Center for Native American Youth to Honor American Indian and Alaska Native Youth Leaders in Washington, DC

January 19, 2017

Five outstanding Native youth leaders will be recognized through a public event at the Aspen Institute for grassroots efforts to create positive community change. 

Contact: Amber Richardson
Aspen Institute Center for Native American Youth
202.736.3577 |

Washington, DC, January 19, 2017 — The Center for Native American Youth (CNAY), a policy program at the Aspen Institute, will introduce the fifth class of CNAY Champions for Change through a series of events in Washington, DC next month. The 2017 Champions class includes CJ Francis (Passamaquoddy Tribe), Faith Holyan (Navajo Nation), Mariah Gladstone (Blackfeet Nation), Nancy Deere-Turney (Muscogee (Creek) Nation), and Samuel Schimmel (Kenaitze/St. Lawrence Island Siberian Yupik).

This year’s Champions are strengthening intergenerational ties by honoring tribal elders; tackling youth suicide with innovative uses of social media; encouraging healthy nutritional choices that move tribal communities toward food sovereignty; coordinating culture camps to preserve culture and language; and protecting subsistence ways of life by raising awareness of effects of climate change on tribal communities, among other initiatives.

“We created the Champions for Change program to recognize young Native Americans who, by their work, are inspiring hope in Indian Country,” says CNAY Founder Senator Byron Dorgan (ret.). “Each of the young leaders chosen this year has a remarkable story of leadership that has touched and inspired other young people in their communities. The ripples of hope created by these Champions are leading to positive change for Native American youth. The Center for Native American Youth salutes these five Champions who are provoking and stimulating constructive change every day.”

Champions for Change is CNAY’s cornerstone leadership development program which selects five Native youth between the ages of 14-24 from across the United States each year to share what they’re doing to tackle challenges in their community and inspire other Native youth to take positive action.

CJ, Faith, Mariah, Nancy, and Sam will share their inspirational stories of youth-led community change through a public event at the Aspen Institute on February 14. During their time in the nation’s capital, the Champions will also meet with policymakers, national advocacy organization representatives, and other stakeholders to grow their networks and enhance their leadership efforts.

“These dynamic young Native people showcase the strength and resilience of tribal communities. We’re proud to provide them with this platform to inspire other Native youth and educate decision-makers about their priorities.” said Erik Stegman, Executive Director of CNAY.

Visit to learn more about each of these outstanding Native youth leaders. Click here to RSVP for the Champions for Change Announcement Event.

Carroll “CJ” Francis, Jr., Passamaquoddy Tribe
Age: 15
Hometown: Pleasant Point Perry, ME

CJ’s goal is unity, strength, and healthy partnerships for all. After overcoming the effects of middle-school bullying, CJ poured his energy into fostering positive intergenerational relationships. He led youth in his community to create an event honoring elders with a focus on respect and learning from one another. CJ is an active mentor, engaging peers by teaching them about topics that range from healthy traditional foods to protecting natural resources, and more. CJ carefully crafts his educational and leadership experiences so that he can become Chief of his tribe.

“I want our youth to understand the importance of respecting, honoring, and learning from our elders. Our elders are the foundation of who we are, and in order to keep our culture, language, values, and traditions alive, we all must learn to do this.”

Faith Holyan, Navajo Nation
Age: 16
Hometown: Coyote Canyon, NM

After losing a close friend to suicide, Faith started #codepurple, a social media based suicide prevention campaign, to connect peers going through difficult times with friends and loved ones. As a former World Champion in the Indian National Finals Rodeo circuit, Faith uses her title and recognition to advocate for youth suicide prevention and mental health awareness. She also hosts local community events for her peers that serve as safe spaces for discussing mental health related issues.

“There is so much shame and disbelief about suicide that it is rarely talked about; stories and life challenges are not shared. Suicide is a mental health issue, and sharing experiences with one another is important so that we all learn from each other.”

Mariah Gladstone, Blackfeet Nation
Age: 22
Hometown: Kalispell, MT

A graduate of Columbia University, Mariah is passionate about food sovereignty and health and wellness. Mariah created Indigikitchen, a web-video cooking show that teaches viewers to prepare traditional pre-contact foods for modern, healthy meals. Mariah leads culturally-responsive wellness classes like Powwow Zumba to encourage healthy lifestyles in her community, in addition to other classes focused on environmentalism.

“I’m passionate about getting people excited about food sovereignty, but in ways that make it accessible. I think it’s important for indigenous people around the world to decolonize their minds, diets, and really think about wellness from a traditional perspective.”

Nancy Deere-Turney, Muscogee (Creek) Nation
Age: 22
Hometown: Okemah, OK

Nancy is a college senior who started her own initiative focused on cultural preservation called the Youth Enrichment Camp (YEC). For the second year, Nancy will host the camp at a traditional roundhouse on her family’s land to talk to youth about the importance of culture, and the ways in which culture can be used to combat suicide and other issues Native youth are facing. A former Junior Miss and Miss Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Nancy is actively involved in her tribe’s government, and plans to run for elected office for her district’s National Council.

“Our youth are in a hard time right now. We face loss of language, culture, lives, and lack of representation in tribal and federal government. Every elder lost is one more speaker we cannot learn from. I created the Youth Enrichment Camp to target our loss of language and culture.”

Samuel Schimmel, (Kenaitze/St. Lawrence Island Siberian Yupik)
Age: 16
Hometown: Seattle, WA

Sam is an Alaska Native youth who spends part of his year as one of only two Native students in his urban Seattle school. The remainder of his year is spent with family in rural Alaskan villages. In Alaska, Sam’s passion for subsistence hunting and fishing keeps him connected to tradition and infuses his efforts to combat issues like suicide, drug abuse, and cultural disconnectedness. Having seen the effects of climate change in Alaska firsthand, Sam is also an avid environmentalist, working to raise awareness of its effects on tribal communities.

“Losing or not having tradition leaves an empty space that gets filled too often with poor choices. If we are listening to our elders, dancing, drumming, hunting, and picking berries, we are not drinking or doing drugs, and our traditions stay strong.”

View Comments