| For centuries, Native American leaders from across the United
States have traveled to meet with the "Great White Father" in Washington
to plead their case for justice, equality and a greater share of resources
and opportunities that were once unequivocally theirs. Despite overwhelming
challenges still faced by Native people, some things have changed.
Unlike all of his predecessors, President Barack Obama is not white.
And today, for the first time, the representatives of Indian nations
who will gather at the White House are entirely tribal youth.
first Lady Michelle Obama(L) talks with youths during a luncheon
round table at We the Pizza/Good Stuff Eatery on November
20, 2014 in Washington, DC. US President Barack Obama and
US first Lady Michelle Obama met with youth from the Standing
Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. (Photo by Brendan SmialowskiAFP/Getty
The White House is hosting the first-ever Tribal Youth Gathering
in conjunction with the United National Indian Tribal Youth conference.
The gathering will bring together more than 875 Native youth representing
230 Indian nations from 42 states to speak to first lady Michelle
Obama, Cabinet officials, the White House Council on Native American
Affairs and non-federal partners about a range of issues including
education, health, justice, economic opportunity, climate change,
cultural protection and language revitalization.
The Tribal Youth Gathering comes at a moment of increased attention
to Indian Country, particularly to the tremendous challenges faced
by Native American youth. Last June, Obama visited
the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe on the border of North and South Dakota,
becoming only the eighth
president to visit an Indian reservation while in office. During
his visit, Obama met with Lakota and Dakota youth whose stories
of forestalled opportunities, drinking and suicide moved him to
The gathering builds on the Obama administration's Generation
Indigenous initiative to fund and expand education, health,
employment and social services for youth in Indian Country. It will
be hosted just weeks after a bill was introduced in both chambers
of Congress to create a commission to look into the "national
emergency" facing Native children.
During a press call Wednesday, the Department of the Interior
announced it will award much-needed grants totaling $1.45 million
to seven tribes -- the Hopi, Navajo, Acoma and Santa Clara Pueblos,
Oglala Lakota, Rosebud and Standing Rock Sioux -- that operate Bureau
of Indian Education schools in the Southwest and Midwest. These
grants are a drop in the bucket for a deteriorating BIE system that
is failing Native communities. Of the more than 40,000
students who attend BIE schools, where funding is so inadequate
that the roof even collapsed
at one school in Minnesota, only 53
percent graduate. In addition to the seven grants, the DOI will
issue $995,000 to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium
that will be distributed to 20 tribal colleges and universities
to work with 45 BIE-funded feeder schools.
"In general the schools that I have seen have been in various
stages of disrepair, which has not been very encouraging," said
Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell on a press call Wednesday.
"My commitment -- and it's consistent with the president's commitment
when he visited Standing Rock -- is that we have got to change up
Indian education if we are going to uphold our trust and treaty
obligations to our nation's first people in the future," said Jewell.
"The status quo is not acceptable. You can't keep doing the same
thing and expect a different result."
The administration also announced a slew of programs that will
be made available to tribes through various federal agencies and
non-federal partnerships through the rest of the year. These programs
were divided into three sub-areas: preparing Native youth for education
and the workforce; creating safe and supportive communities; and
providing economic opportunity. Plans include implementation of
BIE reform, an online tribal support center, a summit to preserve
Native languages, services to victims and youth at risk of crime,
drugs and suicide, as well as training and grants to develop the
workforce, health care system and housing in Indian Country.
The gathering will also give many future leaders of Indian nations
the chance to meet with top government officials and give voice
to the challenges facing their people.
"I am very confident, having met so many of these young people,
that we will have leaders among us at this event tomorrow that will
help tackle some of the most pressing issues in our day, not only
in Indian Country, but beyond," said Jewell. "There is no doubt
that these are difficult issues -- the road ahead is hard -- but
the long and short of it is that we can and must do better for our