November is Native American Heritage Month, and on Friday, the Center for American Youth at the Aspen Institute released a report that examined youth issues from a number of perspectives – health care, education, suicide, criminal justice reform and environmental concerns.
The theme of the third annual State of Native Youth Report is Generation Indigenous (Gen-I). Launched by President Obama in 2014, Gen-I was a cross-sector call to action to support Native youth. As part of this initiative, the Center for American Youth launched the Gen-I National Native Youth Network, a growing national platform to connect and amplify Native youth leaders and their movements for positive change.
A panel of youth leaders at the Center unveiled the report Friday and discussed their personal experiences growing up in Native American communities and confronting the challenges they faced. The panelists included:
Trenton Casillas-Bakerberg, a member of Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. Trenton is co-founder of the One Mind Youth Movement, which was established in response to a string of suicides that claimed the lives of several young girls on his reservation. Trenton is working to create a series of youth safe houses that would be staffed 24 hours a day and open to youth in crisis.
Darby Raymond-Overstreet is a Dine Nation digital artist who was born in Tuba City, AZ, grew up in Flagstaff, AZ, and now lives in Santa Fe, NM. Darby won this year’s first-ever artistic competition sponsored by the Center for American Youth, #CreativeNative.
Isabel Coronado, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, was honored with the Center’s Champion for Change award for her work on improving the criminal justice system for Native Americans. She is now a graduate student at Oklahoma State University.
The panelists have seen things in their lives most young people do not see.
Isabel saw her mother taken off to prison when she was seven years old. Her mother later recovered from the experience and became a lawyer; her drive and intelligence led Isabel to pursue a career in criminal justice reform and led her to become a leader with the American Indian Criminal Justice Navigation Council, which seeks to help people who have completed their sentences adjust and succeed after re-entering society.
Trenton said his reservation has experienced 8 suicides in the last year. He just became a substitute teacher this month, and on his first day on the job, an 8th-grade student approached him and asked him how she could deal with depression.
“It tears me up,” Trenton said. “It’s time now to listen to the kids. I see in their eyes what they go through.”
The panelists were asked, in the wake of last week’s mid-term elections, about civic engagement in their communities. Erik Stegman, Executive Director of the Center for American Youth and a member of Carry the Kettle First Nation (Nakoda), noted that “an explosion of youth organizing” is going on across the country.
Trenton said he used to not vote. “Before this mid-term election, I had it in my head that not voting was an act of rebellion,” he said. “This election, it came to me that not voting is an act of surrender.”
Isabel agreed, in part. “Ever since I was little, I couldn’t wait to vote. This year, when I voted, I was voting for criminal justice reform, I was voting for teacher pay raises, I was voting for so many things.”
Also on hand Friday was former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat. Upon announcing his retirement from office, Dorgan seven years ago donated $1 million in campaign funds to launch the Center for American Youth, which the Aspen Institute agreed to house. At Friday’s panel discussion, he touched upon the troubled history regarding the treatment of Native Americans by white settlers.
“We’ve seen massacres,” he said. “We know the history of massacres. We know theft and dishonesty, broken treaties and broken promises….When you know the story of injustice, you have the responsibility to address it and deal with it. It is the responsibility of every American citizen.”
You can read Generation Indigenous, the annual State of Native Youth Report, here.