Nearly three years ago, I had the honor of announcing the creation of the National Aboriginal Youth Council on HIV/AIDS—the first of its kind—with the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network in Vancouver, British Columbia. As the founder of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN)—an organization by and for Indigenous youth that works across issues of sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice throughout the United States and Canada—I am proud to say the Indigenous youth-lead movement to educate our communities about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) , safer sex, harm reduction, HIV/AIDS treatment and the need to eliminate the stigma and discrimination that surrounds all of it has sparked a national forum across Turtle Island. Now Native American youth in the U.S. will join the effort to raise awareness and prevention of HIV/AIDS in Native communities. On July 21st, NYSHN and the National Native American AIDS Prevention Center (NNAAPC) announced the formation of the first National Native American Youth HIV/AIDS Council in the U.S. The highly anticipated announcement was made during the closing panel titled “Indigenous Youth are the Present” during the International Indigenous Pre-Conference as part of the International AIDS Conference, July 22-27, in Washington D.C. “Youth involvement is one of the key ingredients that will change the course of HIV for all of our communities,” says Matt Ignacio (Tohono O’odham), Capacity Building Liaison for NNAAPC, a national, Native-specific organization working to address the impact of HIV/AIDS on American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians through culturally appropriate advocacy, research, education and policy development. “The partnership between the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, the newly created National Native American Youth Council and the National Native American AIDS Prevention Center is sure to raise more awareness, inspire change and help reverse HIV infection rates for all Native peoples,” he added. From a number of strong youth applicants, these five Native American youth leaders have been selected as the first participants in the National Youth Council for their passion and experience: Allen Felix (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes) Jordan Heideman (Cheyenne River Sioux) Brent Huggins (Cherokee of Oklahoma) Shea Norris (Oglala Lakota) Brandi Yant (Muskogee Creek) Each youth leader will serve one full year and will provide NNAAPC and NYSHN guidance on how to create and craft youth centered prevention and policy strategies, as well as direct community impacts. The objectives of the National Native American Youth HIV/AIDS Council are to:
- Create a national forum where youth can speak about the current state of HIV prevention in Native communities
- Create opportunities for meaningful engagement of Indigenous youth in national prevention and advocacy efforts
- Establish courses of action and primary activities that are in line with the missions of NNAAPC and NYSHN
“To me, being on the National Native American Youth HIV/AIDS Council means that I may have a chance to make a difference,” Yant says. “That I may get one more opportunity to educate at least one more person on how to protect themselves. Education is the most important thing to me, because if we don’t teach the next generation how to protect themselves, then who will?” Higgins says, “I’m looking forward to working with fellow Native youth to begin a conversation of prevention and awareness of HIV/AIDS in our communities. I’m excited to be a part of the vital change needed to reduce the infection rate of HIV/AIDS within Indian Country. I’m honored to be working towards positive solutions to combat HIV from an Indigenous perspective.” The impact of the two Indigenous youth councils will extend beyond what heightened statistics might reflect about rates of sexually transmitted and blood borne infections. It has been nothing short of awe inspiring to witness on the front lines what Indigenous youth are actively doing to change the course of HIV/AIDS, promote culturally safe sexual health, and reduce harm in their own communities.
The formation of this second national Indigenous youth council is about supporting youth activism and sparking change across Indian country by empowering Indigenous youth to take leadership in the HIV/AIDS movement locally and globally. Through these youth councils, we are making a difference across our nations, and continuing the work that our ancestors and leaders before us have done to keep our communities safe and healthy. Jessica Danforth is the founder and executive director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network. She also serves as the chair of the National Aboriginal Youth Council on HIV/AIDS.