WASHINGTON – “As a young person I was shy and I didn’t find my voice until I went to law school,” Kim Teehee, President Barack Obama’s Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs, told about two dozen Native American students attending the annual UNITY mid-year conference in Washington, D.C.
UNITY stands for United National Indian Tribal Youth, Inc. The national nonprofit organization, founded in 1976 and headquartered in Oklahoma City, promotes personal development, citizenship and leadership among Native American youth.
About 20 students and advisors were invited to visit with Teehee, who is Cherokee, and Jodi Archambault Gillette, who is Standing Rock Sioux and the deputy associate director of Intergovernmental Affairs, last week after record setting snowfall brought Washington to a near standstill. Both shared how their life experiences led to appointments as the first two Native Americans to work as high-level advisors. The group met just a few hundred yards away from the White House at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
More than 70 students and their advisors signed up to attend the conference, but when snow started falling and wouldn’t stop, nearly two-thirds of the group including speakers changed their plans due mainly to cancelled or postponed flights. Student leaders who made it moved forward with their agenda to discuss issues affecting Native American youth. The session with Gillette and Teehee proved to be a highlight. Both have been involved with UNITY.
Gillette, a Dartmouth graduate, argues against those who say Indian reservations are not the best place to raise children. Gillette said growing up on the Standing Rock Reservation allowed her to appreciate who she is and where she came from. She challenged students to learn from their experiences whether good or bad. “Even though things may not be in place for you, every time you get an opportunity from the outside that is challenging, that’s a time for you to grow. You have a purpose. It might have been part of someone’s prayer for you or someone’s wish.”
Students attending the conference came from various Indian communities including the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts, Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, Mashantucket Pequot in Connecticut, Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, Tule River Indian Tribe in California and the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona.
“What can we do to prepare ourselves for positions like yours,” asked Victor Fuentes, Muscogee Creek, 22, co-president of the National UNITY Council and a student at Sacramento City College.
“Find your passion. Surround yourself with people who are like-minded. It’s important to find people who can cheer you on and support you. I’m fortunate I worked for people like (Cherokee) Chief Wilma Mankiller who allowed me to thrive, and I had parents who taught me to have a strong work ethic. Look for people who know how to pick themselves up by the bootstraps. Watch (how you live) your personal lives and (how you manage your) personal finances,” said Teehee, a graduate of the University of Iowa Law School, who alluded that White House appointees must endure extensive background checks.
Another student asked what young people should do if they don’t have two parents at home or no parental support. Gillette encouraged students to look to their extended families and people in the Indian communities who care about young people. Teehee agreed. “(Growing up) I relied heavily on groups like the Cherokee Youth Council and UNITY. We didn’t go on big trips (such as visiting Washington). UNITY has grown. I remember meeting JR Cook, UNITY’s founder. It’s important to find a mentor or counselor.”
Both talked about the open door Indian country has to the White House, including its youth. Gillette encouraged student leaders to think about solutions when they want to discuss challenges they face in Indian communities.
Students say they were inspired. “They set the bar high but we can break the bar and we can set it higher for the next generation,” Fuentes said.
“I think it was amazing to meet with them. They set the standard. It was good to be motivated by them to dream big. If they can do something this big I can do something in any capacity whether it be in the arts or something else. It’s good to have this insight at the national scene,” said J’Shon Lee, 21, White Mountain Apache, also a UNITY co-president and a student at Arizona State University.
Aside from the session at the White House complex, student leaders helped set the agenda for the national UNITY conference to be held in July in San Diego. Among the top issues they’d like to address – substance abuse, family life and economic development. The number one issue? Spirituality.
“If we can fix our spirituality, we can fix whatever is overcoming us,” Fuentes said.
Lee said economic development has not been on the group’s list in recent memory. “We recognize that Indian country is also at an economic standstill and we realize (one day) we’ll have to oversee tribal enterprises so we need to look at policy and infrastructure.”
Suicide has been among the top 10 issues in past years but this year it was left out. “We believe if we can adequately address our spirituality, family life and substance abuse then suicide will go away,” Lee said.
A resolution has been drafted and will be presented at the National UNITY Conference for youth councils to celebrate a “UNITY Day” with activities that address substance abuse and healthy alternatives.