When President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama met with Native American youth of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation this past June, they walked away shaken. "[S]ome of these kids were carrying burdens no young person should ever have to carry,” the president remarked during Wednesday’s White House Tribal Nations Conference, where his administration met with 566 federally recognized tribes from across the United States. Those young people's stories, captured by the statistics, speak of lives affected by homelessness, addiction, poverty, and a suicide rate three times the national average.
“We want to give those young people and young Native Americans like them the support they deserve,” said the president during the sixth annual conference. “We have to invest in them, and believe in them, and love them. And if we do, there’s no question of the great things they can achieve—not just for their own families, but for their nation and for the United States.” This was the heart of the president’s message, extended by cabinet members who discussed federal commitments to tribal nations. While past years’ conferences focused on treaties, sovereignty, and health care, this year’s conference theme was rooted in that June meeting at Standing Rock, with a focus on commitments to native youth and education.
Toward the end of his remarks, the president announced what his administration would deliver:
- Assessment of challenges: The president announced that the White House would release a report "on the unique challenges that native youth face, because we cannot solve these challenges without a comprehensive picture of the problem."
- Meeting with native young people: The president has instructed every member of his cabinet “to sit down with native young people and hear firsthand about their lives.”
- Native Youth Communities Projects: The Department of Education has launched an initiative with "a handful of tribes to give schools and students intensive support across a range of areas," from nutrition to mental health to culturally relevant curriculum to help more youth be prepared for college and careers.
- Cultivating leadership: The White House has created a national network of native youth leaders called Generations Indiginous "to remove the barriers that stand between young people and opportunity" and to connect talented young people. In addition, the first tribal youth conference will be held next year at the White House.
- Investments in education: The budget the president will submit to Congress will include investments to native youth, including connecting tribal schools to high-speed internet, employment of top-quality teachers and principles, nutrition programs for families, and meeting obligations to tribal nations.
- Reauthorization of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act: "Because every young person deserves a safe place to live."
- Promotion of economic growth in Indian Country: "Because every young person deserves the chance to work and get ahead."
- Work on climate change and protection of natural resources: The president declared that his administration would work with tribal communities to restore tribal homelands and resolve disputes over water rights, "to make sure your sacred lands are protected for future generations."
The president concluded his speech by reaffirming his conviction to do right by tribal nations, "because too many promises haven't been kept." Let's see what the new year holds, what Congress can do, what funding could come through.