Native American Issues

Opening the Door so that Native Youth Might Lead

November 16, 2018  • Dan Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield spoke at the Center for Native American Youth’s 2018 State of Native Youth Report release event on November 16, 2018 in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @DanPorterfield.

Thank you, Erik, for your kind introduction.

And thank you Dennis for that wonderful invocation. What a good way to center ourselves in this place at the start of this convening.

Welcome to all of you, our friends and partners from so many communities working to educate, empower, and equip youth leaders through policy, advocacy, education, and inspiration.

It is fitting that we meet for the release of the 2018 State of Native Youth Report in November, National Native American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month, and with Senator Byron Dorgan, whose leadership led to this month of recognition and to the creation of the Center for Native American Youth.

Thank you, Senator Dorgan. I’ll have a little more to say about Senator Dorgan at the end of these remarks.

Convening together today gives us an opportunity to think about the past and the future together, collapsing time and space into this place and this moment so that we can reflect on where we have come from and where we want to go and where we need to go.

I know that we are seated in a theater style, but sharing this space with you, this physical and intellectual space, I can’t help but think of a circle, and its sacred importance in Native American cultures—how it demonstrates our connectedness across generations, and its symbolic representation of time as circular, not linear.

That circular concept of time means an overlapping and an enriching of intergenerational stories.

It means that we learn from the past not as a distant, faded memory but as something vibrant and present with us always.

That circular concept of time means that our present is enriched and informed by the past and that the past is made fuller, more textured by our present.

It’s what Leslie Marmon Silko described as “the sense of story, and story within story, and the idea that one story is only the beginning of many stories, and the sense that stories never truly end.”

I am so inspired to see so many young people taking their stories and culture and using them to forge new pathways forward.

Culture is a solution and foundation that takes many forms.

Culture is a tool with which to build community and construct the bridges that overcome difference.

Culture is an incubator where young people can thrive and grow confidence.

Culture is art that can help heal intergenerational trauma. Darby Raymond-Overstreet, who we will hear from in a moment, is doing just that with art that brings together past and present, family stories and future dreams, and represents the power of culture and the strength of Generation Indigenous.

Darby is the winner of this year’s Creative Native prize, selected by a panel of distinguished judges from nearly 100 submissions to CNAY’s Creative Native Call for Art.

Culture shows up in the work of Trenton Casillas Bakeberg, who founded the One Mind Youth Movement, a group of youth leaders dedicated to creating positive change in the Cheyenne River community in tandem with the seven traditional Lakota Values of Life.

Culture shines through in the activism and education and policy work of Isabel Coronado, Deputy Director for The American Indian Criminal Justice Navigation Council—an organization she helped build from the ground up. Isabel is a leader working to ensure everyone has healthcare access, particularly rural and underserved populations.

And culture is unmistakable in the life, leadership, and achievements of Julie Garreau, the lifeblood of the Cheyenne River Youth Project and a youth advocate whose work as a volunteer, mentor, advocate, and leader who has created a model for effective, sustainable youth community and leadership development.

Convening together today gives us the chance to reflect how culture is such an invaluable and essential part of a better future.

Today is an opportunity to consider what we at the Aspen Institute and the Center for Native American Youth are doing well to support young people, to appreciate what they want us to do better, and understand where and when they need us to throw open the door and then let them lead the way with their ideas, their enthusiasm, their innovation, and their vision.

Our world faces many challenges, many of them shared across communities, all of them affecting our young people. They include:

· Increasing feelings of isolation, loneliness, and social pressures—including rising rates of opioid addiction and youth suicide.

· Physical issues, like both obesity on the one hand and the tyranny of thinness-obsession on the other.

· The needs and challenges faced in all cultures by girls, which in truth really comes down to the power imbalance that still limits the lives of girls and women in ways we most address.

Many of these challenges, of course, cut deeper in Native communities and affect Native youth more profoundly—and the solutions Native youth offer are that much more profound, too.

We can, to solve some of these problems now. But we also need to educate and empower, lift up and listen to young people as they innovate and inspire and begin to take the reins of leadership.

The 2018 State of Native Youth report offers a pathway forward so that we can learn, retool, refocus, and forge ahead with solutions built on a strong cultural foundation.

This State of Native Youth report, the third of its kind, highlights what is working well in Native American communities: young people who are championing and collaborating on novel solutions to persistent problems.

It highlights the national issues that are important to Native American youth, issues like health and wellness, education, land, waterways, and sacred site protection. It features the work of youth leaders, showcases the effectiveness of youth programs, and exhibits artwork by young Native artists.

The policy proposals, survey results, stories of learning and leadership, artwork, and best practices contained within it are like a circle, offering a rounded and rich reason to be optimistic about our tomorrow.

And the Center for Native American Youth is leading the way to that brighter tomorrow. Erik and the team at the Center are building a North American network of more than 2,000 young people striving to effect change in their communities by developing solutions deeply rooted in culture.

The Center for Native American Youth is literally bringing young people to the table by bringing them to Capitol Hill; equipping them with evidence-based policies crafted from data and community expertise; and training them for and connecting them to strengths-based media opportunities.

Darby, Trenton, Isabelle, and Julie demonstrate how native youth leaders are setting the agenda for native communities into the future. Along with so many members of “Generation Indigenous,” the “Gen-I Movement Builders” and “Fresh Tracks” Fellows, and Champions for Change, they are demonstrating the power of culture in action.

This report, the work of the Center for Native American Youth, the mission of the Aspen Institute, and the clear evidence given by Isabel, Darby, Trenton, and Julie’s work all illustrate an important truth:

It isn’t enough to give young people input; they need to have influence…

…and throughout his career as a state official, member of Congress and US Senator, Senator Byron Dorgan has welcomed the input of Native American youth and worked to amplify their influence.

We are honored to be with him here today.

As a Senator for North Dakota for 30 years and as Chairman and vice chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Senator Dorgan was a tireless champion of Native American culture and opportunities. As a public servant, Senator Dorgan has shed light on the disparities that exist in Native communities and the solutions that emerge from Native culture. Although he retired from the Senate in 2011, he has continued tirelessly his lifelong advocacy of Native American issues. This includes his founding of the Center for Native American Youth.

Now, with sincere gratitude and deep admiration, I’m pleased to introduce Senator Byron Dorgan.