When Megan Gregory spoke at the National Congress of American Indians annual convention last fall, no one shifted, shuffled papers, coughed or whispered—you could have heard a pin drop.
That’s because the young Tlingit woman—a rising star among Native youth leaders—had something to say that everyone wanted to hear: “I've witnessed and faced the challenges youth often confront in communities with high unemployment rates, broken families, a lack of after school programs, and high suicide rates,” Gregory said. “It is devastating to know that there is so much hopelessness amongst our people, and I have made it my mission to say loud and clear that there is always hope . . . Our cultures are too beautiful, and our futures are far too bright to ever give up hope.”
Gregory, 25, whose Tlingit name is Kootgwaatl, is determined to make the world a better place, particularly for young Native people that she sees struggling in communities crushed by collective trauma and poverty that grind people into hopelessness. “Receiving a paycheck is not what gets me up in the morning, it’s the passion I have for my life’s work,” Gregory told the NCAI attendees. “I’m so motivated to make a difference, and to help my people. I want to reach my full potential, and along the way I want to help other people strive to reach their full potential as well.”
Gregory has the full backing of the NCAI, the country’s oldest and biggest national Indian organization in her quest. The NCAI nominated Gregory last August for the National Council of Young Leaders (NCYL), a diverse body of young leaders from across the United States who advise policy makers and funders on issues affecting low-income youth and their communities. At the NCAI meeting, Gregory was introduced to tribal members during a general assembly when she spoke as part of a panel called “Refining our United Vision.” Her fellow panelists—all top level leaders in Indian country—included Kevin Gover, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Indians, Melvin Sheldon, chairman of the Tulalip Tribes’ board of directors, and Gregory Mendoza, governor of the Gila River Indian Community.
NCAI Executive Director Jacqueline Johnson Pata said Gregory’s inclusion at the annual meeting was “one part of a very broad strategy to empower future leaders including our NCAI Wilma Mankiller Fellowship that prepares the next generation of leaders for Indian country. Our leadership is committed to supporting tribal leaders in preparing the next generation of leaders in their communities.”
Gregory attended her first NCYL meeting in December at a two-day event in Washington, where young leaders from all over the country convened. They also met with officials from the Department of Education, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the Corporation for National and Community Service—topped off with a visit to the White House to meet with Ronnie Chol, the Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement and White House Liaison to Young Americans. (Gregory had visited the White House once before, in 2005, when she was an intern with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).)
The NCYL meeting was a huge success, Gregory said. “It was an amazing experience meeting with all of these people. Many of us have come from low-income communities, foster homes, have been incarcerated, felt hopelessness when it came to obtaining our degrees, have dealt with trauma after losing loved ones at young ages, yet have turned our lives around by getting involved in our communities, and giving back to society in some way, shape or form. I feel grateful knowing our President is passionate about creating opportunities for direct dialogue between the Obama Administration and the American public, while bringing new voices to the table—especially young leaders with diverse backgrounds from across the nation—and ensuring that everyone can participate and inform the work of the president.”
At 25, Gregory already has an impressive resume. She works for the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC), a non-profit tribal health consortium of 18 Native communities serving the health interests of the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian and other Native people. She is the community project coordinator in SEARHC’s Behavioral Health Division and has been active in advocating for Native youth health issues, while promoting youth leadership. She is also a member of SEARHC’s “1 is 2 Many,” Southeast Alaska Regional Suicide Prevention Task Force, and the founder of the Southeast Alaska Youth Ambassador Program, which she says she created “to bridge the gap between youth and adults, and to give all youth a role and voice for positive change in their communities.” The program will be implemented in 18 communities in southeast Alaska every October, and will encourage students to generate new ways to champion suicide prevention, while cultivating the resources needed to sustain progress during their one year term.
Gregory has been a youth representative for Sealaska, a Native-owned company with more than 21,000 share holders and investments in forest products, construction aggregates, environmental remediation, information technology, and other sectors. She was a member of the executive council for Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, a sovereign tribal government with a government-to-government relationship with the United States. CCTHITA represents more than 28,000 Tlingit and Haida Indians worldwide. She recently joined the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention—Alaska Native/American Indian Task Force.
Most recently, she was one of three youth board members named to the board of directors for the Center for Native American Youth, a nonprofit organization founded by former Sen. Byron Dorgan dedicated to improving the health, safety and well-being of Native American youth through communication, policy development and advocacy.
Dorgan has high praise for the young Tlingit leader. “Megan Gregory is outstanding!” he says. “She is an impressive leader for young American Indians and all of us who care so much about Indian country. When I created the Center for Native American Youth, I believed in having a youth voice on our board and as I looked around for those young leaders, Megan was clearly a young person I wanted involved. I admire her passion for suicide prevention and commitment to improving the lives of Native American youth.”
Dorgan echoed Gregory’s message of hope for Indian country. In his travels in Indian country, he said, he’s met many young people “who are doing inspirational things to serve their peers and tribal communities.” He has been so impressed by young Native men and women he has met that he’s creating an initiative called ‘‘Champions for Change," a White House spin-off, that will highlight Native American students doing inspiring work across the country. “I believe it is important for the Center, as we work on a national level to shine a spotlight on Native youth issues, to tell a positive story and promote hope.”
At the NCAI annual meeting, Pata, a member of the Raven/Sockeye Clan of the Tlingit Tribe sat next to Gregory, beaming as she gave her speech. “As a member of my tribe, I am very proud of Megan and all she has achieved and I see a very bright future for her,” Johnson Pata said. A prominent Alaska Native women leader herself by virtue of her longtime position as the NCAI’s executive director and her other work with youth and civil rights, Johnson Pata said she is encouraged by “the bright young Native leaders” from Alaska and across Indian country. “Tribal nations have a bright future. The vision of tribal leaders who have invested in youth leadership programs and strengthening education systems have built a foundation for this success,” Johnson Pata said. “At NCAI we are working to support Native young people and ensure they are prepared to protect and advance our sovereignty and build partnerships to advance a bright future for our America.”
Gregory expresses respect and gratitude for all the help she’s had. “I would not be standing here today,” she told the NCAI audience, “if it was not for the encouragement, guidance and mentorship from all of the strong leaders I have had the pleasure to work with during the leadership training opportunities that were open to me along this journey.”
But for all her accomplishments, Gregory feels compelled to explain why she hasn’t graduated from university yet. She began her studies at the University of Alaska, Southeast, when she was 18 and did quite well until a personal tragedy knocked her off the academic path. “Unfortunately, my father passed away when I started my second year of college, and that left me extremely devastated, depressed, and completely lost. I wound up moving to Seattle, taking a year and a half off to decompress, and eventually I returned to Juneau to try again. My heart was still full of heartache, and my focus wasn't where it needed to be to obtain my degree, and three years after losing my father—my confidant—I lost another person very dear to me, my 25-year-old best friend.”
It wasn’t until Gregory immersed herself in volunteer work to help her community that she finally found a sense of peace and direction. Now she’s headed back to school to complete her academic work—a bachelor’s degree in business with an emphasis on marketing, and a doctorate in public health.
Meanwhile, she plans to continue all her volunteer work to help initiate and promote programs and opportunities to help young people in Indian country survive and succeed. And she has every confidence that she will succeed. “I’m a strong young woman at heart, with good values, and the motivation to make a difference in as many ways possible,” Gregory says.