Hannah Corbett sat at a table of her peers. Each table in the room was asked to answer a series of questions about language revitalization. Corbett and the six others at her table were brainstorming what tools or resources were needed in their communities.
Corbett, Cow Creek Tribe, was writing down the answers on a large sheet of paper with a purple marker.
“Compensation for elders who educate.”
“Relevant curriculum and accurate teachings of history.”
“Language classes at the college level.”
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This was just one of many issues the more than 100 young people from across the country were discussing at the White House Tribal Youth Summit. The single-day event featured a number of speakers and topics, from food sovereignty to mental health.
The White House worked with the Center for Native American Youth and the United National Indian Tribal Youth to select the participants who were 14 to 24 years old. This is the first in-person forum since 2016. The forum was started under the Obama administration and went dark during the Trump administration.
Oliver Tyrrell, Yup’ik, a 16-year-old from Anchorage, Alaska, is an advocate for mental health services especially for the LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit community.
“Native Americans and Alaska Natives are already the highest rates for suicide, more than any other rates in the whole United States and we are also the least treated amount of people too,” Tyrrell said. “I talked about mental health issues within the Indigenous communities, especially leaning towards, Indigenous queer youth. I've talked a lot about how being accepted and connected to your cultures can lower the suicide rates by 60 percent at times.”
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This was one of the issues that Tyrrell was able to share with his peers at the forum.
Growing up in the largest city in Alaska, Tyrrell acknowledges he has more access to mental health services compared to other Alaska Native youth who live in more rural areas of the state. Despite this, his high school just recently got a counselor who was qualified to provide services.
“Unfortunately, many high schools in Alaska don't have counselors. They may have academic advisors, but they aren't qualified for mental health care,” Tyrrell said. “I have visited many rural villages, such as Buckland and many other places, and they didn't have a counselor at their school. If they did, it was only one person and only one person could only do so much, unfortunately.”
Maria Walker, White Mountain Apache, is currently focused on COVID-19. The 23-year-old previously was helping with vaccine research in her community. She was part of a team that monitored 50 participants, 25 got the Pfizer booster while the other 25 got a placebo. The team would submit their findings to the Food and Drug Administration who oversees the COVID-19 vaccines.
“We had a lot of deaths and those deaths were mostly elders,” Walker said. “Eighty percent of the death toll on our reservation were elders. One of them included one of our medicine men. So, it really affected my tribe very much.”
Walker was selected as one of the Center for Native American Youth’s Champions for Change for her work as a research coordinator for her nation.
“I just graduated and then COVID happened,” she said. “It gave me a whole different perspective in the medical field, being in the hospital too, because I do have a job in the hospital. Seeing people pass from COVID, having people do Code Blues from COVID, trying to resuscitate them. It was such a different experience. A lot of nurses would tell me, 'Oh my gosh, Maria, you're seeing so much more than I ever did in my first year after graduating.'”
The Arizona State University graduate continues to work in her community.
She is helping to document the mental and physical effects that COVID has had on people in her community. She checks in monthly with participants on how the respiratory illness has or continues to impact their lifestyle.
“Mental health is really being affected post COVID,” she said. “They have no motivation and they get tired more easily. And that ties in with mental health. So we see a lot of that on our reservation.”
Hannah Corbett, Cow Creek Tribe, grew up in southern California and attends Sacramento State. The 22-year-old is passionate about food sovereignty.
“I grew up seeing my relatives face obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” Corbett said. “Finding ways to connect with our food where it comes from and how it grows is super important. It can allow us to better connect with our communities and allow us to heal in our own ways.”
She didn’t have access to programming around food sovereignty or Indigenous foods growing up. Corbett is starting to see them become more prevalent in her area and is excited to see it grow.
“One thing that I want to do is have a food demonstration, do some community education about why nutrition and food is important,” she said.
During the forum, United States Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh talked about how the government agency is working toward removing red tape that keeps communities from being able to feed their students traditional foods through the National School Lunch Program.
“I'm super happy about the programs that are coming out now to support indigenous foods and traditions,” Corbett said.
Later this month the White House will be hosting the first in-person Tribal Nations Summit for the first time since 2016.
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