Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribal Tribune: Youth see White House support

First Lady Michelle Obama addresses the White House Tribal Youth Gathering in Washington, D.C. Photo by Shaida Tabrizi / Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribal Tribune

White House tells tribal youth: We’ve got your back
By Shaida Tabrizi, Reporter
Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribal Tribune

Tears in the Oval Office.

The story of President Barack Obama turning misty-eyed in the White House after his visits and deeply personal conversations with Native American youths have circulated through the media since his visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation last June. Far from rumor, Obama used his emotion as proof of his commitment to a goal and a tool for political change.

“We walked away shaken because some of these kids were carrying burdens no young person should ever have to carry. And it was heartbreaking,” Obama said at the White House Tribal Nations Conference on December 3, 2014.

On his return to the White House, Obama impressed upon his staff the importance of improving the lives of Native youth. “As I spoke, they knew I was serious because it’s not very often where I tear up in the Oval Office. I deal with a lot of bad stuff in this job," he said. "It is not very often where I get choked up, so they knew I was serious about this.”

In the past year, efforts to meet that goal have included the founding of Generation Indigenous (Gen-I), a national Native youth network connecting and supporting young people throughout all tribal nations. Members of that Gen-I movement met together on Thursday, July 9, 2015 at the first ever White House Tribal Youth Gathering (WHTYG) at the Renaissance Washington, D.C. Downtown Hotel.

Over 1,000 young people from 230 tribal nations came together at the gathering, filling the grand ballroom with the specific buzz of youthful anticipation. Many wore traditional regalia, in a readily visible representation of their culture, while others arrayed themselves in their best, all ready to listen and interact with the White House staff present.

The WHTYG is a collaboration between the White House and the United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) organization, and strides were taken to keep the young tribal delegates engaged. In one corner of the ballroom, a DJ played Native American music and pop from this century and the last, mixing all three on his soundboard as an ideal soundtrack to the underlying theme of connectedness at the gathering.

The emcee of WHTYG, Native Actress and Motivational Speaker Jeri Brunoe, got the crowd of teens to connect with each other as much as possible, through introductions, cooperative clapping and dancing exercises, as well as inspirational chanting.

“I commit to be my very best, today and everyday. I am a representative of my ancestors and my community and my peers,” Brunoe encouraged the youths to chant. “I will do the utmost to make them proud.”

The morning was spent listening to speeches and panel discussions, called ‘Fireside Chats’ à la Roosevelt, with influential figures in Washington, like Chief of Staff to the First Lady Tina Tchen, Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, Senator Heidi Heitkamp Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Muñoz, and Department of Justice Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Many of the speakers commended the Gen-I youth on their commitment to helping their tribes and advised them to write down at least three ideas and goals from the gathering to implement back home.

“Be proud of your traditions, your culture, your values. Be confident and the world will respond to you,” Secretary of the Interior Jewell said.

In addition, speakers encouraged the youth to take an even greater interest in state and nationwide politics as a way to make the most change.

“When I look at this gathering, I have nothing but hope for the future … we need your voices here in Washington, D.C.” Sen. Heitkamp said. “We’re investing in you because we think you’re on the tip of the spear of change.”

A poignant moment for the panelists and crowd came when the senator asked the audience how many thought they would still be living in Indian country when in their fifties, and how many though it would be different than it is now. Almost the entire audience raised their hands on both questions in a large demonstration of hope.

Representatives from UNITY played a large role in the WHTYG as well, describing the 46 year history of the organization and showing a video of many Gen-I groups in action around the country, including Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes’ Tribal Youth Council encouraging teamwork at the C-A Tribes’ R.E.Sp.E.C.T. Program’s recent summer fitness camp.

The president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), Brian Cladoosby highlighted the point of the gathering as an effort to prepare Native youth to one day take on more responsibility within their tribes and their country.

“I encourage you to be the leaders in your communities,” Cladoosby said.

Though lively and responsive throughout the entire morning session, the Native youth roared to a new level of enthusiasm when First Lady Michelle Obama took the stage for her keynote address. At a Gen-I event earlier this year, the First Lady called the need to support young tribal members in America a solemn obligation incurred by the nation.

Though smiling and friendly with the audience, the seriousness of her message to the youth came through as she chronicled the tragic history tribal youth struggle with daily. Yet, looking around the room, Mrs. Obama encouraged them to never feel alone, to maintain the connection with other Native young people they connected with at the gathering. She also voiced the support of herself and her husband.

“You have a President, and a First Lady, that has your back,” she said. “Remember one simple but very powerful truth: each one of your lives is sacred and precious. Each of you has something you are destined to do. You all have a role to play and we need you.”

After a morning of inspiration to become a strong force for change, the tribal youth were split into breakout sessions for increased personal time with White House staff and then back for a closing plenary session and a technology innovation session.

“It was inspiring,” C&A Tribes’ Youth Council President Christian Wassana said about the WHTYG. “Michelle Obama’s outlook on Native Americans and how much support they have for us, I liked that a lot. Because no other presidents have supported us like they have. He sees the generations that are coming up, they’re the ones that are going to be able to make change.”

For information about the WHTYG and UNITY, visit

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