More than 100 tribal leaders, tribal youth and a handful of United States Senators turned out last week in support of Native youth at the Center for Native American Youth’s (CNAY) one year anniversary reception held at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington D.C. The reception was timely and appropriate to garner a sizable attendance as the reception fell on the tail end of the 2012 National Congress of American Indians Executive Council winter session.
The CNAY has been active in Indian country for the past year after being started by a generous donation from former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan. Dorgan, who donated one million dollars to the Aspen Institute last March, worked with CNAY Director Erin Bailey to, as their mission statement states, “bring greater national attention to the issues facing Native American youth and to foster solutions with special emphasis on youth suicide prevention.”
On the evening of the reception, several movers and shakers in Indian country took some time to speak with Indian Country Today Media Network. When speaking about the highlights of the past year, former Senator Byron Dorgan shared highlights of the past 12 months, his insights about the early success of the CNAY and its receptivity in Indian country.
“The highlights for me have been with the kids. We have gone out to do youth summits on Indian reservations, and I come back unbelievably inspired by what I find. Yes you do find tragedy or situations that break your heart, but you also find kids that are doing things out there somewhere in the corner of a reservation – they decide to be an ambassador for Native Youth,” Dorgan said.
“We've worked with a lot of federal agencies and are doing a lot of coordinating with these agencies. At the end of this first year we have really become acquainted with tribes so that they know who we are, what we're doing and how we can be helpful,” he said.
Dorgan also stated CNAY would be doing everything to ensure they would incorporate the best practices were to help Native Youth and would in turn share that information with other tribes about what works and what does not work with respect to the youth.
Additionally Dorgan said, there would be an emphasized focus on at-risk behavior. “We are addressing the issue of teen suicide – which is the focus of our work, not in the context of the tragedy but in the context of preventing the tragedy and overcoming youth suicide.”
Bailey, the literal backbone of the Aspen Institutes CNAY was also on hand to talk about the major components of the CNAY and its success over the past year.
“A lot has happened in one year,” Bailey said. Who said the makeup of the CNAY was based on three vital directives to include its proactive outreach to Indian country youth, the ability to elevate issues of awareness and to bring new partnerships to the table and to create the idea of promoting hope by sharing the stories of success.
“We have had over 20 roundtables in nine different states with youth from 100 tribes. We have created a report called The Voices of Native Youth. We thought if we are taking the opportunities to meet with these youth about what is going on and what is unique, then we need to be talking about the diversity of these issues. We need to be sharing that with everyone else too. This report is available on our website,” she said. According to Bailey, “Listening is key.”
She also mentioned that for all of CNAY’s success, there is room to improve. “I think one of the biggest areas I want to improve in the next year, is we offered a free scholarship through Columbia University for a high school program. They created a $7,000 residential scholarship we had one applicant last year. We have 12 this year. We thought how do we choose… Next year I want to do better, I want more programs like that,” she said.
During the reception, several leaders and native youth spoke to many attendees. Among the speakers was 19-year-old Dana Lee Jetty, who lost her sister to teen suicide back in 2008.
Jetty told ICTMN, “After my sister committed suicide in 2008 – in February 2009 I testified For the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs about suicide in Indian country and that's how I became involved with the Center for Native American Youth.”
“Oh my God, I was so nervous. I think our youth need to be more involved in community activities. Give them something else to do. On reservations, there is nothing there. It's kind of hard to think of things for them to do,” she said.
Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk who was also among the crowd said, “I was at the opening ceremony last year. It looks like they've been off to a great start, it is a worthy cause and we are very supportive of the work that they do – Sen. Dorgan has proved himself in the past that he has got it in his heart to do everything he can to help the right people which is the future generations.”
In regards to his $1 million donation, Echo Hawk added, “That's like one million pieces of evidence to his commitment.”
Also among the speakers, presenters and attendees were Jon Greendeer of the Ho Chunk Nation that led with the opening blessing, National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel who introduced former Senator Dorgan, Senator Gordon Smith and Cecelia Fire Thunder, Stacy Bohlen and Andy Joseph that donated a diamond quilt to the CNAY on behalf of the National Indian Health Board and the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board in honor of deceased Indian advocate Robert Moore.
Dorgan summed up the evening as well as a year of success of the CNAY. “I personally, get more out of this than I give. What I have found is that Indian children need opportunity and need to be shown that their life can be what they decide to make it. It's about overcoming obstacles, and there are a lot of obstacles. But I will tell you, there are some terrific young kids out there working with us to try and make life better.”
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