Already the Native leaders of today

(Photo by Kolby KickingWoman, Indian Country Today)

Report looks at policies that matter most to Native youth across the United States

Native youth count.

Three words that capture this year’s State of Native Youth report from the Center for Native American Youth, it’s also a sentiment Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, echoed in a video presentation at the report’s release event Wednesday.

“You’re not just the leaders of tomorrow, you’re also the leaders of today. It’s because of young people like you that change can happen across Indian Country,” Haaland said. “We need your leadership now more than ever. You can have a lasting impact in your own communities by staying engaged with what’s happening back home and simply having the passion to get involved in Indian Country. Indian Country needs you, our country needs you, Native Americans need you.”

Founded nearly 10 years ago by former United States Senator, Byron Dorgan, the Center for Native American Youth is a non-profit organization dedicated to addressing issues and improving the welfare of Native youth 24 years old and younger.

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Dorgan donated $1 million of excess campaign funds to jumpstart the organization after leaving Congress and is proud of the work that has been accomplished since its inception.

“I believe there are lives in this country on Indian reservations and in urban areas of Native American children that are saved, that are improved, that are vastly different because of work that we have done,” Dorgan said.

The highlight of the afternoon was a panel discussion featuring four Native youth making a difference in their communities. They touched on a number of issues they are passionate about, from the 2020 census to coverage of Natives in the media to substance abuse awareness and reduction.

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(Left to right: Erik Stegman, Center for Native American Youth Executive Director; Austin Weahkee, Generation Indigenous Ambassador; Jarrette Werk, Generation Indigenous Ambassador; Mikah Carlos, Center for Native American Youth Youth Advisory Board member; Elizabeth Morgan, 2019 Creative Native winner; Nikki Pitre, Center for Native American Youth Associate Director. Photo by Kolby KickingWoman, Indian Country Today)

Mikah Carlos, Onk Akimel O’odham, Tohono O’odham, and Piipaash, is a member of the Youth Advisory Board for the organization and they all met earlier this summer in Seattle. Carlos said she was “floored” by how driven Native youth are and their interest in policies that create a better future for themselves and their communities.

“I really wish you guys could have been there and get a glimpse into the room because it was just amazing,” Carlos said. “They are really driven and you can tell that we care about our communities and native youth overall.”

She added that some of the policies they discussed included protecting sacred sites, culture and language revitalization, education opportunities and more.

Another issue important to Native youth is civic engagement. Austin Weahkee, Cochiti, Zuni and Navajo, is a grassroots organizer who has been knocking on doors since he was eight years old.

He said he comes from a long line of community organizers and joked he fell into activism because he got dragged to a lot of protests as a kid.

“My sister and I and a group of family friends used to play ‘city hall,’ that was our pretend game,” Weahkee said.

Weahkee currently works for the Native American Voters Alliance in New Mexico, advocating for Native families. He also works with local high schools to get students excited and involved with civic engagement. He added he hopes Natives are just as worried about the Census in 2030 as they are about next year’s decennial count.

Each year before the report’s release, the Center for Native American Youth holds a ‘Creative Native Call for Art’ to be featured as the artwork for the cover. This year, Elizabeth Morgan, Kiowa Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, won the grand prize.

The piece is named “Sisterhood” and Morgan said she got the inspirations for it from the bond she has with her sister, the traditional ways in which she was raised by her mother and memories she had as a little girl of a famous ledger artist, Silver Horn. 

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(2019 State of Native Youth report cover, screenshot cnay.org)

“What really pushed me for it was that my family among us, we have a lot of women warriors. And so I wanted to bring their voices out, ‘cause they're the silent voices in the background, always have been,” Morgan said. “Especially with ‘Sisterhood,’ you know, that’s me and my sister and I feel a deep family connection. So I wanted to bring that out in my art.”

If any message was made clear from the day, it’s that the state of Native youth is strong.

The report can be read or downloaded online here.

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Kolby KickingWoman is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is Blackfeet/Gros Ventre from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

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