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Kolby KickingWoman
Indian Country Today

In a year ravaged by a global pandemic, the Center for Native American Youth has aptly named their 2020 State of Native Youth report, “Native Youth Are Medicine.”

Released annually during Native American Heritage Month, the report shines a light on the priorities of Native youth and the issues, such as climate change and social justice, that they are already taking the lead on.

For the first time in the brief history of the report, Native youth authored each chapter and CNAY executive director Nikki Pitre, Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said putting it all together was a “labor of love.”

"This report focuses on the single truth, Native youth are medicine,” she said during a virtual panel last week celebrating its release. “We have seen Native youth lead and carry us in incredible ways."

The organization was founded by former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan and is a nonprofit dedicated to addressing issues and improving the welfare of Native youth 24 years old and younger.

During his introduction, Dorgan said he worked on a number of Indian Country issues while in Congress and that he particularly wanted to continue the work shining the spotlight on Native youth after his retirement.

He is especially delighted with the continued publication of the State of Native Youth report.

“I am so proud and so pleased to have created an organization that has produced this annual report as we do each year,” Dorgan said. “The State of Native Youth is a wonderful report, so we can talk a little about it, but I think this is the best report ever.”

Similar to years past, the cover art is also a contribution from a Native youth. Fitting with the theme of the report, Tvli Birdshead, Cheyenne Arapaho, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Oglala, titled the illustration “Sweet Medicine Child.”

In the description of the piece, Birdshead writes the artwork “depicts a Two-Spirited boy wandering around campsites at his Sundance, connecting with the land, and brings a flower to show his relatives.”

Birdshead used his own life experiences in the inspiration for the artwork and that it holds a lot of deeper meaning.

“I had wanted to create that imagery and I think even just with the halo, because from my perspective, a lot of people don't view our way of life as a religion,” Birdshead said. “So by adding that halo, it kind of shows other people that our way of life and how we live, just is a part of that daily religion, and just kind of our beliefs.”

The bulk of the 90-minute panel discussed the contents of the report in greater detail. Kendra Becenti, Navajo, wrote multiple chapters including one on youth engagement.

Coming out of the 2020 election, she said that Native youth stepped up in organizing efforts to ensure that Native communities were represented and that she is looking forward to a future where Native youth will have a seat at decision making tables.

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“This makes me incredibly hopeful and excited for the future because I really believe that Indigenous youth are going to continue to change the national narrative about Indigenous people, about our communities,” Becenti said. “They're gonna continue to shift stereotypes.”

However, Native youth can not fulfill their potential when they face higher rates of incarceration than their white counterparts. Isabel Coronado, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, discussed justice reform and systems that are failing Native youth.

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“I just don't find it acceptable that we're locking up our youth. We need to be investing in education, substance abuse, public health, mental health, all those things that help to prevent trauma and that generational trauma that happens a lot of times in incarceration,” Coronado said. “None of our youth are disposable, no matter their past, all of us are important in continuing this movement and empowerment.”

In regards to education, one way for Native communities to help their youth reach their potential is quite simple Sam Schimmel, Siberian Yupik and Kenaitze Indian, said: Find people that look like Native youth to teach them.

He recalled a story from a former high school math teacher who berated students for being absent due to traditional subsistence hunting and fishing practices. Schimmel said it forced students to choose between a western education and traditional ways of life.

“That simply doesn't work when we have place-based education that also teaches technical skills,” he said. “Communities are better, tribal schools are good things for Native communities.”

Schimmel continued to say that community support and the indigenization of the education system will help Native youth in the long run.

Ultimately, Native youth will continue to be a force to be reckoned with and aren’t going anywhere. Autumn Adams, Yakama, said the Native youth will continue to lead, be heard and have a seat at the table when it comes to issues that affect them.

“There shouldn't be anything written for us, without us,” Adams said. “I mean, who else is better to inform those decisions and those who have to live through the ramifications of them?”

Playback of the panel discussion on the report’s release can be watched here and the full report can be downloaded here.

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Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports for the Washington Bureau. For hot sports takes and too many Lakers tweets, follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email -

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