During Wednesday’s Sixth Annual 2014 White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Dept. of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Attorney General Eric Holder and other Senior Administration officials addressed a number of relevant issues to Indian country such as the Violence Against Women Act, treaty rights, transportation, Indian health, housing, business and the environment.
However, the main emphasis of the conference was a clear dedication to the health and welfare of the needs of Native youth.
In President Obama’s closing speech, which was met with lively applause, laughter and appreciative exclamations, the President spoke of his previous historic visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. After his visit, he and the first lady met privately with Native youth from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
During his remarks to a room filled with several hundred tribal leaders and Native youth Obama said he was profoundly affected by the stories he was told.
“Michelle and I ended up staying longer than we had planned, and we got a lot of hugs in, and we walked away shaken because some of these kids were carrying burdens no young person should ever have to carry. And it was heartbreaking,” Obama said.
“And we told them, because they were such extraordinary young people – strong and talented and courageous – we said, you've got to believe in yourselves because we believe in you. We want to give those young people and young Native Americans like them the support they deserve. We have to invest in them, and believe in them, and love them.
“And if we do, there’s no question of the great things they can achieve – not just for their own families, but for their nation and for the United States.”
After massive applause from the audience, the President then explained how that when he returned to Washington, he talked with Sally Jewell, Arne Duncan and other staff responsible for youths, education and job training in order to create opportunity for Native young people.
“They knew I was serious because it’s not very often where I tear up in the Oval Office. I deal with a lot of bad stuff in this job. It is not very often where I get choked up, so they knew I was serious about this,” Obama said.
On the tail of his remarks, the president then announced important items to benefit Native youth. The first is a comprehensive report just released on the issues and challenges faced by Native youth, second were the instructions that every one of Obama’s cabinet members should sit down with Native young people to hear firsthand accounts.
Obama also discussed a Department of Education initiative called Native Youth Community Projects in which schools would more strongly support culturally relevant curriculum, the creation of a National Network called Generation Indigenous and a National Tribal Youth Network to connect and support tribal youth from all Nations. Native Youth Community Projects, Generation Indigenous, National Tribal Youth Network, White House Tribal Youth Gathering,
“And next year, we will hold the first White House Tribal Youth Gathering. It will look a lot like this conference – only younger,” Obama said to a round of laughter.
Prior to President Obama’s speech, Secretary Jewell delivered the opening remarks at the conference and highlighted trust responsibilities, educational reform and climate adaptation. Jewell also indicated the importance of paving a positive road for the youth in Indian country.
“All of the work we are undertaking in partnership with tribes – whether on education, tackling climate change, or upholding trust reforms and treaty obligations – is with an eye toward the health and prosperity of the next generation,” she said.
“The White House Tribal Nations Conference is one piece of President Obama’s commitment to make meaningful and lasting progress in support of American Indians’ and Alaska Natives’ vision for a strong and successful future.”
“The heart of the matter is that no one cares more, or knows more about what’s right for young people, than their parents and their community,” Jewell said. Jewell then noted that the BIE recently awarded $1.2 million to tribes to promote tribal control of BIE-funded schools on their reservations.
Vice President Joe Biden touched on the importance of reaching out to Native youth but placed most emphasis on the importance of preventing violence against women. He said people are obligated to help if a woman is in danger and no man ever has a right to raise his hand to a woman unless it is self-defense.
Biden also talked about changing laws so that tribes would be able to prosecute non-Native offenders.
In addition to these remarks, senior officials also held a series of panel discussions and answered questions from tribal leaders. The panel participants included Sec. Tom Vilsack from the Dept. of Agriculture, Sec. Anthony Foxx from the Dept. of Transportation, Sec. Julián Castro from HUD, Maria Contreras-Sweet from the SBA, Gina McCarthy from the EPA and others from FEMA, the Departments of Education, Labor and Personnel Management.
After the conference tribal leaders and dignitaries expressed their shared enthusiasm for the prosperity of Indian country and a stronger potential outreach to Native youth.
“We need to work together to empower all of our children, including Native children, by providing the care, resources, and workable solutions they need to thrive,” said Senator Heidi Heitkamp. The North Dakota Senator stated that the outreach and announcements for more outreach to Native Youth… “is so needed as it shows a federal commitment to help Native children grow and succeed, and that’s good for all of us.”
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault II shared his comments on the conference which he felt was a great success.
“I will say today was a huge success for Indian country. There have been a lot of mistrusts and broken promises that we have tended to dwell on but we rarely look to the future. I think that’s a message that we wanted to get across to the president when he came to Standing Rock. We wanted to tell him that we are here, we have a culture and that we are not going anywhere.”
“Today’s conference is a reassurance that we all are going to do what we have to do to make this a better place for our children.”
In addition to tribal leaders and representatives from among the 566 federally recognized tribes there were 40 Native Youth Ambassadors in attendance. Among them was 16-year-old Dahkota Franklin Kicking Bear Brown, (Wilton Miwok) who was named a 2013 Center for Native American Youth Champion for Change.
During the conference a program produced by MTV highlighted the efforts of Brown who created Native NERDS a successful non-profit dedicated to helping Native students graduate and go to college. After the conference Brown reflected on his participation.
“Being named an Ambassador of the 2014 White House Tribal Nations Conference was my biggest honor!
I met 40 other smart, funny, caring, dedicated youth that all have a vision of what our future should be and are working to make it happen,” he said.
“Being able to hear our President speak with compassion about our education and wanting to hear our voices and all our obstacles made me hopeful about the 2015 Tribal Youth Conference he is hosting. I pray all of us, as Ambassadors, can return to continue sharing our voices! I think I should add, for the White House to pair with MTV and have our own stories told was the coolest thing ever! We all loved them and think they should be a huge part of the 2015 Gen I Youth Conference because there are so many more stories to share and voices to be heard. We are the 7th Generation and Proud to be Ambassadors of Gen I!”