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Healing Indigenous Lives Initiative

Program Overview:
The project builds on the successes of the past Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) National Intertribal Youth Leadership efforts and the Today’s Native Leaders program. The initiative will support and enhance Native youth engagement, coordination, and action related to public safety issues, with a focus on juvenile justice and delinquency prevention in Indian country. UNITY will be recruiting a diverse group of youth leaders and mentors, who will design and facilitate intensive training in critical aspects of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention efforts for cohorts of youth throughout the country.

For More Information, contact Program Manager LorenAshley Buford at

OJJDP Publications:

Healing Indigenous Lives Native Youth Town Halls
This report presents the proceedings of four Native youth-led Town Halls held virtually to provide Native youth the opportunity to share their concerns about public safety and tribal juvenile justice issues, and included are youth responses to a survey following the Town Halls.

Tribal Youth Offer Feedback to OJJDP
The sessions offered a unique opportunity for Tribal youth to talk about how they deal with trauma and provide recommendations for UNITY and OJJDP to enhance their engagement with youth and bolster their resilience.

OJJDP Tribal Youth Initiatives
Through the Healing Indigenous Lives Initiative, OJJDP helps to promote leadership skills in Tribal youth by engaging them in mentoring, peer-led trainings, and community service projects that reduce risk factors for delinquency. OJJDP designed the funding to be flexible to accommodate each Tribe’s unique culture, needs, and capacities.

Click below to Explore More of the Peer Guide Community Work with Native Youth:
 Peer Guide Trainings and HILI Services:
• Young people will receive training to serve as peer leaders who will provide training, mentoring, support, resources, information, and other assistance for their peers in efforts to increase public safety and creatively prevent and address juvenile delinquency.
• UNITY, with its trainers, youth guides, and mentors will offer regional youth leadership development trainings that will enable Native youth, and their adult advisors, to develop and carry out projects, programs, education, awareness campaigns, and other efforts within their communities.
• The projects will benefit communities while providing valuable real-world leadership experiences that will better prepare the youth to succeed in their leadership roles.


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.


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 to support and enhance Native youth engagement, coordination, and action related to public safety issues, focusing on cultural prevention approaches to wellness in Indian country. Each of the Peer Guides was chosen based on their 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. Many 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 I would not be in the position I am now if I did not fail and hit rock bottom. 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 as the positive ones get. If we do not like something about ourselves, we fix that behavior, not anyone else. Leaders are emotional and empathetic; learning to care for the self is crucial for caring for others. Youth that struggles 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 promotes cultural awareness, diversity, and 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 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, then 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 of 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 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 she’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, 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 tribe’s 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 who 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 has been involved in many Native Youth Groups and held various leadership positions, inspiring others to follow her lead! She was a former UNIY Executive Community Member and 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. She 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, educate and advocate lawmakers on tribal issues, and improve indigenous peoples’ perception, especially in empowering fellow young people to shape their communities through cultural resiliency better. 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 a 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 and 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 doing things for their community and 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 been 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. Before 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 encourages 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 a part of such a fantastic 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 the young bear that looks twice. From Bowler, Wisconsin, he strives to be a voice for the youth and empower them to be the best they can be in life. Advocating for issues that native youth face 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 that if there is a push to preserve traditions and Culture, communities will teach youth who were never given the opportunity. He stands to be an example for Native Americans and Alaskan Native Youth. Over the years, he has been working on providing the youth around him with more opportunities to express themselves and participate in cultural teachings. He makes it a point to help those around him and devote his time to creating 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 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 the 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.




Youth to Youth Dialog: UNITY recruited a diverse group of youth mentors, who helped design, plan, and conduct training for Native youth in critical aspects of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention. The Town Hall discussions were facilitated by youth from each of the four time zones. Peer-to-peer interactions are vital to building a solid support system.  

Town Hall Overview

Town Hall Overview

Town Halls: Four Native youth-led Town Halls held virtually in August 2020 provided an opportunity for young participants to share concerns about tribal juvenile justice systems to help develop informed responses that improve outcomes for Native youth, enhance public safety, promote accountability and empower communities. The Town Halls targeted Native youth ages 14-24 years old. The Town Halls were recorded and transcribed to increase community involvement.

Elders: Native youth expressed how understanding intergenerational relationships and engaging in cultural activities created safety in their communities. The Town Hall discussions show the cultural significance that elders hold in Indigenous cultures as a community asset and core of Native households. It is common for youth to be raised by their grandparents and live in extended family homes in many communities and homes.

COVID-19: Native youth referenced the Covid-19 pandemic in their responses.  Multiple people stated that they felt safe when they saw people wearing masks in public places. Many related feeling safe with increased or heightened public health awareness efforts to help protect family members and community members.

Police, First Responders, Community Patrols: While not all Native youth feel safe around police officers in their communities, there was a common theme across the different regions during the Town Halls on how law enforcement and community support agencies made them feel secure.  Many Native youth listed the police as both a challenge and a community strength to public safety in responses submitted from all the Town Halls. Some youth listed “police violence” and “racist police” as the root cause of them feeling unsafe. “I get panic attacks when I see police, even when I know I’m not breaking the law.” When even one youth feels unsafe, it is our responsibility to address the challenge. Natives are incarcerated at higher rates than other races, which directly impacts a breakdown in family structure.
Both views on community safety are important to validate and acknowledge. This reflects the diversity in tribal communities’ relationships to their law enforcement, which varies on and off Indian reservations, tribal or non-tribal police, and rural and urban communities.

Violence: Research shows an urgent need to improve Indian nations’ federal resources to address safety issues in their communities. The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 (TLOA) and the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA 2013) stand as historic steps forward in restoring safety, especially to Native women, who experience violence at rates 2½ times higher than violence against any other group of women in the United States.

High Dropout Rates:  During the Town Halls, Native youth expressed many reasons why education disparities were a community concern. “Many Native youth experience Imposter Syndrome because the educational institutions are built upon the assumption that indigenous methodologies are inferior,” said Pacific Peer Guide Angela Noah. 

Native Youth Empowerment: Speaking out about past traumas can be a source of empowerment for Native youth. Native youth who have been exposed to trauma within their communities have become leaders to be a part of solution-based thinking to increase public safety.

Native Youth Resiliency

What does resiliency mean?  During the Town Halls, Native youth expressed what resiliency meant to them. While exploring how youth overcome difficult or traumatic situations in their lives, one common answer centered around inherent resiliency. “To me, resiliency is a double-edged sword. While I am grateful for how our people have this inept ability to overcome the odds in so many traumatic situations, I also see first-hand the social, emotional, and mental turmoil it takes on our youth. And yet we continue to push this idea of resiliency and overcoming but at times, I feel like we need to impart more grace.” – Peer Trainer, Dr. Leslie Locklear, Eastern Region.

Engage Your Leadership:  In July 2020, UNITY Peer Guides participated in a congressional forum led by Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), chair of the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States. The subject of the hearing was Native Youth Perspectives on Mental Health and Healing. (click to watch)  Peer Guides discussed the mental health impacts facing Native youth in the United States, education and safety, and ideas on how policy can reduce trauma and promote healing.

Leading by Example: UNITY Peer Guide Cheyenne Kippenberger, of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, partnered with the Native Learning Center to host its first “Healing the Circle in Our Tribal Communities Symposium” in Hollywood, Florida. The symposium’s focus was to stress the importance of safe and healthy environments for Native people and increase awareness about domestic violence, self-care, elder abuse, and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

We’re Stronger Together: “Learning that, even though you feel like you’re alone, you’re not alone… that’s resilience. There’s a lot of youth; when something traumatic happens in my community, we just brush it off, but that’s the reaction that comes from being resilient for too long. Even when it’s hard… it’s better when we help carry it together.”
– Central Region Native youth.

Wellness Courts: “Operate more Juvenile Healing to Wellness Courts. I also think there should be more group homes where our juvenile offenders will have a place to stay instead of being held in detention centers. I think the group homes should be located on Tribal land and operated by people who have the compassion and empathy for the client but someone who can also give the client some structure in their lives” – Mountain Region Native youth. 

Why so many? “Native youth are incarcerated at higher rates per capita than other races… That’s a systematic fault that needs to change to work better with the community and stop the violence against community members… This isn’t about blame. We need to focus on why there are so many offenders in the first place” – Central Region Native youth.

Holistic Approach: “In Alaska, a lot of our communities are not concerned with ensuring offenders are held more accountable; we are more worried about losing our youth to suicide, gang violence, and drugs. It is a slippery slope when you label kids as bad; then, their self-worth goes downhill. And I’ve lost too many friends that way. I don’t want them punished harder. I want to see them get the help they need to be who I know they can be. Who our villages need them to be” – Pacific Region Native youth. 

Restorative Justice

Native youth voiced their concerns about the focus of punishment on juvenile offenders rather than rehabilitation or what is often referred to as a “healing journey.” Overall, healing and personal accountability are a community priority, which is seen to help restore wellness to offenders and victims, their families, and clans. UNITY Peer Guides agree that healing, along with reintegrating individuals into their community, is paramount.

Government to Government Relationship Building: One common theme mentioned in more than two Town Halls referenced by Native youth was the lack of trust of the federal government. Historically, tribal groups in the U.S. have suffered irreparable harm due to colonization, assimilation, and integration efforts led by the federal government.  “Earn our trust by respecting our leaders, elders, and customs.” – Pacific Region Native youth. 

Include Educators & Tribes: “Work closely with native educators and Tribal Governments to develop programs in the community to ensure funding’s effectiveness. We know our kids better than anyone. Help us help them.” – Central Region Native youth.

Include Youth: Help us make the OJJDP system known and easily accessible to Tribes. Ask the youth directly how you can help. Have youth partner with our tribal leaders to help inform OJJDP of best cultural practices and what is needed to create lasting change”  – Pacific Region Native youth.

By spreading awareness, you will Enhance Safety.
By learning from past mistakes, you are Ensuring Accountability.
When you share your message with others, it will Empower Native youth.
The UNITY Peer Guides are here to help you.
Together we CAN heal our communities.

UNITY Peer Guide Community Impact

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UNITY announces partnership with the Indigenous Youth Council, NM Indian Affairs Department

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Sherrie Catanach, NM Indian Affairs Department UNITY Mary Kim Titla, (480) 718-9793    Mesa,…

Community Discussions & Resources

Healing Indigenous Lives Trainings

Screen Shot 2022-12-02 at 12.50.11 PM

UNITY announces partnership with the Indigenous Youth Council, NM Indian Affairs Department

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Sherrie Catanach, NM Indian Affairs Department UNITY Mary Kim Titla, (480) 718-9793    Mesa,…