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UNITY conference creating future Native leaders

OKLAHOMA CITY - The Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City is usually known as the home for the city's Red Earth Festival. But this summer, it was also home for the annual UNITY conference July 6 - 10, where up to 1,400 Native youth ranging in age from 14 - 24 learned how to be the leaders of the future and met other young people from Native communities throughout North America.

''UNITY helps youth look at and identify their resources to how they can apply them in their daily lives or their future, to be successful and to be motivated in a way that you can help your community and yourself,'' said Joshua Tso, an 18-year-old Navajo from Phoenix, Ariz., and vice president of the National UNITY Council Executive Committee.

Founded in 1976, UNITY - an acronym for United National Indian Tribal Youth - was created as a way to develop Native youth in all aspects of life. These include developing physical, mental, spiritual and social well-being. Throughout the contiguous United States, Canada and Alaska, several reservations and tribal communities have youth councils that are a part of UNITY and attend these national conferences that feature seminars, all-youth panel discussions and motivational speakers.

''One thing they do is to teach you a step-by-step process on how to organize and fix community problems,'' said Latisha Smith, a 17-year-old Navajo from Albuquerque, N.M. ''That's really good, because a lot of people don't know how or don't even know where to start. They teach you step-by-step things that you can do to overcome any of those problems you may have in the community.''

One of the general sessions July 8 included a panel discussion on teenage dating and sexuality. This session featured Native youth with frank talk on issues such as showing respect for yourself and others, teenage relationships, issues of drugs and alcohol, and stressing communication with partners.

The sessions and workshops included a wide variety of subjects. These ranged from talks on funding a college education to crystal methamphetamine and HIV awareness. There were also sessions formed around two of UNITY's major initiatives: ''Celebrating Native Health'' and ''Strengthening Native Families.''

A session attended by Indian Country Today focused on the importance of ceremony and ritual in family lives. Titled ''Strengthening the Family Unit: The Healing Power of Ritual, Customs and Tradition,'' Odawa Potawatomi tribal member Bea Shawanda of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, taught that ceremonies teach stability, security and a strong sense of belonging for family members from birth through adulthood.

''There's no excuse to not know about the power of ritual, custom and tradition,'' Shawanda said.

This year's featured speakers included motivational speaker Howard Rainer, Taos Pueblo/Creek Nation; U.S. Congressman and Chickasaw Nation member Tom Cole, R-Okla.; original Freedom Writer Manuel Scott; Kiowa pow wow master of ceremonies Sammy ''Tonekei'' White; Creek/Seminole/Cherokee artist and AIDS advocate Lisa Tiger; and Salteaux and Ojibwa actor Adam Beach, who performed in the multimedia show Kigeet, written by his father, Christopher Beach.

''Howard Rainer really got you off your feet and your mind,'' Tso said. ''You were ready to go out and do something - motivated to help your community. I also liked Manuel Scott. He was one of the original Freedom Writers. He told his story. He did this one bit about a dream. He had you write it down, and write the steps to get to your dream.''

In addition to meeting new friends and having a memorable experience, those at the UNITY conference want to take home the skills needed to be successful in their tribal communities. Smith said that one of the things that she will take from the conference is ''the knowledge that our guest speakers gave. They really make you rethink what you're doing in life, how you can change it and what you're going to bring back. They gave a lot of knowledge that I think I'll take back.''

Maya Torralba, Kiowa, contributed to this story.