ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – “There is no right way to do the wrong thing. Do what is right,” said Joe Garcia, National Congress of American Indians president, to hundreds of Native American youth attending the annual UNITY conference in Albuquerque in July.
Garcia, Ohkay Owingeh, was one of several speakers during the five-day youth-led conference that encouraged the mostly teenage crowd to help make positive changes in their communities.
UNITY, a nonprofit organization, stands for United National Indian Tribal Youth.
Impressing the 1,100 attendees from approximately 24 states and Canada on the first day were dancers from Jemez Pueblo, and the Cherokee National Choir sang the national anthem in Cherokee.
During the conference, youth engaged in activities designed to promote personal development, citizenship, effective youth councils and communication.
In conjunction with UNITY’s Celebrate Native Health project, designed to prevent childhood obesity, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation facilitated a number of activities, promoting active living and healthy eating.
“I went to one of the best universities in the country, but my best teachers were those back home who didn’t speak a word of English,” said Regis Pecos, chief of staff to Ben Lujan, New Mexico’s Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Pecos, Cochiti Pueblo and former governor of his tribe, is a graduate of Princeton University and UNITY alumni. “What will your grandchildren say about you? Will they say you made sure our language and culture were a part of their lives? Will they say you wanted to make sure it survived?”
Alvin Warren, cabinet secretary for Indian Affairs to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, spoke to the theme developed by the youth “Diverse We Are, United We Stand, Together We Rise.” He encouraged the youth to be prepared for leadership roles within their tribes saying every contribution they make counts. Warren, Santa Clara Pueblo, served two terms as lieutenant governor for his tribe.
After learning that New Mexico has the only cabinet level position for Indian Affairs, many youth wondered why their state doesn’t have such a position. No doubt a few will take steps to change that.
Challenging the youth to get ready for globalization was LaDonna Harris, Comanche founder of Americans for Indian Opportunity. The California University of Pennsylvania recently recognized Harris with an honorary doctorate for her 50 years of activism and advocacy for American Indians and other underrepresented populations. She has devoted her life to building coalitions that create change.
A unique annual tradition was the caring of the UNITY fire. Warren Skye, a Tonawanda Seneca from Basom, N.Y., brought the fire to UNITY in 1995 and has continued to bring it to conferences since. After the lighting of the fire July 3, youth delegations served as fire keepers. The fire, symbolic of the commonality of tribes and villages, provided an opportunity for singing, praying and sharing.
The annual gathering has inspired young and old. As UNITY participants sat around the fire at 4 a.m. on the last day of the conference, each shared how they were inspired. “I wish I had been involved in UNITY as a teenager,” said a man from the Jemez Pueblo reservation. “Maybe things would’ve turned out better for me.”
“I want to get a youth council going again (on the San Carlos Apache Reservation),” said Monique James, 17, president of the Student Council at San Carlos High School. This was her first time attending the UNITY conference.
Garcia’s words to do the right thing is exactly what conference participants had in mind as they drafted a resolution identifying their number one concern – alcohol, drug and substance abuse.
Members of the National UNITY Council plan to present it to organizations such as NCAI and the National Indian Education Association as a way to encourage tribal communities to crack down on substance abuse through stronger laws and the establishment of culturally based educational programs that are youth specific. The youth also hope communities will create a “UNITY Day.”