By PARIS BURRIS |
Native-American issues have rarely gained national attention. In part, it’s a result of still persistent discrimination and underrepresentation and a reflection of the stoicism valued in the community.
Unlike black, Latino, and other historically underserved demographic groups, American Indians don’t have a history of speaking out in Washington or have prominent advocacy groups to deliver their message. And non-profit groups on reservations often aren’t proper resources. So the July 9 conference is a rare opportunity to be heard.
“We Indians know about silence. We aren’t afraid of it,” the late Tsleil-Waututh Nation Chief Dan George once said. “In fact, to us it is more powerful than words.”
Those eager to be among the 800 Native Americans who will be chosen to attend the first Tribal Youth Gathering hope to share their stories about issues like foster care, cultural preservation and education.
To qualify to for the conference, they must complete the Generation Indigenous Challenge by joining the National Native Youth Network, a White House effort in partnership with the Aspen Institute’s Center for Native-American Youth and the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The challenge is an initiative focusing on “improving the lives of Native youth by removing the barriers that stand between Native youth and their opportunity to succeed,” according to the White House.
For Collin Church’s family, foster care is one of the barriers.
The 20-year-old Michigan State University student has lived with a 5-year-old foster brother for almost a year. And in the last couple of months the child’s 12-year-old sister and 14-year-old brother joined the family.
The kids are not allowed to have social media or go to certain places unless approval is given by both the tribe and the state, Church said.
Church is wary of airing his concerns in Washington after one of his siblings had a less-than-ideal experience at an event focused on tribal issues with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Because of privacy concerns for foster kids, Church’s brother wasn’t allowed to talk about the event publicly.
“The way that they’re treated, it’s almost like they need special care,” said Church, a member of the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi Indians along with his foster siblings. “They should be treated as individuals and have just as many rights as the next person.”
Another challenge the family faces is health care for the 5-year-old, who struggles with mental health issues. And the few resources that are available don’t provide the proper help, Church said.
Jessica McCool, 17, has seen first-hand the effects of a lack of mental health care in Native-American communities.
“I have lost people in my life to suicide, so it’s something I care about,” said McCool, a member of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.
Among Native-American youth ages 15 to 24, suicide rates are more than double the national average.
“A couple of my friends said they had lost three people (to suicide) in the last year at their school, and it’s just really hard to hear things like that,” McCool said.
The problem is a lack of clinics and hospitals. But the first step to addressing the problem, McCool said, is raising awareness.
“I’m just really hoping for the White House to let youth know that it’s OK to talk and that they should be talking,” she said.
For Vanessa Goodthunder, keeping her culture alive is the biggest challenge.
The 21-year-old history junior at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities committed her life three years ago to preserving her Native language.
She teaches basics of the Dakota language to children and adults at the non-profit Dakota Wicoha, the “Dakota way of life.”
“If you don’t have the language, then you don’t have a piece of yourself,” Goodthunder said.
Even though Minnesota requires American-Indian History classes for its schools, key issues are left out of the curriculum, Goodthunder said.
“A lot of people don’t know that ‘Minnesota’ is a Dakota word,” she said, adding that the river got its name from the words "minni," meaning "water," and "sotah," meaning "sky-tinted" or "cloudy."
But non-profits and other sources are not enough to keep the language from becoming extinct. Not only are there not enough of these sources, but they are expensive to run, Goodthunder said.
Solving these problems will take collaboration between Native-Americans and the government, Goodthunder said. “Natives have so much to give, they have so many ideas and they know what has worked and what hasn’t worked,” she said.
“We can’t choose the poverty we grow up in or the lives that we’re given,” she said, “but we can choose to persevere and choose joy and happiness.”
So far, the students don’t have a concrete set of expectations – they’re just glad for the opportunity to be heard.
“Even going to D.C. and being able to be in the presence of all of those resources and people is something I would’ve ever fathomed,” Goodthunder said. “When they opened the door up, it opened my eyes to see exactly what D.C. can do and what I can do in D.C.”