Skip to main content

Dear Next President: Keep the Commitment to Native Youth

During a campaign season full of vitriolic rhetoric & disheartening debates about the future of our country, many of us have found ways to survive it.

The election is finally here. During a campaign season full of vitriolic rhetoric and disheartening debates about the future of our country, many of us have found ways to survive it by focusing on the positive things happening that give us real hope for a brighter future. For me, that’s Generation Indigenous (Gen-I). Over 5,000 Native youth across the country have answered President Obama’s call to take positive action in their communities—and it’s growing. Gen-I youth have been working to tackle the suicide epidemic, develop language programs, bring traditional and healthy foods back to their food systems, and increase physical activity and wellness, to name only a few. You can see all of these pledges on the Gen-I National Youth Network map.

Gen-I is no longer just an initiative—it’s a movement.

Not only have Gen-I youth been taking initiative in their communities, but they’ve been connecting with other youth, inspiring one another, and raising local and national awareness about their priorities and their role in building a strong future for Indian country. During this year’s annual White House Tribal Nations conference and Youth Gathering, one message became clear when youth delegates were asked what they wanted to share with the next President: we hope they will continue the commitment to Native youth in the White House.

Today, that’s why the Gen-I National Youth Network joined the First Kids 1st coalition to publish a letter to the next president outlining their priorities for the next administration. Incorporating input from the recent White House Tribal Youth Gathering, the Gen-I National Youth Network, and the First Kids 1st Native Children’s Policy Agenda, the letter highlights the key areas where Native youth hope to partner with the new administration to create lasting positive change in their communities and improve their chances for success.

I started this amazing position about a year ago and I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of Native youth across the country about Gen-I and what it means to them. It’s a lot more than a slick brand. By telling Native youth in his role as leader of the free world that they matter, and their voice matters, President Obama inspired our youth to build their own platforms—platforms where they recognize each other’s strengths and advocate together for a stronger future. Gen-I Youth Ambassador Payton Bordley from the Skokomish Indian Tribe states it perfectly in the opening of the letter to the next president, “We are strongest when our cultures and traditions are woven into the political framework of our nation. For that reason, it is vital and necessary that the values, dreams and needs of Native American youth be understood and shared by our next President and administration.”

Gen-I youth like Payton are why even in this tough political moment, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful because Native youth are on the leading edge of an entirely new national conversation about Indian country, where we come from, and the future we deserve. The growing national attention on the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline are a prime example. A group of Native youth took off running to deliver a petition to the Army Corps of Engineers demanding protection of their sacred sites and waterways. They galvanized other youth to take action with them. They attracted national attention, and supported tribal leaders in their stand.

I hope that the next president will continue this cross-generation engagement with Indian country. The right policy decisions as Commander in Chief rely on this willingness to listen to our elected tribal officials, our elders, and our youth. For too long, the policies of this country centered on tearing our generations apart, depriving us of our cultural strengths and breaking up our families. President Obama was a partner with us in turning back those harmful policies, and Gen-I was a critical piece of that.

Dear Next President: please keep the commitment to Native youth.

Erik Stegman, Carry the Kettle First Nation (Nakoda), is Executive Director of the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute.