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For 19-year-old Tia Butler, attending this year’s White House Tribal Youth Forum in Washington D.C. means celebrating the hard work her ancestors did to make that trip, and today’s reality, possible.
Butler’s grandfather, Robert Tom, helped the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians regain federal recognition nearly five decades ago.
“It's Native American Heritage Month, and not only am I attending the White House Tribal Youth Forum, but it's also a time where we celebrate the restoration of our tribe,” Butler said.
In 1977, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians became the second formerly terminated tribe in the nation to regain federal recognition through the 1977 Siletz Restoration Act. Among tribes terminated in Oregon, the Siletz were the first to regain federal recognition.
“He was fighting there in D.C. and I think that is something that is really important to be standing in D.C. now, and to think of everything that everyone has done so that we could be standing as Siletz natives today,” Butler said.
Building youth power
Butler was one of about a dozen Indigenous youth leaders from the Pacific Northwest who attended the annual White House Tribal Youth Forum. The goal: Create space for youth to engage administration officials on key issues impacting their communities – mental health, climate resistance, culture revitalization, suicide prevention, Indian Child Welfare and more.
“When Native youth come to the table, we don't only come to talk about the issues, but we come with a solution to the problem,” said Jonathan J. Arakawa, Male Co-President on the National UNITY Council Executive Committee. “I have no doubt in my mind that when we bring the brain trust of Indian country together, we're going to bring the solutions that are needed.”
Arakawa, 24, Lower Elwha Klallam citizen and language teacher, says he is grateful that the White House, together with Center for Native American Youth at The Aspen Institute (CNAY) and United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY), came together to create this opportunity for Indigenous youth to provide consultation and input on global issues impacting their communities.
Attendees had the opportunity to sit across from and have face-to-face conversations with federal officials who oversee everything from the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of the Interior, Department of Education and more. Discussions included policies to support mental health in tribal communities, tribal-led projects focused on sustainable energy and climate resiliency and policies to address substance abuse, among other things.
“We brought together nearly 150 Native American youth from throughout the United States, and a cohort of Indigenous youth from the global south, including Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and more,” said Nikki Santos, Executive Director for CNAY. “So we're gathered here today to really build youth power, to have them sit at the table with federal officials and to talk about a future that they want to see on their terms.”
The annual gathering ignited out of the Obama administration’s 2014 Generation Indigenous initiative. A year later, the White House Tribal Youth Gathering was born. Although the Trump administration discontinued the gathering, President Biden brought it back virtually in 2020 and in-person for the past two years.
This year marks the fifth Indigenous youth forum hosted by the White House.
As the Biden-Harris administration upholds its commitment to tribal nations, Arakawa said it will be the responsibility of the next administration to carry that work forward.
“This will also send a clear message to the Congress to act responsibly, and to pay attention to what Native youth have to say, because when we go in there, our Native youth are going to be unapologetic, our Native youth will be fierce, and Native youth will lead the charge if nobody else will,” Arakawa said.
‘The changemakers of Indian Country’
Organizers say Indigenous youth are ready to address the issues most impactful to their communities, and events like this help make it all happen.
“They want to be able to speak their voices, they want to be heard,” Mary Kim Titla, Executive Director for UNITY said. “That's what this is all about to make sure our Native youth are heard, and that they're also getting the same respect that a lot of our tribal leaders are because they're going to take those positions in the future. Many of them, in their own right, are already tribal leaders.”
Danielle Frank, 20, Native youth coordinator at Native Americans in Philanthropy, says she was one of the only people from her community to attend last year’s event at the White House.
The Hupa and Yurok youth leader knew she wanted to return. This time, she wanted to bring more people from her community.
“To be invited into a space like this and bring other youth into a space like this, it gives me a lot of hope and inspiration for things that I can do in the future,” Frank said. “It's very rewarding to step into my career and be able to just provide opportunities like this for other youth and show them how important they actually are, how amazing they are and how much people care about them and want to listen to them.”
Ruby King, 20, Karuk and Yurok, is one of the people Frank brought with her. King said she grew up being told she had a seat at the table, but never felt the truth behind those words until now.
“It's kind of hard to envision when you're home and you don't see your communities having that seat at that table necessarily,” King said. “Being here and actually seeing that we do have a seat at that table, it's like, ‘How can I get my sisters here? How can I get other youth in my communities here? I have a seat at the table now, who else can I bring with me?’”
As the nearly 150 Indigenous youth leaders return home, they take with them the fire and drive to continue the fight for justice and healing of Indigenous communities.
“Native youth are the changemakers of Indian Country, and we're making that path toward restitution, reconciliation and repatriation for our communities,” Arakawa said.
Lead image: Youth leaders from the Pacific Northwest attended the annual White House Tribal Youth Forum held in Washington D.C. on Nov. 6, 2023. From left to right: Jonathan J. Arakawa, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe; Mazie Countryman, Northern Arapaho/Navajo/Eastern Shoshone; Ruby King, Karuk/Yurok; Danielle Frank, Hupa/Yurok; Haley Garreau, Lummi; Kaiser Moses, Tulalip; Keyondra Horne, Tulalip. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)