Native American Issues

Champions for Change

November 17, 2016  • Amber Richardson

Key Points

  • Since its inception in 2013, the Center for Native American Youth’s Champions for Change program at the Institute has recognized five extraordinary Native youth leaders each year. Champions come from tribal and urban Indian communities throughout the country and, despite their youth, bring a wealth of experience as change agents on the ground. CNAY introduces them to a wide range of partners who are eager to sustain their efforts. Champions have co-authored powerful op-eds for national publications like The Washington Post and The New York Times, shared a stage with President Obama before an audience of hundreds of elected tribal leaders, and shed light on important issues like Native youth suicide prevention and disparities in oral health care in Indian Country. Most important, Champions create a ripple effect within their communities that moves young Indian people to action.

Keith Martinez
Oglala Lakota
2014 Champion for Change

Keith Martinez grew up around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. There, poverty and a lack of educational resources like libraries and computer labs placed him and his peers at a disadvantage in academic competitiveness. Martinez completed his last two years of high school at Scarsdale High in New York state through the Student Transfer Education Plan (STEP), an educational-exchange program for talented students. It was through STEP that Martinez realized for the first time just how far behind he was. “I hated the idea of Native students being behind just because of where they come from,” he says. Martinez took advantage of tutoring and opportunities provided by his school and host family to catch up to his classmates and graduate with a 3.7 GPA. He is now both a Presidential and Gates Millennium Scholar attending Villanova University, where he is the recipient of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship.

Seeing education as the primary way for his community to overcome the myriad challenges facing it, Martinez became a co-founding member of the Youth Advisory Board of Lakota Children’s Enrichment, a nonprofit organization committed to empowering Native youth on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The group engages students in community-service initiatives and increases educational resources. As its Youth Advisory board chair for two years, Martinez raised money, cultivated partnerships, led youth summits, organized toy drives, and hosted writing and art competitions to engage, support, and motivate his peers. He also led the group in providing more than 5,000 books to the Boys and Girls Club library in his community. It was these efforts that gained him recognition as a Champion for Change.

For Martinez, the most helpful part of being a Champion has been the network. “I was doing the work, but CNAY helped me get connected to larger opportunities for LCE to grow, and getting more recognition got more youth involved,” he says.

Tatiana Ticknor
Yup’ik, Tlingit, Dena’ina
2015 Champion for Change

As a high-school student, Tatiana Ticknor felt that negative stereotypes of Native youth created an unwelcoming learning environment, keeping her Alaska Native classmates from identifying with their own cultures and thriving in school. She began to speak out at leadership summits and conventions across the state. Ticknor also began taking more initiative to learn and teach the Dena’ina language in order to inspire other Native youth. She started by volunteering to help her cheda (grandmother) teach a weekly language class, and shared words and phrases through social media. Though Ticknor says the language is difficult, her Facebook videos for the “Dena’ina Word of the Day” make people laugh and want to learn more.

Unbeknownst to her, youth throughout Alaska had seen Ticknor’s public displays of cultural involvement as brave and inspiring. (Ticknor is also a member of three Native dance groups and is training to compete in the Native Youth Olympics in Anchorage.) Soon, young people began asking her about getting involved in activities like her high school’s Native Leadership Council. She was also named a Community Doer by the First Alaskans Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for Alaska Natives and fosters positive relationships among communities. When she applied to become a Champion at age 15, “I was just learning that being myself was being a leader,” Ticknor says. “I really wanted to make something better for my community.”

“When you don’t have opportunities, it’s hard to do what you want to do because you don’t have people to go to for advice,” Ticknor adds. She says that the program “really opens doors. If I never did this, I wouldn’t be doing all the things I’m doing today.”

Vanessa Goodthunder
Cansayapi (Lower Sioux Indian Community)
2016 Champion for Change

During a community-outreach trip in Minnesota, CNAY witnessed Vanessa Goodthunder’s work as a leader at Dakota Wicohan (Dakota Way of Life), a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing the Dakota language so it will live beyond its five remaining first-language speakers. Goodthunder speaks passionately about the ways in which continuing important traditions has helped members of her tribal community recover from the historical trauma of being forbidden to connect with and express their identities as indigenous peoples. She believes that the Dakota language itself has healing power, and at 18 years old she has dedicated her life to learning and teaching it. In addition to facilitating Dakota-language classes for tribal youth of all ages, she created a peer-mentoring group to connect Native youth from all four Dakota communities around learning and practicing Dakota language and culture.

Goodthunder is a skilled connector, creating links among concepts, resources, and people to share knowledge and inspire action. “When I first came to DC, I didn’t really connect Lower Sioux to DC and didn’t think DC made a huge impact on my life or community,” Goodthunder says. During Champion Recognition Week, however, she met with Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. “The committee wanted a youth perspective,” she says. “Instead of telling people who I am and just having them clap for me, they were asking me to share some of the ideas I have for helping my community. There was action.”

Goodthunder says that in addition to resources and connections, being a Champion for Change has been important in inspiring her peers. “Native youth need to know that historical trauma is not normal,” she says. “We need people on the ground, helping them find their voices, building their confidence, and giving them the resources to help them become who they want to be.”

Anita Fineday
White Earth Band of Ojibwe
Managing Director, Casey Family Programs
Indian Child Welfare Program

As a former tribal judge and the current managing director of Casey Family Programs’ Indian Child Welfare Program, Anita Fineday has long understood the mission and vision behind the Center for Native American Youth. In 2012, Fineday initiated the partnership by asking if CNAY would dedicate one of its quarterly policy and resource roundtables to child welfare in Indian Country.

“Children’s issues are usually not at the top of very many people’s agendas,” she says. “When Champions participate in our events, people always say that the best thing about the meeting is having the youth speak. They always steal the show.”

Fineday says that before CNAY, there was a “complete void” of organizations able to provide direct connections to Native youth. “There are so few programs that work directly with Native youth, aside from having them attend an annual conference,” she explains. “Our program often coordinates informational presentations between Native youth, tribal leaders, Hill staffers, and members of Congress to provide insight on the state of youth in Indian Country. The connection to Champions for Change has allowed youth to see tribal leaders in action, gain valuable experience as advocates and young professionals, and give voice to critical issues affecting their communities.”

While it’s essential to shed light on disparities, Fineday recognizes the power of uplifting positive stories as well. She says that the youth voice is a critical component in making the case to foundations and others that “it’s not all doom and gloom in Indian Country.” In fact, according to Fineday, “The development of Native youth as advocates, Champions, and leaders is a public-health strategy. It’s a public-health model of resiliency. This is how you foster resiliency in your communities.”