After spending 10 days in Washington, D.C., touring the city and participating in a conference with approximately 1,800 other Native American youth, the 11 members of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s Youth Council have returned to the Kenai Peninsula with plans for the future.
Kami Wright, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s acting director of tribal government affairs, said she decided to revive the previously-existing but inactive Youth Council in April because of a presidential challenge.
“When the Generation Indigenous Youth Challenge was issued by (President Barrack Obama), I called all the kids who had been interested in the youth council,” Wright said. “They came in for a meeting, I told them about the project, and they were really stoked to possibly get a chance to travel to D.C. And I knew they wanted to be active in an after-school program, or just a program in their free time.”
In December 2014, President Barrack Obama issued the Generation Indigenous Youth Challenge, which required groups of Native youth to carry out a community service project.
Groups that undertook the challenge were invited to the first White House Tribal Youth Gathering (actually held at Washington D.C.’s Renaissance Washington Hotel) featuring a speech by First Lady Michelle Obama. After the White House gathering, the United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) Conference would also be held in D.C. The Kenaitze Youth Council intended to be at both events.
The Youth Council gave itself the name Gganiłchit Dena’ina — meaning “Stand Up, Dena’ina.” One early priority was choosing a service project for the Challenge. Wright presented the Council with several options for projects. Youth Council President Raven Willoya said they had trouble making a choice.
“The group couldn’t decide on just one,” Willoya said. They decided instead to do three service projects.
In preparation for the May start of the Tribe’s educational fishery, the Opening of the Net, the Youth Council picked up trash along Kenai’s Cannery Road. This was the first of three monthly trash pick-ups that have been held so far. In order to draw attention to the issue of local food security, the Youth Council also invited Tribe members to bring foods with locally-grown ingredients to the potluck that preceded the Opening of the Net and awarded those who did with vegetable plants. Finally, the council members prepared care packages for abused and neglected children relocated to foster homes through the Tribe’s Court Ordered Special Advocates (CASA) program.
“We talked about the struggles children face when they have to transition to a new home,” Wright said. “I think they really identify with that, and wanting to help the kids in that program.”
On July 6, the Youth Council began its trip. Wright said that although some Youth Council members had been to Washington, D.C. on an eighth grade class trip, most were visiting for the first time. These included the Council’s secretary, Ashley Segura.
“It was different, but not in a bad way,” Segura said. “I liked it. ... It was very fast-paced there. Everyone walks around, and the roads are busy. And there’s a lot more people.”
“A lot more variety of people as well,” added Willoya, another first-time D.C. visitor.
Wright, who went on the trip as the group’s chaperone, said that July 9 — the day of Michelle Obama’s speech — had a hectic beginning.
“We woke up at four, four-thirty that morning, out the door by five to commute the 45 minutes to the conference,” Wright said. “Got there at six.” Then, Wright said, the group “stood in line until 8 a.m. to get into the conference, because seating was first-come first-serve.”
Dylan Campos said he remembers D.C.’s high temperature and humidity.
“It was so hot, walking in our nice outfits and stuff,” Campos said. “We were all not in a good mood, tired.”
Campos said that when the group finally arrived at the hotel and joined the crowd waiting for the speech, the mood quickly changed.
“It was crazy,” Campos said. “When we walked in there were so many people in that room, and they were so happy and cheering and stuff. The energy was just incredible. It was awesome.”
Jessica Segura said the first lady’s speech was a highlight of the trip for her.
“She talked about how our people haven’t been treated very well,” Jessica Segura said. “The part I liked about her speech was when she said that we have a first lady and a president that have our back. That was nice.”
Willoya said that to her, the conference and the speech represented an overdue acknowledgement.
“I think one of the main things was that they recognized that we have had a bad past with each other,” Willoya said.
As Michelle Obama was mingling with the crowd following the speech, Jessica Segura said she took an opportunity to get a hug with the first lady.
“I just pushed my way through,” Jessica Segura said, explaining how she had approached the first lady through the crowd.
Following the speech, the attendees separated into smaller groups for educational talks. Willoya said she participated in a discussion on drug and alcohol abuse.
“There was a lot of talk about (youth drug and alcohol) treatment centers, and Kenai doesn’t have a treatment center,” Willoya said. “I thought it was interesting, the ways that they were trying to resolve issues like that without having a treatment center. There weren’t a lot of successful ways beside talking circles.”
Wright said Kenai’s closest in-house Native youth drug and alcohol facility is in Anchorage.
During the following four days of the UNITY Conference, members of the Youth Council found themselves in discussions about many other problems facing Native youth. The four members interviewed said one prominent subject was suicide prevention.
Ashley Segura recalled a speech by Montana judge and Crow tribal member Leroy Not Afraid, whose daughter Zoe killed herself in 2014 at age 11.
“It had me almost crying at times,” Ashley Segura said. “What really got to me was that she (Zoe Not Afraid) had a twin sister. When I saw her, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’”
Ashley Segura also recalled a session on education, during which she discovered she was the only person present to come from a school without a program dedicated to Native culture and history.
“Their schools all require them to learn the language, or some kind of class with their culture,” Ashley Segura, a Kenai Central High School student said. “They were all talking about it, and I was like, ‘I don’t really have a (Native) history class.’”
According to UNITY’s website, this year’s youth conference was the largest in its 39-year history, with 1,800 attendees. Although they came from 247 tribes in 48 states, Willoya said the feeling among the participants was far from divided.
“I feel everybody in Indian Country looks at each other as equals,” said Willoya. “We share the same values, and for the most part the same traditions, so it’s just like one huge family.”
After touring the museums and monuments of the capital, the Kenaitze Youth Council returned to Kenai on July 16.
The Youth Council is continuing its monthly trash pick-ups, along with the care packages for the CASA program. In the coming months, Wright said the Council wants to become officially affiliated with UNITY, which requires writing a Council constitution. Willoya said the council hopes to have a constitution completed by September, and that other projects the Council is considering include a cultural education program.
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.