This summer, five Cheyenne River Sioux teens had the opportunity to join more than 1,400 Native youth ages 14 to 24 from around the United States at the 38th annual National UNITY Conference. This year’s conference, held June 28-July 2 at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, focused on “Healing and Empowering Aspiring Leaders with Tradition and Heritage.”
The National UNITY Council, comprising youth representatives from affiliated youth councils, hosted the event and developed the packed five-day agenda. After the ceremonial lighting of the UNITY Fire, attendees plunged into leadership development through educational keynotes, activities, and workshops.
Representing Cheyenne River were Elijah Brown Wolf, Kipp Reddog, Snowy Fire Cloud, Justice Fire Cloud, and Warren Swan, all participants in the Cheyenne River Youth Project’s Junior Volunteer Program. A sixth junior volunteer, Selena Swan, elected to attend the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduates Program (GEARUP) in Rapid City, South Dakota, but she will continue with the CRYP youth leadership program this fall.
The students’ trip to the National UNITY Conference was funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), which provides national leadership, coordination, and resources to prevent and respond to juvenile delinquency and victimization. According to Jerica Widow-Rivers, youth programs assistant, the trip was a major milestone for Cheyenne River’s junior volunteers.
“It was the kids’ first time flying in an airplane, and for some of them, it was the first time they’d traveled out of state,” she said. “Going to Oregon to join their counterparts from all over the country was huge for them.”
Keynote speakers included Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community; Louisville Cardinals senior guard Jude Schimmel, a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Tribe; the 1491s comedy group; renowned author Sherman Alexie; and S. Amanda Marshall, District of Oregon U.S. Attorney. In addition, Northwest tribes—including the Confederate Tribe of Grand Ronde, the Yakama Swan Dancers, the Quinault Tribal Youth, the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs—shared special cultural presentations.
Since a significant focus of this year’s conference was physical health and wellness, the teens had the privilege of visiting Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, where the N7 brand team led them in various fitness activities, shared inspirational words, and offered career advice about excelling at top companies like Nike while keeping their Native communities in mind. The teens also received Nike N7 T-shirts.
“They worked so hard for this,” Widow-Rivers said. “They helped fundraise for the trip at our Cokata Wiconi Teen Center and at special events, and they attended leadership training programs with CRYP staff. We’re thrilled they could have this opportunity.”
Founded nearly four decades ago, United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) is dedicated to fostering the spiritual, mental, physical, and social development of American Indian and Alaska Native youth, and to building a strong, unified, and self-reliant Native America through the involvement of its young people. Recognizing that issues such as suicide, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and the high school dropout rate are dangerously amplified among Native youth, UNITY has built more than 140 youth councils in 35 U.S. states and in Canada. These councils include thousands of Native young people.
“Our dedication to providing the youth of the Cheyenne River reservation with access to a vibrant and secure future, and to developing strong, self-sufficient families and communities, fits well with UNITY’s mission,” said Tammy Eagle Hunter, CRYP’s youth programs director. “In fact, we launched the Junior Volunteer Program in 2010 as a way to engage our young people here on Cheyenne River—to teach them how to build healthier lives physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally, and to give them the leadership tools they need to serve as role models and become active in their communities.”
The Junior Volunteer Program has become one of the 25-year-old, nonprofit, grassroots youth project’s proudest achievements. Through this initiative, Junior Volunteers serve alongside CRYP staff and long-term volunteers at Cokata Wiconi, helping to prepare meals, plan and execute activities, clean and maintain the facilities, fundraise, and work with the younger children at The Main youth center next door.
To learn more about the Cheyenne River Youth Project and its programs, and for information about making donations and volunteering, call 605-964-8200 or visit LakotaYouth.org. And, to stay up to date on the latest CRYP news and events, follow the youth project on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.