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UNITY Advisory Cohort empowers Native youth voice

Get to know the newest UNITY Peer Guide Cohort and learn more about their passion for advocating for “non-traditional” Native youth leadership. UNITY has recruited this diverse group of youth mentors, to design and facilitate six regional trainings across the nation. These trainings will empower Native youth to speak out about critical aspects of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention efforts within their home communities.

Over the next two years, these Peer Guides will spearhead this initiative in order to support and enhance Native youth engagement, coordination, and action related to public safety issues, with a focus on cultural prevention approaches to wellness in Indian country. Each one of the Peer Guides were chosen based on their personal testimonies of overcoming adversity and helping lift up others.

The 2019-2021 Peer Guides were asked
“What would you tell a Native Youth who struggles to see themselves as a leader?”

Josiah Lester, Navajo-Dine, AZ

“A Native youth should never feel ashamed of struggling to become a leader, especially at such an early age. A lot of young Native people can relate to coming from broken households and decades of historical trauma, which can be the root of a lot of their struggles. The best teachings come from failure and I believe that if I did not fail and hit rock bottom, I would not be in the position I am now. I would let Native youth know that it is never too late to accomplish what they want or who they want to be. Lastly, I like to remind Indigenous youth that they represent hundreds of generations before them and that they are living for those who sacrificed their lives so that we may still walk this earth today” said Lester.

Sonwai Dj Wakayuta, Hualapai , KS

“All leaders have something to fight for, and if youth don’t know what that something is, then they are on the right track. I would tell the youth that it is okay to think something about their image is bad. It is okay not to view themselves in all their glory. It is okay to feel that their character is not worthy. I think the negative aspects deserve as much attention at the positive ones get. If we do not like something about ourselves, we fix that behavior for ourselves, not anyone else. Leaders are emotional and empathetic; learning to care for the self is crucial for us to care for others. Youth that struggle to see the leader within themselves are the ones who will fight endlessly for what they believe is right. Once youth find their “why” passion blooms and their spirit manifests” said Wakayuta.

Sonwai Wakayuta 19, (Hualapai/Hopi) is a student from Peach Springs AZ, attending Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence KS. Where she serves as the first attendant to Miss Haskell 2019-2020. In her early years Ms. Wakayuta has represented the Hualapai tribe as; a Little Miss and Miss Teen titleholder, as president of the Hualapai tribal youth council, and as an Earth Ambassador inducted into the class of 2017.
Now Ms. Wakayuta continues to promote cultural awareness and diversity, as well as environmental stewardship among her peers and communities. She is eager to find creative, imaginative ways to advocate for healthier, stronger people, starting with the youth of tomorrow. Hankyu. 

Savanna Rilatos, Confederated Tribes of Siletz, OR

“You are your own worst critic. Everyone is the hardest on themselves. As Native youth we are living, breathing, examples of the survival from Native genocide. Just being alive is a struggle against settler colonialism because we are still here. We fight to exist and we fight to survive. We are the future, and we will lead the future generations to come as our ancestors did for us. It is easy to think “not me” but if not, than who? And who better than you?” Rilatos explained, ” I am excited to bring my platform, which is ‘Culture is Prevention’ to Native youth all over to make a difference in our communities, and make UNITY more accessible to our Northwest youth.”

Savanna Rilatos is 21 years old and a proud member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz. Her tribal bands are Galice Creek, Molalla, and Yamhill. She currently attends Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and will graduate in 2020 with degrees in Political Science and Ethnic Studies with a focus in Native/Indigenous Studies. She is applying to the 5th year Masters or Art (MAT) in teaching for the fall of 2020, and then wants to go on to law school to eventually pursue a career in law and or policy. She is a 2016 Gates Millennium Scholar, served as her tribes 2018/2019 Miss Siletz, and was selected as a member of UNITY’s 2018 Class of 25 under 25 awardees.

Vance Homegun, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, MT

“No matter your past, who your family is, how much money you do or don’t have, you have a hidden gift to share with your peers and people you meet. A leader isn’t someone in the spotlight but it’s a person who shows empathy, compassion, and service to other people! When another human helps someone, that’s being a leader. It’s going to take a lifetime to master this skill, but that’s where the fun begins!” said Homegun.

Vance Home Gun lives on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Northwest MT which is home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, where he is an enrolled member. He has gone on to graduate high school and college studying student leadership and education. Vance has been a very active advocate in preserving his ancestral language and culture. He currently works as a Salish language instructor in the tribes apprenticeship program. But at the very heart of his work and passion: is seeing young Indian people know the Creator, know their language, and know their ancestors.

Leticia Gonzales , Bishop Paiute, CA

“All Native Youth are natural born leaders, we come from generations of resilience and strength. Share your story and struggles, as there is always a Native Youth looking up to you whom can relate to you and that in itself is inspiring and makes one a leader” said Gonzales.

Leticia Lucille Gonzales 22, is an enrolled member of the Bishop Paiute Tribe in Bishop, California and resides on the Bishop Paiute Reservation. After attending her first National UNITY Conference in 2011 she was inspired by the work Native Youth were doing and returned to her community eager to help make a difference in Indian Country. Since then Leticia was involved in many Native Youth Groups and held various leadership positions, getting others inspired to follow her lead! She was a former UNIY Executive Community Member and also served as Miss Bishop Paiute Tribe 2016-2017. Currently Leticia works in her community as the Youth Prevention Worker at the Toiyabe Indian Health Project’s Family Services Department. Being very passionate that Culture is prevention Leticia is motivated to share the many teachings of her tribe and tribal elders to Native Youth, and can’t wait to travel to your community as a UNITY Peer Guide bringing UNITY closer to you.

Rory Wheeler, Seneca Nation, NY

“I would tell a fellow Native youth who struggles to see themselves as a leader that even if we don’t know it, we are a people of leadership, where it’s within us. I would also tell them that our people went through struggles that we today couldn’t even imagine fighting. But, they still persevered and fought for all that we have today” said Wheeler.

Rory Wheeler is a citizen of the Seneca Nation and descendent of the Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (Cayuse). Rory uses his unique work, life, and professional experiences to protect tribal sovereignty, educating and advocating to lawmakers on tribal issues, improving the perception of indigenous peoples, especially in empowering fellow young people to better shape their communities through cultural resiliency. Rory also serves as the Youth Commission Co-President for the National Congress of American Indians and the Youth Advisory Board Vice Chairman for the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute, and the Board of Directors for the Association on American Indian Affairs. He is pursuing his education at Niagara University studying Pre-Law/Political Science and is an volunteer emergency medical technician for his nation. 

Santana Bartholomew, Pueblo of Pojoaque, NM

“I would tell them that the best leaders are servers; that no great leader was built in one day; and that every leader is different. If you take the initiative to do the right thing, then you are completely capable of being a great leader” said Bartholomew.

Santana Bartholomew is a member of the Pueblo of Pojoaque in New Mexico. She is the tribal healing to wellness court coordinator at the Youth Path to Wellness (YPTW) under the Pueblo of Pojoaque Tribal Court. YPTW is working to heal youth who struggle with substance use disorder and frequent court-involvement. Santana is also an advisor and mentor for the new Pojoaque Youth Empowerment Summer Program as well as Tribal Youth Council. Her passion lies in working with youth—both in her community and across the country—to build and strengthen confidence, leadership skills, and cultural-identity in future leaders across Native America as a whole.

Audriana Mitchell , Colorado River Indian Tribes, AZ

“I would tell them my story. I would tell them how I didn’t grow up with much knowledge of my cultural background and about the first time I spoke publicly at a youth conference and how nervous I was. Then I would tell them to continue to do things for their community and to keep putting themselves out there to make connections with other people. Being a leader doesn’t just happen overnight, it takes time. And somewhere along their journey they’ll be able to look back and see how far they have come and be proud of who they are, a leader” said Mitchell.

Audriana Mitchell is a 21 year old Navajo and Southern Cheyenne and is an enrolled member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes. She currently resides in Mesa, Arizona where she is attending college at Mesa Community College studying Communication. Prior to being selected as a UNITY Peer Guide, Audri was chosen as part of the 2018 UNITY 25 Under 25 awardees during the National UNITY Conference in San Diego, California. Audri is also the current reigning Miss Colorado River Indian Tribes 2018 – 2019, her platform is to encourage Native youth to learn about their culture and give back to their communities. Audri loves volunteering with her community, she especially enjoys working with the youth and helping them become leaders. Audri is very excited to be selected as a UNITY Peer Guide and can’t wait to be apart of such an amazing program to help Indigenous youth across the Nation.

Collin Church, Potawatomi, WI

“Everyone is a leader of their own lives. It doesn’t take a professional or a good speaker to lead. To be a leader you have to have self ignited passion. Everyone believes in something and everyone wants good things to happen in life. All it takes is one step and one instance of strong willed passion and standing up for what you believe in to become a leader” said Church.

Bozho, Makōns Itíbíwín Nijwaw ndezhnekas. Collin Church’s spirit name is young bear that looks twice. From Bowler, Wisconsin he strives to be a voice for the youth and to empower them to be the best that they can be in life. Advocating for issues that native youth face all throughout Indian country and working towards providing a better tomorrow is what he aspires to fulfill. As a peer guide he hopes to implement and assist in many programs focusing on education, substance abuse, suicide prevention, young parenthood, leadership, and language and culture. He knows in this modern era, Youth aren’t always able to grow up learning their culture. However, he believes if there is a push to preserve traditions and culture, communities will be able to teach youth that were never given the opportunity. He stands to be an example for Native American and Alaskan Native Youth. Over the years, he has been working on providing the youth around him with more opportunities to express themselves and to participate in cultural teachings. He makes it a point to help those around him and to devote his time to create a better environment for the next generations of native youth.

Cheyenne Kippenberger, Seminole Tribe of FL
Miss Indian World 2019-2020

“I would tell them that our strongest leaders have had the hardest paths. Tough people are made from tough experiences. These struggles could be preparing them for something bigger, greater in the future” said Kippenberger.

Cheyenne Kippenberger, formerly Miss Florida Seminole and now Miss Indian World, was crowned April 27 at the Gathering of Nations Powwow in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s the first time a Seminole Tribe of Florida member has been crowned Miss Indian World. The 23-year-old from the Hollywood Reservation is the 36th Miss Indian World. She is the daughter of Joe and Susan Kippenberger. Kippenberger graduated from Keiser University in Fort Lauderdale with a degree in accounting. Kippenberger wants to continue to promote Tribal mental health issues, including through her own personal experiences. She also wants to shed light on the lack of representation of Indigenous people in education, health care, mass media and more.

Angela Noah, White Mountain Apache, OR

“This is an opportunity for you to help yourself and your community. Understand your history of your tribe. I guarantee that your tribal history includes some resilient strong ancestors who fought to protect our people. That history is repeating itself today. The only difference is they wore moccasins back then and everyone is wearing fresh J’s. Do not be fooled. Just because it looks like our time is new and improved, does not mean our people are owed what was taken back from us.
You are fighting that same fight. We will continue to keep fighting until our women stop going missing, until our men heal, until our peers stop wanting to harm themselves, until treaty rights are honored, and until our tribal nation heals. We are the new ancestors and we must act accordingly. You are a leader. There are too many issues and precious time to not waste in doubting ourselves. Trust your abilities and implement them. You have a whole community that needs you and is rooting for you” said Noah.

Korbin Storms, Native Village of Unalakleet, AK
“I would tell Native Youth that struggle to see themselves as leaders that they have resiliency in their DNA, that sometimes it takes someone who has been low and lost before to connect to others that are feeling that way, that they have a unique perspective and so much potential to enact change and that the best leaders are those that give hope to others” said Storms.

This Initiative is supported by a cooperative agreement (2018–TY–FX–K002) between UNITY, Inc. and the US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.