Native American Issues

Michelle Obama Issues Call to Support Native American Youth

April 15, 2015

(Photo Credit: Teddy M. McCullough, Center for Native American Youth)

Native American youth represent some of the most inspiring, resilient leaders across our country, especially in tribal and urban Indian communities. Their resiliency exists despite health, education, and other significant disparities; structural racism; and barriers to success. At a recent convening at the White House, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute Center for Native American Youth (CNAY), first lady Michelle Obama acknowledged the issues they face. 

“Folks in Indian Country didn’t just wake up one day with addiction problems,” Obama said. “Poverty and violence didn’t just randomly happen… these issues are the result of a long history of systematic discrimination and abuse.” 

The Creating Opportunities for Native Youth convening brought together the first lady, several US Cabinet secretaries, and more than 160 nonprofit and philanthropic leaders, policymakers, tribal leaders, and youth for a day of discussions around increasing investments in Native American youth. The goal of the convening was to elevate awareness about Native youth issues, facilitate actionable dialogue, and call for increased public and private sector investments in Native American youth. 

More often than their non-Native peers, Native youth go to schools that lack adequate resources to hire enough teachers, mental health counselors, and other necessary support staff and materials. They wait in long lines — for hours — to see a doctor within a health care system that is funded at half of the communities’ needs. And Native Americans experience higher rates of poverty and homelessness than any other population in this country. The challenges they face each day are very real, but are often left out of the national dialogue.

That context is important.

In addition to a long history of broken promises from the federal government, Native children and their communities are largely overlooked with regard to private investment. In 2009, just 0.3 percent of national philanthropic giving went to Native American programs, according to a 2011 Foundation Center and Native Americans in Philanthropy report

CNAY works with Native youth leading incredible efforts in their communities: putting books in the hands of needy students, comforting grieving peers through tradition and mentorship, saving Native languages, and making sure their fellow students graduate from high school.

At the convening, Obama encouraged participants to spend more time with Native youth, citing their high suicide rate as an example of the need for more support: “Just sit with that for a minute: four or five kids out of a class of 70 [are] taking their own lives.”   

We ask you to follow Obama’s call to support Native youth. The challenges Native youth face are a reality for far too many young people we work with at CNAY. We all have an obligation to do more, to get involved, and to be a humble, respectful, and supportive force in the lives of the 2.1 million Native American children across this country.

Visit to learn more about the Center for Native American Youth and to connect with youth and organizations that are investing in the lives of Native youth. 

Erin Bailey is executive director of the Aspen Institute Center for Native American Youth.