The youth commission of the National Congress of American Indians wraps up its final meeting and the former co-president Brian Barlow, Cherokee, hustles to the door before everyone exits.
“I want to give them a high five!” said the 24-year-old. It’s not only been an emotional day, but week as he has to turn over his leadership position to the next co-presidents.
“Mikah and I have been here since last Friday,” he said of him and his co-president Mikah Carlos, Salt River Pima Maricopa. They immediately went to Starbucks and started working. It’s been non-stop since. It has been non-stop during their two-year term as co-presidents.
During the week, the youth had their own conference sessions and agenda aside. Sessions included Google talking about Google glasses and thinking outside the box, Kiowa artist Steven Paul Judd showed about his work in pop culture with a Native twist, Indian Child Welfare Act, spearheading the health walk, importance of the Native Vote and more. They also had some time to sit in on the convention sessions
NCAI even challenged them to take as many selfies with as many tribal leaders as they could. Alyssa Granado, Kiowa, blew everyone away with 40 selfies. (That networking trick worked!)
But out of all the issues discussed, the number one issue that hit the entire group this week: the Indian Child Welfare Act.
The Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, was passed in 1978. This law requires governments, including tribal courts, act to “protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families.” A district court in Texas recently declared the act “unconstitutional.” So Carlos knew her and the other youth commissioners wanted to include the important topic on their agenda.
Most of those in the youth group knew people in their communities in the child welfare system, but Carlos said, they didn’t understand how this law worked, how widespread it was and the full extent of it.
The fact that much of the group had little to no knowledge of this national issue stunned Barlow. His immediate reaction was to say, “How have you never heard of that? How do you not know what that is?”
Then he reflected a youth honor luncheon at his first NCAI convention in 2010. “I’m singing these songs because I was taken from my family,” a woman said then. “I don’t know what tribe I’m from or who my family is, but I remember that moment, when I didn’t know about ICWA.” He remembers asking himself, “How was she separated and how was this done by the government?”
Youth experienced the same thing Barlow did when he was 16 years old. He’s 24 now.
When the issue was broken down and statistics were given, the group was “so eager to learn about it.”
Today, according to the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the data on American Indian and Alaskan Native children in the child welfare system is disproportionate due to “systemic bias” when it comes to investigations. This contributes to the representation and overrepresentation of American Indian and Alaskan Native children.
The youth group had a lot of questions that led to discussions about blood quantum, sovereignty, the difference between race versus political status, and strong cultural ties.
Carlos said the one statement she kept hearing them say was, “I cannot imagine my life without my culture.”
The one piece about “potential Indian children” in the Brackeen v. Zinke case baffled the group.
“They couldn’t grasp how you could be a ‘potential Indian’ when in their minds they are ‘born Indian,’” Carlos said. “It was hard for them to grasp because, essentially, that’s their identity.”
Education of such laws are changing the game for Native youth. As Barlow referred to earlier, this group did not know about this law but experts educating them will change that.
Amari McCoy, Cherokee, was “grateful” for the ICWA conversations because it “touched a lot of our youth’s hearts this week.”
“To have these experts, leaders pushing this fight for our Indian children and to have them educate us, wow. What I know now, I’m grateful for what they taught us,” said the junior at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma. “Now we can take that back and teach some of youth back home because I know they don’t know a lot about this either. If I can educate one person, then that will help this movement.”
After the education, discussion and bewilderment, the group drafted a statement on how the words of ICWA made them feel. They knew “this was wrong” and “had to do something about it.” The statement was read at Friday morning’s closing general assembly.
“The Indian Child Welfare act was created in order to protect the best interest of Indian Children and to promote the stability and security of tribal communities and families. We as youth leaders know that our identity; is who we are, is within our culture, and within the tribal community that raises us. Our membership and blood quantum has never defined us as members of our tribal communities. To us, we are raised by tribal communities, because we learn not just from our family but from the community as a whole. They teach us our languages, our traditions, they show us who we are as American Indian/Alaskan Native youth, that is a right every American Indian/Alaskan Native child should have. They should not be taken from their tribal community, because when they are, a piece of our culture is lost.”
Even when we think youth aren’t listening or paying attention, they are. That goes for another popular issue that appeared on the agenda: Native vote and 106 Native candidates running for public office.
McCoy, a political science major, was ecstatic.
“This is a monumental year for Natives in politics because we’re having a movement right now. We’re noticing our voices aren’t be heard and if we want them heard we going to need these positions so we’re taking a stand and putting our foot down and saying it’s time,” she said. “It’s time for us to be in those offices. We’ve waited long enough and we’re ready for a change. We’re ready to make it happen.”
More than half of those Native candidates are Native women and Carlos is looking forward to the results because men typically hold those leadership positions.
“Having more women in office brings a different perspective and different voice,” she said referencing her two years as a female co-president with Barlow. For a while she was the only female working with three male youth commissioners. She often reminded and helped them to learn how to choose their words wisely because they would talk like they are talking to a room of guys.
“We’re so used to seeing males in leadership they forget that often a lot of our traditional communities and societies, women are the matriarch,” she said. “They really are the ones that we look to for guidance so I think that bringing that traditional knowledge to the western political system is really great.”
NCAI’s youth commission leadership structure is interesting. (Again, the youth made this change in 2006.)
From a cultural perspective, Barlow found the co-leader structure worked. Besides consulting one another on decision-making, he found that often leaders are given so much burden on their shoulders. Co-leaders allowed that burden to be spread across both people, he said.
New leaders made that burden theirs yesterday morning. The co-presidents of the youth commission are Rory Wheeler, Seneca, and Sophie Tiger, Comanche of Oklahoma. One of the two co-vice presidents are Sydney Mattheson, Colville, while Marisela Villegas, Salt River, takes on the secretary position. There is no male co-vice president and public relations officers. Those positions will be filled in the next 60 days.
Some time ago, the National Indian Child Welfare Association realized they need youth ambassadors and partnered with the NCAI Youth Commission to have two ambassadors for their association. Mikah Carlos, who was NCAI’s youth commission co-president, will hold the ambassador role for three years with Lance Sanchez, Tohono O’odham.
It is often said that youth are the leaders of the future, said Aaron Payment, the first vice president of NCAI. He said this twice – once in the closing youth session and once at the closing general assembly. It’s a statement that he disagrees and agrees with because he says Native youth are “already leaders.”
Indian Country Today will stream a live coast-to-coastnewscaston election day partnering with FNX / First Nations Experience and Native Voice One. The newscast will begin at 6 p.m. Pacific / 9 p.m. Eastern. Hashtag: #NativeElectionNight.
The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.