When First Lady Michelle Obama walked out to address a room full of Native Youth at the first ever White House Tribal Youth Gathering in Washington, D.C., she was the unmistakable star of the show. As part of the Obama Administration’s Generation Indigenous (Gen-I) Initiative, Michelle Obama’s appearance at the gathering demonstrated an intention to keep her and President Obama’s promise to honor the contributions of Native Youth.
“I am just so proud to be able to welcome you all, the young leaders who have traveled here to D.C., or are tuning in from more than 65 watch parties all over the country,” she said.
The First Lady also welcomed Native Hawaiians and Alaska Natives including a young group of Inupiaq youth who traveled thousands of miles from the Native Village of Barrow. “Together, you represent so many rich cultures and such a proud heritage, one that has shaped this country for centuries.”
A few hours prior to Michelle Obama’s remarks, other officials in D.C. also spoke to the youth and moderated panel Q&A’s to offer their support. Officials included Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Attorney General Rebecca Lynch, and Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby and several other leaders in D.C.
During Jewell’s opening remarks she said the number of Native youth attending the gathering was even better than they expected. “We actually thought there would be 870 young people. There’s over 1,000 here, so that’s amazing.”
“We have such an extraordinary group here today—more than 1,000 young people representing 230 tribes from 42 states,” said Michelle Obama. “We have the Mohawk, Seneca, and Onondaga Nations of the Northeast. We have the Crow, Comanche, and Spirit Lake Nations of the plains. We have the Navajo, Pueblo, and Hopi Nations of the Southwest. Everybody’s here!”
After thunderous applause and laughter, a youth yelled “We Love You First Lady!” to which she responded, “Well, I think it goes without saying that I love you too.
“Your artwork has inspired generations of artists. Your healing techniques have spurred great medical advances and saved countless lives. One of your early democratic institutions—the Iroquois Confederacy—served as a model for the United States government. And today, on issues like conservation and climate change, we are finally beginning to embrace the wisdom of your ancestors,” said the First Lady.
She also acknowledged the tarnished history between Native people and the U.S. government and touched on the destruction of traditions, forced relocation, boarding schools and blatant discrimination. She then mentioned how she and President Obama’s visit to Standing Rock influenced them to fight for the betterment of Indian country, specifically targeting Native youth—leading to the Gen-I Native Youth Challenge.
The First Lady said she and President Obama were inspired by the young people at Standing Rock. “In the face of all these challenges, not a single one of them had given up. Not a single one of them had lost hope. That’s what moved us. Instead, they were looking to their future.”
During the Q&A panels, comments of support also came from Secretary Jewell, Sen. Heitkamp and Attorney General Lynch.
“Be proud of your traditions, your cultures… if you’re confident in who you are and what you have to offer, the world is going to respond to you… you’re pioneers,” Jewell said.
Heitkamp spoke frankly with the youth when she said that though Native nations place emphasis on self-reliance, “the U.S. government still has to play a role in the betterment of Indian country.”
But she made it clear that even though there is a connection between Indian nations and the federal government, Native youth are far from powerless, and the federal government would benefit from input from young leaders like those attending the gathering. “We know one thing is for certain, we must involve youth,” she said. “If by the time I’ve left office we have not changed opportunity, education, safety and healthcare on Indian reservations, then I have done nothing.”
Perhaps the most celebrated comments of the day belonged to the First Lady, who told the youth how every life was sacred.
“I know that you may have moments in your lives when you’re filled with doubts, or you feel weighed down by history or stifled by your circumstances, or think that no one really understands what you’re going through. When you start to feel that way, I want you all to remember one simple but powerful truth—that every single one of your lives is precious and sacred, and each of you was put on this earth for a reason.
“Everyone in this room has your back,” she said. “Everyone who’s speaking at this Summit, all those Cabinet Secretaries, all those powerful people who have come here for you, they have your back. And you definitely have a President and a First Lady who have your back.”
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