Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo
First Lady Michelle Obama.

First Lady on Challenges Facing Native Youth: ‘We Own This’


First Lady Michelle Obama recalled her and her husband’s historic trip to Indian country in 2014 before making bold statements in regards to the current state of Indian country at the Generation Indigenous Native Youth Challenge (Gen-I) convening on April 8.

Throughout her speech, the First Lady acknowledged historical events that have left a lasting effect on tribal communities throughout Turtle Island from forced removal, the boarding school era, and “Civilization Regulations” – “regulations that outlawed Indian religions, ceremonies and practices – so we literally made their culture illegal.”

“So given this history, we shouldn’t be surprised at the challenges that kids in Indian country are facing today. And we should never forget that we played a role in this. Make no mistake about it – we own this,” she said.

Michelle opened her remarks sharing personal experiences from last June’s visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, where her and her husband met with a select group of Native youth who were waiting to share their stories with the President and First Lady.

RELATED: Obama Reaffirms Commitment to Indian Country in Historic Visit

Michelle recalled getting a glimpse at “the challenges” Native youth are facing and “the landscape of their lives.”

Some of those challenges engrained in Michelle’s memory were the issues of foster care, substance abuse at home, homeless youth, and not having the proper education to have a fighting chance in college. The First Lady shared a story about two Native girls reciting the names of those in their freshman class who had committed suicide. That number was four or five of 70. The First Lady paused to let that number sink in with those in attendance.

Despite the hardships these students shared and faced, Michelle remembered none of them had given up.

“But somehow – and this is what truly blew us away – somehow, in the face of all this hardship and all these tragedies, these kids haven’t given up. They are still fighting to find a way forward, for themselves and for their community.”

The First Lady used these stories from that historic visit to show why programs like Gen-I are a necessity for Indian country and the United States as a whole. Michelle made it very clear for those in attendance at the convening that many of these issues facing American Indian families today didn’t just happen overnight.

“You see, we need to be very clear about where the challenges in this community first started,” the First Lady said. “Folks in Indian country didn’t just wake up one day with addiction problems. Poverty and violence didn’t just randomly happen to this community. These issues are the result of a long history of systematic discrimination and abuse.”

The Gen-I Challenge is a program that President Obama’s administration launched on February 12. The Challenge is one of the key parts to establishing the National Native Youth Network while providing Native youth “with an opportunity to use various digital platforms to tell their stories and share the positive contributions they are making in their communities,” according to a National Congress of American Indians press release as reported by ICTMN in February.

RELATED: The White House Aims for Change With Gen-I Native Youth Challenge

The program is meant to break down barriers standing between Native youth and their opportunity to succeed as Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a video recalling her visit to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa and Gila River Indian communities kicking off the Gen-I tour.

During the Gen-I convening last week, Michelle made it a point to say investing a million here and a million there was not going to resolve the problems or make a significant impact. What is needed for true nation building, she said, would be fresh thinking and a massive infusion of resources over generations. The First Lady noted how even the smallest opportunity can make a huge difference for Native youth. She shared a story about how her and President Obama invited the Native youth they met at Standing Rock to the White House in November and as the youth were saying their goodbyes, one young woman told the president the visit saved her life.

“And given the odds these kids face, I don’t think she was exaggerating. So If we take a chance on these young people, I guarantee you that we will save lives,” the First Lady said. “I guarantee it.”

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