CHEVY CHASE, Md. – Chloe Gardner, 14, Alyssa Ludvick, 15, and Alaina Kuchenoff, 16, left their remote Alaskan island early Thursday afternoon to begin a two-and-a-half day journey to Washington, D.C.
They caught the single daily commuter flight that tied their tiny fishing community of Sand Point to the city of Anchorage 600 miles away. After an overnight stay in Anchorage and a day of shopping, they got on a red-eye flight to Chicago. One harried connection later, they were bound for Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
When they landed in Baltimore Saturday morning, however, an hour-long bus ride still awaited them before they finally reached their destination – this year’s national intertribal summit for American Indian youth, held for the first time in the Washington, D.C., area at the campus of the National 4-H Conference in Chevy Chase. Their American Indian peers came from California, from Arizona, from North Dakota and 19 other states, representing a total of 53 Native American tribes from around the country.
First organized by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010 and held every year as a way to promote intergenerational dialogue on public safety, the National Intertribal Youth Summit enables American Indian teenagers to speak directly to federal officials about the issues impacting their communities, to receive leadership training and to engage in discussions with their peers, tribal leaders and advocates about ways to solve social problems.
About 200 young adults and their chaperones are at the six-day summit this year, and to hear many of them tell it, the biggest draw of the week is the opportunity to meet young American Indians from other tribes and discover how much they have in common – not all of it good.
“We’re all in different tribes but we all need the same things and we all have the same problems,” said Jasmine Fernandez, 17, of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians in Oregon. The abuse of alcohol, marijuana and methamphetamine by kids as young as middle-schoolers is just one example, said fellow Oregonian Devonte Casey, 15.
Of the 4.9 million American Indians in the United States, more than 24 percent live below the federal poverty level, according to 2008 Census figures. About 40 percent of all American Indians live on reservations, and of those, about 40 to 80 percent of adults do not have a job, according to the American Indian Relief Council.
On Monday, the third day of the summit, some American Indian teens weren’t afraid to ask federal officials from the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services hard questions about the problems created by chronic unemployment and poverty. The stately white columns and manicured lawns of the brick mansions flanking the campus of the National 4-H Conference in Chevy Chase stood in contrast to the messy, uncomfortable issues raised by the teens.
Officials like Tony West, the acting associate attorney general at the Department of Justice, Melodee Hanes, the acting administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and Yvette Roubideaux, the director of the Indian Health Service, were peppered with questions such as:
“What you doing to combat poverty?”
“What are you guys doing about gang violence and drug use?”
“I grew up with someone in my peer group committing suicide every six to eight weeks. What is the Indian Health Service doing to fight high suicide rates on reservations?”
Their adult chaperones spoke up as well, with at least two identifying themselves as cancer survivors. “Why is the cancer rate so high on Indian reservations? Is it something in the water?”
Rhonda Medicine Crow, a 33-year-old mother from California who was chaperoning her daughter’s youth group, described the need for American Indian youth to understand the historical context for their social conditions, including the intergenerational trauma caused by relocation and assimilation. Fighting back tears, she described the impact of the high rates of sexual assault in Native American communities.
One in three Native American women will suffer sexual assault, she said, quoting a number that U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson of South Dakota, in his address, had pointed out was probably an underestimate.
“Stand up if you know someone who has been sexually assaulted,” Johnson had asked during his address. Nearly everyone in the room rose.
“I have three daughters,” Crow said. Every day when she woke up, Crow said, she wondered if today would be the day that she would get raped, or if one of her daughters would.
Some officials present were of American Indian descent, like Lillian Sparks, a commissioner for the administration for Native Americans within the Department of Children and Families, and Roubideaux of the Indian Health Service. Both offered their personal stories as a way to demonstrate that hard work had helped them overcome the disadvantages of their background. They were able to make their way to Ivy League schools, they said, and eventually, to positions of influence within the federal government.
U.S. Attorney Johnson told teens that it was up to them to go back home and make a difference, in part by speaking up when they saw apathy or unlawful activity around them. “Look, you’ve got a responsibility not only to yourself but responsibility to the people back home,” he said.
Seventeen-year-old Annette Bender of the Hualapai tribe in Arizona had the same message for her peers. Overcoming negativity was one of the hardest things about growing up on a reservation, she said.
“Other people are always going to say things about you,” Bender said. “Speak up and don’t be afraid.”
Photos courtesy of Kaukab Jhumra Smith