SEATTLE, Wash. - Almost 1,100 strong, they came to find a unifying goal, to enjoin the power of spirit to sustain them and to learn the skills to help develop a voice that will make them heard.
The power of the young women and men of UNITY, the United National Indian Tribal Youth Inc., was palpable during the national June conference in Seattle.
Whether gathered in hallways, seated in assembly, laughing during breaks or joined in a talking circle, the Native youth of the nation were there to make a difference.
"Native American youth today ... come up with so many good ideas and have the power to change a lot of things that are facing us," says Wilpita Bia, last year's co-president of UNITY.
"And most of all and most importantly, they have the power to change something within themselves so that then they can go forth and change their community and tribe."
A national network organization dedicated to promoting personal development, citizenship and leadership among Native American youth, UNITY draws representatives from 14 to 24, from all over the country, including Alaska. Eager, sincere, dedicated to a vision of self-improvement and unity among Indian nations, these young people come together once a year to gain knowledge and work hard to create a new paradigm in Indian country.
The five-day conference featured guest speakers such Fara, a Cree recording artist, and dozens of seminars and workshops led by social workers, business people and Natives from every walk of life. Topics varied widely and included Gates Millennium Scholarships, college admissions, identifying true values, thinking and speaking on your feet, health care trends in Native America, storytelling and even how to create a career in television in sessions from 8 a.m. to past 10 p.m., each day.
Some of the young people were attending their first national conference. Shy around the large number of their peers, they sat, quiet yet attentive, during interactive forums addressing the even larger issues they had come to discuss: alcohol and substance abuse, teen pregnancy, teen gangs and violence in Indian country, racial issues, HIV and AIDS, the environment, sovereignty and other equally enormous topics.
Some were youngsters on the fringe - just emerging from their personal journeys through hell with gangs or alcoholism or abuse. Some hung out, still flirting with pretended indifference and an "attitude," even in the face of the positive UNITY projects.
But by far the majority were the young people like Bia. Enthusiastic, perhaps serious beyond their years with all they had seen and heard, focused, dedicated and fun-loving, they volunteered to lead discussion groups, stood up and shared and encouraged others to share personal experiences and views.
"All of the youth, they come here with problems," says Bia, from the Din? Nation. "They come with issues. They come here with heavy hearts. UNITY uplifts them and gives them more faith and more inspiration. It gives them guidance, the feeling that they need to go home and say 'I can do this. I can make myself better so that I can help my family. I can help my community and I can help my people.
"It is true that we live in a really, really tight world. We're faced with all of these problems ... And when I hear those problems it breaks my heart. But I know where they are coming from. I was their age."
Hearing her words you would think Bia older than her 20 years. A member of UNITY since she was 14, she has served as representative-at-large, vice president and last year, as co-president with Leonard Kisto. She testified before Congress on the problems of teen pregnancy in Indian country. She represented UNITY and, tangentially, all Native American youth at conferences such as American Indian Prevention Initiative for alcohol and substance abuse.
Now that her years of office-holding for UNITY are behind her, she says she will direct her energy into school at Din? College and the youth council, Da'ah'k? halai, she founded on the reservation in Many Farms, Ariz.
Well spoken, direct, passionate and sincere, Bia does not hesitate to say she is a product of UNITY and proud of it.
UNITY was started in 1976 by J.R. Cook, a math teacher and basketball coach in Weatherford, Okla. Intent on becoming a coach with a major university, Cook says no doors opened for him until he started working with Upward Bound, an organization working with troubled ethnic youth.
"It was an eye opener, " he says. "I learned a great deal about tribes and had a special feeling for Indian youth and got very much involved. I saw, firsthand, a lot of the challenges, the negative peer pressure, the wasted talent ... the youth putting so much pressure on each other, almost more pressure to fail than to succeed.
"I knew the youth had talent, that they weren't participating in a lot of school activities in sports and music and everything."
With several people at the Southwest Indian Cultural Center, Cook bought a facility in downtown Weatherford to create a positive place for Indian youths to gather for recreation meetings. They applied for an Indian Education Grant and worked with youths in 10 Oklahoma schools. When the grant wasn't refunded, Cook went out on a limb and started UNITY with funds out of his own pocket.
From modest beginnings, with great heart and no money, UNITY has grown to a national youth organization with a full-time staff of six people and thousands of members in more than 200 affiliated youth councils from 32 states. Cook and the UNITY board of directors lobby for funding, UNITY youth fund-raise for their own chapters, and UNITY graduates, such as Mary Kim Titla, continue to contribute to the UNITY cause with their time and support.
"When I started, there were 67 people in a little, tiny youth conference in Oklahoma City," says Titla, a TV news reporter in Phoenix. "Now we're talking about getting a UNITY alumni group going."
As a board member of UNITY and one of the group's primary fund raisers, Titla encourages members and gives advice for fund raising wherever she goes.
But it is the young people who drive UNITY. Their willingness to stand up and face issues that make many adults want to turn tail and run is inspiring. They may be young, but they have the guts, the personal experience and the energy to do something about the issues they face.
In a issue forum on teen gangs and violence in Indian country, young people identified the causes of gangs and violence. Number one cause on their list was problems at home and absent role models, followed by peer pressure, boredom and a desire for luxuries.
By the end of the two-hour forum, the 63 youths attending that particular discussion had hammered out a list of potential actions they could take home to change the situation. Actions included outreach programs, programs promoting spirituality and creating gang squads from former gang members to go out into the communities to talk with gang members and help them make changes.
"It takes a man not to use a gun," says Christopher Beetso, an ex-gang member from Phoenix. "And it takes a true man or woman to get out (of a gang). It's b--- s--- that you can't get out. They don't know nothin' about gangs on the rez. They get it all from the movies. They live off TV. All the gangs names are out of the movies."
A Navajo member, Beetso says that what kids in gangs need is a positive role model. Now that he is out, he says he is looked up to by a lot of Indian youth still on the streets.
"They need someone who's been there," he says.
Although he says it is a good thing that UNITY is spending more time addressing such problems, Beetso also says UNITY should start reaching out and accepting youth that are much younger, before they get too involved in gangs.
But the purpose of UNITY is to provide role models and empowerment to young people like Beetso, who can go home to the rez or to the cities and put their ideas into action, to the best of their abilities.
"It starts with yourself making the commitment to do what you want to do and teaching that to your family and then going out into the community," says Bia. "With the community going towards the tribe, enforcing the tribe to do certain good things for the people, setting up programs and services that are needed. And then with the tribe connecting up to all the other tribes. Then all together working together. That's one way of doing it.
"We're always referring to the circle of life. Well UNITY is kind of like a circle. And UNITY's going to be here forever."