Native youth lead a ReZpect Our Water rally at the White House on August 5, 2016. Photo by Indianz.Com / Available for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License
Despite facing daunting challenges, Native youth are taking control of their destinies and giving each other hope, according to a new report released as the nation transitions to a new president.
Galvanized by the Generation Indigenous initiative and, more recently, the #NoDAPL movement, Native youth are sensing opportunity in this time of change. They are as focused as ever on preserving their languages and cultures and supporting their peers in communities across the United States.
"As the Seventh Generation moves forward to bring about change, we need the federal government to honor our treaties, guarantee our sovereignty, provide opportunities for education and economic development, and — most important — respect our abilities to decide how best to move our tribal communities forward," Cierra Little Water Fields, a young citizen of the Cherokee Nation, writes in the first-ever State of Native Youth report.
The report was released by the Center for Native American Youth on Wednesday. The groundbreaking non-profit's efforts have helped draw unprecedented attention to the issues facing American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian youth, who are often overlooked at the national level.
“Native American youth face some of the most unique and daunting challenges of any population in this country,” said Erik Stegman, a citizen of the Carry the Kettle First Nation who serves as the organization's executive director. “But, they are also drawing on the strength of their cultures to develop positive actions and initiatives to tackle these challenges and inspire other Native youth."
Shortly before the November 8 election, the organization released an open letter written by Native youth leaders. They asked the next president -- an unknown at the time -- to maintain the commitments they saw during the Obama administration.
Trump secured a historic and surprise victory on that night yet he hasn't said anything about Native youth, or about any Native issues for that matter, as he creates his new team. But once he takes office on January 20, 2017, his actions will have a direct impact on millions of young lives in tribal communities.
Key among the concerns is the ongoing crisis in North Dakota. Young members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have been instrumental in turning the #NoDAPL struggle into an international cause.
"What happens at Standing Rock will have major implications, and youth are paying particularly close attention," the report states. "Standing Rock has become a symbol that represents the many other fights and struggles like it across the country."
Protecting sacred sites, burial grounds and water resources have been the rallying calls of the effort to keep the Dakota Access Pipeline away from the lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Those issues rank among the top priorities of Native youth, according to the report.
The wealthy backers of the $3.8 billion project say they have laid pipe along almost the entire length of the 1,172-mile route. But, as a result of the concerns raised by Native youth and the tribe, a key segment remains on hold pending further review by the U.S. Army Corps of
The agency has yet to grant an easement for Dakota Access to drill under the Missouri River on public land less than mile from the northern border of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. That area is home to the #NoDAPL encampment, where young leaders like Eryn Wise of the International Indigenous Youth Council have been living and working for months in hopes of stopping the pipeline.
"Our prayers have gotten so much more impactful," Wise, who is from the Jicarilla
Apache Nation and Laguna Pueblo, said at a November 16 forum in Washington, D.C., a day after she helped lead a massive #NoDAPL march to the White House.
Beyond the pipeline, Native youth are also focused on health and wellness. Trump's new administration will play a big role on that front once he nominates someone to run the Indian Health Service, which in recent years has taken a greater role in addressing the high rates of suicide among young tribal citizens.
So far Trump has signaled big changes that will have a major impact on those efforts. He plans to nominate Rep. Tom Price (R-Georgia) to run the Department of Health and Human Services, the parent agency of the IHS.
Price, like many other Republicans, has called for a full-scale repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the landmark law that permanently reauthorized the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.
But neither the Congressman nor Trump have said what they will do to replace the programs affected by the IHCIA or how they will address funding for the IHS.
"IHS remains a discretionary program, historically underfunded by Congress," the CNAY report states.
The incoming Trump administration will also affect other Native youth priorities like protecting the Indian Child Welfare Act. Whoever the new president picks to run the Bureau of Indian Affairs will be charged with enforcing a new rule that requires state courts and state agencies to ensure they are following the 1978 law by keeping Native children connected to their communities. The rule takes effect December 12 and it's unlikely that Trump could overturn it.
Other Native youth priorities, like juvenile justice reform, fall under the purview of the Department of Justice. Trump plans to nominate Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) as his Attorney General but the lawmaker does not have much of a record or interest in Indian issues.
Finally, education remains high on the Native youth agenda. Most Native youth attend public schools and Trump plans to nominate Betsy DeVos to run the Department of Education.
DeVos has been a strong advocate of school choice, in which funds from the public school system are funneled to other institutions, often in the private sector. Some Republicans even want to open the Bureau of Indian Education, which is run by the BIA, to the same type of program in hopes of improving achievement levels among Native youth. Historically, they have fallen behind their peers on standardized tests and in high school graduation rates.
The National Indian Education
Association and Democrats strongly oppose the idea and while Native youth didn't speak directly on the issue in the CNAY report, they say one of the best ways to improve academic performance is to recognize their unique heritages.
"Research shows that AIAN youth thrive in educational environments that honor their cultures and languages," the report states. "As a new administration takes office, we hope it will not only keep the last administration’s commitment to Native youth but build on the successes of these kinds of educational policies."
Retired Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), who founded the Center for Native American Youth with leftover campaign funds, will host Native youth leaders and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in Washington, D.C., on Thursday to discuss the report. The event, which takes place from 12pm - 1:30pm Eastern, will be streamed live.
"We are determined to make a positive impact on the many issues faced by Native American Youth.” Dorgan said. “From teen suicide prevention to education opportunity and much more we are working to improve the lives of these kids!”
Center for Native American Youth Report:
State of Native Youth 2016: Drawing Strength from Our Cultures (December 2016)