July | August 2015

First Lady Addresses More Than 1,000 Participants During White House Tribal Youth Gathering

First Lady Michelle Obama addresses White House tribal youth gathering.
First Lady Michelle Obama addresses White House tribal youth gathering.

On July 9, 2015, the White House hosted more than 1,000 youth for its first-ever tribal youth gathering. Cosponsored by UNITY, the event builds on President Obama's Generation Indigenous (Gen-I) initiative, which aims to improve the lives of Native youth through new investments and increased engagement. Youth ages 14 to 24 were eligible to attend the event by joining the National Native Youth Network and accepting the Gen-I challenge.

Native youth were involved in planning the event through participation in the White House Tribal Youth Gathering Steering Committee. The OJJDP-sponsored Today’s Native Leaders (TNL) program also played a key role in the event. TNL facilitators educated the audience about the initiative and the ongoing opportunities for leadership training for Native youth that occur throughout the country. Examples of innovative service projects completed by TNL alumni were also featured during the event.

First Lady Michelle Obama, who was introduced by 15-year-old Hamilton Seymour of the Nooksack Indian Tribe, delivered the keynote address. In her remarks, Mrs. Obama acknowledged the history of oppression that impacts tribes and encouraged the attendees to embrace their heritage, telling the youth that their customs, values, and discoveries are “at the heart of the American story.”

The First Lady also spoke about the value of education, urged the youth to build peer networks to effect change, and encouraged them to persevere through challenging times. “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,” said Mrs. Obama. “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.”

Attorney General Loretta Lynch (left) answers questions posed by the youth during a fireside chat on public safety and strong communities.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch (left) answers questions posed by the youth during a fireside chat on public safety and strong communities.

The participating youth, representing 230 tribes from 42 states, were afforded the opportunity to interact directly with senior Administration officials and officials from the White House Council on Native American Affairs. In a fireside chat on public safety and strong communities, Attorney General Lynch outlined the Justice Department’s efforts on behalf of native youth and their communities, which include establishing a task force to study and recommend solutions to American Indian and Alaska Native children’s exposure to violence. When asked how the attendees could capitalize on their experiences at the gathering, the Attorney General responded: “Try to find one or two ideas you can take back to your communities. This is a time of great change in this country and, so often, that change has been led by young people. You have the energy, the dedication, and the vision. [B]e the one to tell your story.”

Other fireside chats included a session on health and wellness with Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell; Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Muñoz; and Senator Heidi Heitkamp as well as a session on youth opportunity with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell; Secretary Julián Castro of the Department of Housing and Urban Development; and Gina McCarthy, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. In the latter session, youth asked questions about the usefulness of the Affordable Care Act for their communities, the lack of federal funds set aside for Indian Country, and national efforts to support wellness and mental health services for Native youth, among others. They also expressed overwhelming support for the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, which grants tribal courts jurisdiction over non-Native people who commit domestic violence acts on tribal lands.

Other speakers at the event included Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of the Swinomish Nation; John Herrington, Ph.D., former NASA astronaut and member of the Chickasaw Nation; Sam McCracken, Nike N7 creator; and Cheyenne Brady, Miss Indian World. Assistant Attorney General Karol V. Mason participated in the “Emerging Youth Leaders” panel while OJJDP Administrator Robert L. Listenbee moderated the “Tribal Justice, Caring for Our Youth” session.

Resources:

Learn more about White House programs and initiatives to support native youth.

To learn more about OJJDP’s tribal youth programs and services, visit the Office’s website.