The ‘Super Bowl of Native youth gatherings’ kicks off in sunny Florida

Aliyah Chavez

The largest tribal youth organization, commonly known as UNITY, will host their annual conference this weekend in Florida.

More than 2,000 Native youth from across Indian Country have packed their bags and arrived in Orlando. They will attend United National Indian Tribal Youth organization’s signature event, their annual conference, for the next five days. Their days will be packed with programming including workshops, keynote speeches, a college and career expo, cultural night, talent show and banquet, among other events.

Conference attendees consist of approximately 275 youth councils, which are sponsored by various tribal nations, schools and urban centers. They hail from 34 states plus an international cohort of Indigenous students who traveled from Taiwan. 

Kaia Jay, Diné, is a rising senior at Whitehorse High School in Utah. She, along with seven other students and three chaperones from her community, will be enjoying the sunshine state. This is her second conference with the youth organization.

Their journey began on Tuesday when they drove more than four hours from Utah to New Mexico, before hopping on a flight to Florida.

Jay, an aspiring geneticist, says it will all be worth it. One of her favorite parts of the conference are the keynote speakers. This year’s list includes many of Indian Country’s finest, such as John Herrington, a Chicasaw astronaut who was the first Native American to fly into space.

“I love the keynote speakers because it’s amazing to see that Indigenous people are so successful,” Jay said. “They are someone that I can look up to as a youth.”

Another conference highlight includes many youth-led events. The workshops and events are developed using the organization’s core values of social, spiritual, physical and mental development for its members. They will offer more breakout sessions and workshops this year compared to previous years. 

(Photo by UNITY | Twitter)

SuSun Fisher, 20, is a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and serves as the youth organization’s co-president. She became involved in the organization after attending her first conference in 2014 where she felt inspired to create her own youth council right after.

“I think the best part of the conference is interacting and meeting so many youth from all over the country,” Fisher said. “It makes you feel empowered to make changes within your community.”

Fisher is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in tribal governance and administration at Salish Kootenai College in Montana.

UNITY Executive Director, Mary Kim Titla, San Carlos Apache, said that many of the organization’s alumni have gone on to pursue degrees in higher education and have since taken leadership roles in their community.

“The end goal is that we’re building up youth so that they can feel empowered and inspired to do good things in their lives and communities,” Titla said.

One of those alumni is Diné social entrepreneur, Nataanii Hatathlie. He has been involved in the 43-year-old organization since 2009.

“It amazes me that time has gone by so fast,” said the 25-year-old. “During that time, I completed high school, went to college and came back home to my community.”

As a youth member of the organization, Hatathlie served as a youth member of the organization as an executive committee member and co-president. He now has a new role as a peer trainer for the organization’s newest initiative: the Peer Guides Program.

“I am blessed and honored that UNITY asked me to continue to be involved in a different capacity as a peer trainer,” he said.

Hatathlie is co-leading the program alongside Leslie Locklear, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. Their goal is to elevate Native voices in the national dialogue of restorative justice education. During the conference, 12 youth will serve as peer guides and will assist Hatathlie and Locklear in designing the program's curriculum amongst other things.

This year’s conference is themed: “You Belong: Home is Here.” It aims to bring awareness to issues affecting foster care youth. There is a cohort of foster care youth who are in attendance, as well.

The tribal youth organization is headquartered in Mesa, Arizona, and is the only Native youth council network in the country. Their goal consists of “inspiring hope, changing lives.”

One day, they hope to have a youth council within every Indigenous community around the country. For now, they will continue their work molding the future leaders of Indian Country... one UNITY conference at a time. 

You can follow posts for the conference using #UNITYFL2019. 

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Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is the Rowland and Pat Journalism Fellow at Indian Country Today and a reporter-producer. Her email is: Twitter: @aliyahjchavez

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