us throughout the day and will be joining you all throughout the day.
I want to acknowledge all of the elders and the tribal leaders who are here with us today to support all of these amazing young people. Let’s give a hand to our elders and our leaders. (Applause.) Thank you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: We love you, First Lady! (Laughter and applause.)
MRS. OBAMA: Well, I think it goes without saying that I love you too. (Applause.) And I am just so proud to be able to welcome you all, the young leaders who have traveled here to D.C., or are tuning in from more than 65 watch parties all over the country.
We have such an extraordinary group here today -- more than 1,000 young people representing 230 tribes from 42 states. We have the Mohawk, Seneca, and Onandaga Nations of the Northeast. We have the Crow, Comanche, and Spirit Lake Nations of the plains. We have the Navajo, Pueblo, and Hopi Nations of the Southwest. (Applause.) Everybody’s here! (Applause.) We have Native Hawaiians who are here, Alaska natives, including a young group of Inupiaq youth who traveled thousands of miles from the Native Village of Barrow, which is the northernmost city in the United States of America. And together, you represent so many rich cultures and such a proud heritage –- one that has shaped this country for centuries. (Applause.)
Now, long before the United States was even an idea, your ancestors were harvesting the crops that would feed the world for centuries to come. (Applause.) And places like Seattle and Michigan and natural wonders like Niagara Falls and Yosemite can only be named using your Native languages.
Your artwork has inspired generations of artists. Your healing techniques have spurred great medical advances and saved countless lives. One of your early democratic institutions –- the Iroquois Confederacy -– served as a model for the United States government. And today, on issues like conservation and climate change, we are finally beginning to embrace the wisdom of your ancestors. (Applause.)
So make no mistake about it, your customs, your values, your discoveries are at the heart of the American story. And yet, as we all know, America hasn’t always treated your people and your heritage with dignity and respect. Tragically, it’s been just the opposite.
Your traditions were systematically targeted for destruction. Your people were forced to relocate far from the lands they’d lived on for generations. Young people just like you were sent to boarding schools designed to strip them of their language, culture, and history. And your religions and ceremonies were outlawed by so-called “civilization regulations” –- regulations that literally made your cultures illegal.
And while that kind of blatant discrimination is thankfully far behind us, you all are still seeing the consequences of those actions every single day in your Nations. You see it in the families who are barely getting by. You see it in the classmates who never finish school, in communities struggling with violence and despair.
Just last summer, my husband and I met with a group of young people at the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in North Dakota -– and I know some of those amazing young people are here with us today. And during our visit, they told us of heart-wrenching stories about substance abuse, and homelessness, and suicide -– crises that would probably overwhelm most young people. But not these young men and women.
See, in the face of all these challenges, not a single one of them had given up. Not a single one of them had lost hope. That’s what moved us. Instead, they were looking to their future. They were thinking about going to college -- they were going to college. They were finding good jobs. They were volunteering as tutors and mentors for kids in their community. They were working jobs and helping to raise younger siblings. They were doing everything they could to lift themselves up.
And more than anything else, I believe that that is your story, the story of your generation, Gen-I -– the story of young people like you investing in yourselves, rising up as leaders in your Nations and in the world.
So many of you are already well on your way. In fact, when we launched our Gen-I Native Youth Challenge, we were inundated with 1,500 submissions -– examples of young people taking on the toughest issues in their Nations -- everything from planting community gardens to improve nutrition, raising awareness about mental illness and teen pregnancy, finding new ways to celebrate your cultures and traditions.
Just take the story of SaNoah LaRocque from the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa, who I know is watching from North Dakota. SaNoah wanted to wear an eagle feather to her high school commencement earlier this year, but her school had a policy barring any extra decorations on a cap and gown. Now, for SaNoah, an eagle feather wasn’t just a decoration, it was a treasured symbol of her heritage. So SaNoah appealed to her school board and she won. And a few weeks later, she spoke on stage at her commencement, proudly wearing her eagle feather. And this fall, she’ll be enrolled as a pre-med student at Harvard College. (Applause.)
I share SaNoah’s story because it’s a perfect example of what Gen-I is all about. You see, Gen-I isn’t just a summit. This isn’t just a program. See, Gen-I is a movement, you understand? It’s about tribal youth from across this continent embracing your heritage, telling your stories, and teaching people about your central role in our history and our future.
Gen-I is about all of you investing in your promise by getting a good education. You’ve got to finish high school, go on to college or a vocational training program so that you are in a position to get good jobs and be the leaders that you were meant to be. And Gen-I is about tribal youth coming together and raising your voices for change not just in your Nations, but in the entire United States of America.
That’s why you’re here. That’s what this Summit is about. It’s a chance for you all to connect with each other. Just look at you all. Connect with each other and be inspired by each other.
So is there an issue you that care about in your community? Health care, clean water, education -- anything? I guarantee you that someone else here today is taking on that very same issue in their community. So I want you to find that person. Ask them how they’re doing it and bring their good ideas back to your home.
And then I want you to think even bigger. I want you to start learning about your elected officials. Because make no mistake about it, the laws those folks are making absolutely have an impact on your communities. And if those officials aren’t looking out for you and your families, you need to vote for someone who will -- even better, run for office yourself. (Applause.) Local office, state office, even President of the United States -– I know you all have it in you. (Applause.) I know you can do that.
But I also know that none of this will be easy. Like many young people your age, I know that you may have moments in your lives when you’re filled with doubts, or you feel weighed down by history or stifled by your circumstances, or think that no one really understands what you’re going through. But when you start to feel that way, 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. (Applause.)
Each of you has something that you’re destined to do -– whether that’s raising a beautiful family, whether that’s succeeding in a profession or leading your community into a better future. You all have a role to play. And we need you. And as you move forward in your journey, I want you to remember that you are never alone.
That’s what this is. Look around you. Look at how many people have invested in you being here. And the investment isn’t just about you being here, it’s an investment in who you are and your value. Right here you have hundreds of fellow travelers all dealing with the same challenges, all just as strong and smart and determined as you are.
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. (Applause.)
So together, I know that you all can make the change you seek, day by day, vote by vote, eagle feather by eagle feather. That’s how we have always made progress in this country -– from the grassroots, through countless acts of hope and defiance that, taken together, have fueled the great movements of our history –- from women’s rights, to civil rights, to LGBT rights.
No action is too small. Every voice matters. And while you might not see the change you want in your lifetime, maybe your children will see that change. Maybe your grandchildren or great-grandchildren will see that change. And see, decades from now, maybe those kids, your kids, your offspring will look back at all of you and say that you were the generation who started it all -– Gen-I. You were the generation that dug deep. You were the generation that drew strength from your history and wrote a new story of Indian Country and of America.
I’m so proud of you all. I’m proud of this gathering. I know you all can do this. I believe in you, and I can’t wait to see everything you all will achieve for your generation and generations to come.
God bless you all. Thank you. (Applause.)
11:45 A.M. EDT