Associated Press
President Barack Obama poses with Native America dancers during his visit to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation Friday, June 13, 2014, photo in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. It was this visit to Standing Rock that got the ball rolling for today's youth gathering in D.C.

White House Hosts Tribal Youth Gathering Today: Watch it Live

Vincent Schilling

We want to give those young people and young Native Americans like them the support they deserve. We have to invest in them, and believe in them, and love them. And if we do, there’s no question of the great things they can achieve—not just for their own families, but for their nation and for the United States.

—President Obama, White House Tribal Nations Conference, December 3, 2014

Today the White House is hosting more than 875 Native youth representing 230 tribes from 42 states. They will meet with First Lady Michelle Obama, Cabinet officials, the White House Council on Native American Affairs, and non-federal partners to discuss key issues like cultural protection and revitalization, education, health and wellness, and economic opportunity.

In a pre-gathering phone conference, attended by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, White House Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Muñoz and Lillian Sparks Robinson, Commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans, Muñoz said excitement by the administration was extremely high.

Muñoz explained how the gathering came about after President Barack Obama and the First Lady had visited the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and had heartfelt conversations with Native youth.

“When the President and the First Lady took their historic trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, they had the opportunity to hear directly from young people, who described the challenges they faced in their lives. The President was deeply moved by what he heard, and he knows the issues he heard about are not isolated to Standing Rock. He was also inspired by the talent and the courage of the Native youth he met to overcome their circumstances,” said Muñoz.

“The youth gathering builds on the President’s Generation Indigenous Initiative, which we call Gen-I, and is focused on finding new avenues of opportunity for Native youth. Gen-I is about creating new policies and investments to expand educational, employment, health and social services for Native youth, and also to strengthen the administration’s engagement with public and private partners to improve outcomes for all youth,” she said.

Jewell, who said she has visited tribal schools and colleges all over the country and was inspired by the ability of Native people to succeed, said she was frustrated many times during her travels.

“It’s sometimes hard not to feel sad or angry when I see the condition of some of these facilities,” Jewell said. “Because there has been a history of separation of people from their families. There’s been a history of trying to push Native culture aside. But what I see now is a desire to really bring back Native culture and create that culturally rich and academically rigorous curriculum which is going to help Native youth succeed in the future.”

Jewell admitted to a broken Bureau of Indian Education system, and that they were working to bring BIE school control back to tribes, which included $1.45 million in grant funding for seven tribal nations.

“I’m incredibly proud to work for a President who has charged his Cabinet to spend more time in Indian Country, especially with Native youth. I’m honored to chair that effort and continue the listening tour throughout the coming months. I also applaud the President for committing the full force of his Cabinet to supporting Native youth, for forging partnerships with groups like the Center for Native American Youth, UNITY, and NCAI to make tomorrow’s White House Tribal Youth Gathering a reality,” said Jewell.

Jewell also said that though the event was going to be moderated by officials, the day will belong to the youth. “It’s really driven by young people. The participation of Cabinet members is largely in these moderated discussions between tribal youth and members of the Cabinet. So there’s not a lot of speechifying. It’s going to be a lot of listening and a lot of responding to questions that were submitted by trial youth in advance.”

When asked how one day could make a difference, Sparks Robinson replied. “As a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and someone who has had the opportunity to work with youth on a lot of these issues, I can tell you one day means a lifetime for a lot of these youth that are coming to D.C.”

“Not only is this for some the first time getting on an airplane or coming to D.C. and seeing how our federal government works and how it impacts their daily lives, but I’m really hoping that it will also inspire folks who will go back to their communities, who will go back to their tribe, and assume leadership roles not only within their tribe, but also in their state, and then hopefully national positions as well,” Sparks Robinson continued.

“I'm hoping that our youth will see, not just myself, but a lot of our American Indian and Alaska Native officials here in Washington, D.C. working to improve their lives and improve service delivery, and that they will see themselves in us,” said Sparks Robinson.

The White House Tribal Youth Gathering in Washington DC will be hosted in collaboration with United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) and the Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Health and Human Services (HHS).

You can watch the Tribal Youth Gathering online via LiveStream.

Follow Correspondent Vincent Schilling on Twitter.

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