Getting to shake the president’s hand was a highlight for some Native youth who were recently honored by the Center for Native American Youth, founded by former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan.
During the week of March 3-7 the center named five inspirational youths as Champions for Change and brought them to Washington, D.C. as a way to spotlight their stories and promote hope in Indian country.
During their trip, the honorees met with several senators and tribal policy leaders, toured the capitol and took part in a panel discussion with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs led by Dorgan. The youth and their family members also attended the presidential Violence Against Women Act signing and some shook hands with President Barack Obama.
Dahkota Brown, 15, Wilton Miwok, said that was a highlight of the trip. “Vance Home Gun and myself managed to work our way up to the front and we got to shake hands with the President.”
His mother, Toni Brown, added, “I don’t think he has washed that hand yet.”
During the panel discussion with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, the champions talked about their accomplishments and what they hoped to see in the future of Indian country.
After opening remarks by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, committee chairwoman, regarding the inspiring efforts of the champions, the youths discussed their efforts to improve their communities and Indian country.
“I was born with cancer. I was very lucky because we were able to catch it and I had surgery on my fifth birthday. I’ve been cancer free for almost nine years,” said 14-year-old Cierra Fields, who now works in her Cherokee community spreading cancer awareness. “My cancer has always affected my life.”
Vance Home Gun, 19, of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, expressed the importance of teaching his language to youth. Joaquin Gallegos, 22, of the Jicarilla Apache Nation and Pueblo of Santa Ana, shared how he intends to create increased access to oral health care for Indian communities. Brown talked about his successful study group called NERDS, or Native Education Raising Dedicated Students.
“A lot of times when young people approach our tribal councils or elders with ways to solve the issues, they might think, ‘oh these young people are cute’ but we are more than that. Young people need to know they can make a real difference,” said Sarah Schilling, 18, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.
"This has been a really inspirational couple of days for me. These five young people on Indian reservations across the country are Champions for Change and all of them are doing extraordinary things that will save lives and improve the lives of other youth,” Dorgan said. “There is so much bad news out there, I think it's important to celebrate good news.”
“Young voices are powerful and must be part of our efforts to address racial equity and all welfare issues impacting the lives of our youngest First Americans,” Erin Bailey, the center’s executive director said. “On a personal level, I am touched by their strength, courage and creativity. We are looking forward to working with these champions, their parents and tribal leaders to ensure that we all do what we can to foster future leaders for Indian country.”
The Champions for Change were awarded a medal in front of their families, tribal leaders and policy makers by Dorgan and Nike N7 general manger and CNAY board member Sam McCracken on March 4.
“As a board member of this organization, it makes me extremely proud to know that we are highlighting such positive role models,” McCracken said. “It was amazing; I got to spend the afternoon with these young leaders and as much as they said I inspired them, they inspired me.”