My name is Cierra Fields. I am 17 and a member of the Cherokee Nation. I was one of 100 youth invited to the White House Tribal Nations Conference and Gen-I Youth summit held last week in Washington D.C.
I felt truly blessed to attend the last WHTNC and Youth Summit under the current administration. President Obama addressed many of the concerns shared by Tribal leaders, such as tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, reauthorizing the Violence Against Women’s Act, increasing power for tribal courts and how our many tribal nations are rising up to support Standing Rock in their fight to protect our Mother Earth.
Luckily, Gen-I had reserved the first few rows for all of the Native Youth and I had the pleasure of sitting with three motivated and funny young native women.
In our conversations, I learned my fellow Native youth cared about the wellbeing of our people. Mackenzie works to support urban native youth who were adopted outside of their tribal nations and helps them connect with their tribe, culture, and family. Charitie works with her tribal leaders on protests and legislation. She has also worked to abolish Columbus Day. Whitney works to solve food security and sovereignty for all tribal nations at a national level.
The day was filled with tribal leaders and government leaders sharing their hopes for the potential future for Indian country. At the end of the day, President Obama shared his thoughts and thanks in working with Indian country for the past eight years.
As I sat listening to our President - and I was sitting maybe 15 feet away, I realized that I was going to miss him deeply as I felt like he has made the US government care about Native Americans for the first time since their “settlement” among our people.
When I was listening to President Obama - and to steal a line from my favorite musical Hamilton (written by Lin-Manuel Miranda ) - the entire time I could hear the Schuyler Sisters singing “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now. Look around, look around.” That may sound sappy, but that is what was running through my head.
After his speech, Obama walked down to the crowd to shake hands and interact with tribal leaders and Native youth.
As he made his way through the crowd, naturally, everyone rushed to shake his hand. Since I’m only 5’ 1”, I knew I couldn’t reach him and I totally wanted to jump on top of the guy in front of me. But, I stopped myself because I was pretty sure that any one of the Secret Service people would have tazed me and my tribal nation would have frowned upon my actions.
So, I settled on yelling to Obama, “I love you Obama!” And... President Obama winked at me! #bucketlist
There were a lot of great words shared that day. But, I personally was drawn to the discussion lead by Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. I was empowered by these two women. They didn’t just come to tribal nations and tell tribes what they wanted - they came as humble learners who wanted to understand our vast cultures, traditions, beliefs, values, and our individual tribes’ needs.
During the past eight years, the EPA and tribal leaders worked together to create a guidance document and additional policies to integrate tribal treaty rights into every decision the EPA makes. See: National Congress of American Indians Resolution #MKE-11-031
For the first time in history, the government of the United States was incorporating tribal treaties into their decision making process. I had to actually let that sink in. It was mind-blowing. Historically, our tribal treaties have been discarded and ignored. Yet, the Obama Administration and the EPA developed policies that included tribal treaties.
Then Administrator McCarthy went on to explain that the Department of Interior, Attorney General Lynch, Department of Justice, USDA, Commerce Department, and ACHP have all signed a memorandum of understanding and agree to follow it’s guidance and policy for THEIR agencies.
This left me at the edge of my seat and eager to hear more.
Then it was Secretary Jewell’s turn to speak. She was speaking to me, to my generation. I was brought to tears by her heartfelt passion for us as Native Youth. She described how important it was for the youth to be engaged and that Generation Indigenous was a way to help youth no matter where they lived: reservations, tribal nations, urban settings to connect, engage, and support each other as we move forward to help bring historic changes not just for our own tribes but for all of Indian country.
She addressed that we are not alone and our voices matter because we are the future. She gave native youth advice for moving forward in our endeavors: “Don’t be quiet. Speak up. Make your voices heard.” These words are what drives us forward. Secretary Jewell stated that she was inspired by Senator Byron Dorgan and his commitment to Native youth by creating the Center for Native American Youth (CNAY). I was one of the 5 inaugural Champions for Change in 2013 and have worked with CNAY for the past 3 years.
Native youth from across our nation have been shining examples of the words of wisdom shared by Secretary Jewell.
For example, we have all been mesmerized by the Standing Rock youth who organized a run from their tribal reservation in North Dakota to the White House in order to protect their water source. Their actions have inspired over 200+ tribal nations and countries from all over the world to stand with Standing Rock.
The world is watching and it all began with an idea in a tribal youth council meeting. But our work doesn’t end there. Native Youth everywhere are working to decrease suicide rates, supporting the LGBTQ -Two Spirit community, increasing educational opportunities for Natives, improving food security to our communities, writing grants for dental care, protecting our water sources, preserving our native languages, demanding justice for the murdered and missing indigenous women, speaking out against domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape while seeking transparency in the judicial system, stopping the school/reservation to prison pipeline, and the list goes on and on.
See Related: Rape. The Other Four-letter Word
We cannot be silent. We cannot sit on the side lines. We are the future.
Look out upcoming presidential hopeful - the Native youth are coming. We will not be silenced ever again.
Cierra Fields is a member of the Cherokee Nation, a 2016 White House Changemaker, proud 2014 Center for Native American Youth Champion for Change and a 2016 UNITY 25 under 25 Honoree. Follow her on Twitter at @CierraFields918