The Center for Native American Youth (CNAY), a policy program at the Aspen Institute, recognized its 2016 Champions for Change recently through a series of events in Washington, D.C.
CNAY and its founder and chairman, retired U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, hosted two events to celebrate and honor the five young Native American leaders named as Champions, whose efforts include suicide prevention, health promotion, language preservation, community service, and adaptive sports for those with disabilities.
The 2016 Champions for Change include:
Vanessa Goodthunder, 22, Lower Sioux Indian Community
Noah Blue Elk Hotchiss, 17, Southern Ute/Southern Cheyenne/Caddo
Samuel Slater, 17, Navajo Nation
Brayden White, 21, St. Regis Mohawk Tribe
Christie Wildcat, 18, Northern Arapaho Tribe
The Champions were announced February 23 during a panel discussion, hear what they all had to say below:
While in D.C., the Champions also had meetings with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, White House staff, members of Congress, and other federal agency officials, where they discussed the challenges that their Native youth peers are facing across the country.
“The 2016 Champions for Change are extraordinary young leaders who are lifting up their communities and peers through a range of efforts from suicide prevention to adaptive sports to language preservation,” said Erik Stegman, executive director of CNAY. “They represent the incredible talent that exists throughout Indian country that the Center for Native American Youth seeks to highlight every day. These leaders are truly changing their communities and the way the greater public perceive Native American youth through their inspiring efforts.”
Noah Blue Elk Hotchkiss was named a Champion for his efforts to provide opportunities for those with disabilities to engage in sport. “Adaptive sports changed my life, it’s given me purpose and self-confidence. I think many of our disabled Natives could become strong tribal leaders because of our ability to adapt,” he said.
Christie Wildcat founded the Wind River All-Action Crew, a youth group that seeks to transcend racial barriers and stereotypes through a lifelong-commitment to community service. “My dreams may seem farfetched to some people, but in order to survive as Native people and retain our culture and heritage, we cannot sit back and keep them as dreams. I plan on going to school and coming back to make them a reality,” she said.
Brayden White founded Helping Hands his first year at college. The peer education and mentoring program is focused on drug, alcohol and suicide prevention. “My initiative is geared to make sure that the tragic epidemic of suicide doesn’t ever occur upon my Nation or upon any other Nation,” he said.
Vanessa Goodthunder believes that language can be used to heal from historical trauma and has dedicated her life to learning and teaching her languages. “Together we will try to learn the language and help one another. If we help each other, then we will stand strong together,” she said.
Samuel Slater has led the Navajo Nation Service Learning Trip for the past four years. Sam coordinates a two-week learning experience each year that teaches non-Native students about tribal innovation, sovereignty, government and culture through direct community service. “American Indians as sovereign nations need partners outside of Indian country. One of the most important aspects of nation building is the careful cultivation of allies,” he said.
“Our Champions of Change program recognizes Native American youth who are impacting their communities and peers in positive and inspiring ways,” Dorgan said in the release. “We are proud to celebrate their accomplishments and will continue to support them as they become the next generation of leaders in Native American communities.”
According to a CNAY press release: “The Champions for Change program, inspired by a White House initiative, is designed to shine a spotlight on positive stories in Indian Country, promote hope among Native American youth, and expose young people to leadership development opportunities.”