First Lady Deandra Antonio White Mountain Apache AP
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Deandra Antonio, 17, of Whiteriver, Arizona, center, of the White Mountain Apache Nation and who serves on the White Mountain Apache Youth Council, is greeted by First Lady Michelle Obama, left, after the First Lady spoke at the first ever White House Tribal Youth Gathering on July 9, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

White House Youth Gathering: Native Youth Have First Lady and President Behind Them

Vincent Schilling

When First Lady Michelle Obama walked out to address a room full of Native Youth at the first ever White House Tribal Youth Gathering in Washington, D.C., she was the unmistakable star of the show. As part of the Obama Administration’s Generation Indigenous (Gen-I) Initiative, Michelle Obama’s appearance at the gathering demonstrated an intention to keep her and President Obama’s promise to honor the contributions of Native Youth.

“I am just so proud to be able to welcome you all, the young leaders who have traveled here to D.C., or are tuning in from more than 65 watch parties all over the country,” she said.

Shasta Dazen, 21, center, of Whiteriver, Arizona, who is the 53rd Miss Indian Arizona, and Deandra Antonio, 17, right, both of the White Mountain Apache Nation and who serve on the White Mountain Apache Youth Council, vie for a glimpse of First Lady Michelle Obama after she spoke at the first White House Tribal Youth Gathering, Thursday, July 9, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

The First Lady also welcomed Native Hawaiians and Alaska Natives including a young group of Inupiaq youth who traveled thousands of miles from the Native Village of Barrow. “Together, you represent so many rich cultures and such a proud heritage, one that has shaped this country for centuries.”

A few hours prior to Michelle Obama’s remarks, other officials in D.C. also spoke to the youth and moderated panel Q&A’s to offer their support. Officials included Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Attorney General Rebecca Lynch, and Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby and several other leaders in D.C.

Erin Tapahe, Navajo, has a moment with the First Lady at the White House-UNITY Tribal Youth Gathering in Washington, D.C. Tapahe was in Washington as a Native American Journalism Fellow for a program run by the Native American Journalists Association. (Dakota Sherek, Ojibwe/Cherokee)

During Jewell’s opening remarks she said the number of Native youth attending the gathering was even better than they expected. “We actually thought there would be 870 young people. There’s over 1,000 here, so that’s amazing.”

“We have such an extraordinary group here today—more than 1,000 young people representing 230 tribes from 42 states,” said Michelle Obama. “We have the Mohawk, Seneca, and Onondaga Nations of the Northeast. We have the Crow, Comanche, and Spirit Lake Nations of the plains. We have the Navajo, Pueblo, and Hopi Nations of the Southwest. Everybody’s here!”

First Lady Michelle Obama speaks to Native American youth at the first White House Tribal Youth Gathering, Thursday, July 9, 2015 in Washington. Mrs. Obama told hundreds of Native American youth that they are all precious and sacred and that “each of you was put on this earth for a reason.” (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

After thunderous applause and laughter, a youth yelled “We Love You First Lady!” to which she responded, “Well, I think it goes without saying that I love you too.

“Your artwork has inspired generations of artists. Your healing techniques have spurred great medical advances and saved countless lives. One of your early democratic institutions—the Iroquois Confederacy—served as a model for the United States government. And today, on issues like conservation and climate change, we are finally beginning to embrace the wisdom of your ancestors,” said the First Lady.

Brooke Overturf, of the Navajo Nation in Window Rock, Arizona, listens to First Lady Michelle Obama speak at the first White House Tribal Youth Gathering, Thursday, July 9, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

She also acknowledged the tarnished history between Native people and the U.S. government and touched on the destruction of traditions, forced relocation, boarding schools and blatant discrimination. She then mentioned how she and President Obama’s visit to Standing Rock influenced them to fight for the betterment of Indian country, specifically targeting Native youth—leading to the Gen-I Native Youth Challenge.

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

The First Lady said she and President Obama were inspired by the young people at Standing Rock. “In the face of all these challenges, not a single one of them had given up. Not a single one of them had lost hope. That’s what moved us. Instead, they were looking to their future.”

Gusccavedo Harrison, right, of the Navajo Nation in Chinle, Arizona, cheers as First Lady Michelle Obama mentions the Navajo during her speech to Native American youth at the first White House Tribal Youth Gathering, Thursday, July 9, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

During the Q&A panels, comments of support also came from Secretary Jewell, Sen. Heitkamp and Attorney General Lynch.

“Be proud of your traditions, your cultures… if you’re confident in who you are and what you have to offer, the world is going to respond to you… you’re pioneers,” Jewell said.

Heitkamp spoke frankly with the youth when she said that though Native nations place emphasis on self-reliance, “the U.S. government still has to play a role in the betterment of Indian country.”

Native Youth wait for the appearance of First Lady Michelle Obama at the first ever White House Tribal Youth Gathering. (Vincent Schilling)

But she made it clear that even though there is a connection between Indian nations and the federal government, Native youth are far from powerless, and the federal government would benefit from input from young leaders like those attending the gathering. “We know one thing is for certain, we must involve youth,” she said. “If by the time I’ve left office we have not changed opportunity, education, safety and healthcare on Indian reservations, then I have done nothing.”

Perhaps the most celebrated comments of the day belonged to the First Lady, who told the youth how every life was sacred.

“I know that you may have moments in your lives when you’re filled with doubts, or you feel weighed down by history or stifled by your circumstances, or think that no one really understands what you’re going through. When you start to feel that way, I want you all to remember one simple but powerful truth—that every single one of your lives is precious and sacred, and each of you was put on this earth for a reason.

“Everyone in this room has your back,” she said. “Everyone who’s speaking at this Summit, all those Cabinet Secretaries, all those powerful people who have come here for you, they have your back. And you definitely have a President and a First Lady who have your back.”

The Phoenix Indian Center tweeted this image of their youth at the White House Tribal Youth Gathering on July 9. (Phoenix Indian Center/Twitter)

Follow ICTMN Correspondent Vincent Schilling on Twitter.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page



rockymissouri's picture
Submitted by rockymissouri on
How exciting for them! I love their beautiful smiling faces. They are wonderful representatives, and I am so proud of them.