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Moments that build me: UNITY 25 Under 25 Lily Painter

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There are defining moments that shape us. UNITY interviewed 25 Under 25 Awardee Lily Painter to share some of her leadership growth from her past. As indigenous youth, our lives are living testimonies to our experiences. Read below to learn more about one of UNITY’s ambassadors and her journey to the leader she is today.

2022-23 UNITY 25 UNDER 25 AWARDEE 
Lilly Painter, 20, Winnebago/Kiowa Tribe, OK

UNITY: What is your greatest personal achievement

Lily: Being chosen as the Head Lady Dancer for my tribe’s annual summer ceremony is something I cherish very deeply. I was 18 when my family and I were asked to take up this honor, and though COVID delayed the ceremony for a year, being under 20 was nearly unheard of for a responsibility like this. Kiowas no longer have a Sundance ceremony, it was lost during the era of removal and assimilation. In place of this, every year, for three days in the beginning of July, we camp as a community and dance late into the night. I had always dreamed of being able to take on a leadership role within my tribe, and though it is often overlooked as leadership, leading our people through dance is an opportunity I did not take lightly. I felt so honored to dance for my Kiowa people, and also to take part in a ceremony that paid homage to the ways of our Kiowa ancestors as a showcase and statement to the ways in which our tribe has persevered through colonialism. 

UNITY: What is your most proud academic achievement and why is that most important to you?

Lily: In the fall semester of my sophomore year of college, I was given the Withrow Leadership Scholar award and a spot in one of my college’s most prestigious programs. The Withrow Scholars are a group of students from a variety of backgrounds, academic disciplines and experiences for the purpose of expanding their leadership education. The members learn about important aspects of leadership, including ethics, volunteerism, diversity, and personal responsibility.

The feat in itself is commendable, but the reason that I am the most proud of my selection for this program did not come the exact second I realized I was selected, but rather a few days afterward. I was sitting in the office of our diversity and enrichment program, a group of DEP interns sat next to me and among them, was the student-president of the Withrow Leadership Scholars and a few of the upperclassmen who had interviewed me during the selection process. The faculty in the DEP office had been notified of the recipients of the Withrow award, given that Withrow is one of the most diverse groups on the campus, there is lots of overlap with students who are in the diversity and enrichment program.

A few members of the staff came up to me and said congratulations, telling me how excited and proud they were. I thanked them before turning my head to the President and thanking him for selecting me. He merely shook his head and said, “You did it, not me.” And it was that moment that affirmed to me for the first time in my college academic career that all the work I had put in to get into the spaces that were not made for me, all of the time I had spent studying and applying for scholarships had not been in vain. His words to me resonated with the idea that power comes from within, that the potential to achieve my goals, whether it be academic or otherwise, already rests within me, that I had (and always have had) the strength, the skill, and the knowledge to make a place for myself in academic spaces. 


The UNITY 25 Under 25 is a national youth leadership recognition program. The awards program is designed to celebrate the achievements of Native American and Alaskan Native youth ages 14 to 24 who embody UNITY’s core mission and exude living a balanced life developing their spiritual, mental, physical, and social well-being. Honorees are recognized during the UNITY National Conference, with each receiving a hand-made beaded “25 Under 25” medallion. In addition to being recognized, each awardee will receive special training by UNITY over the period of one year that is designed to build on their individual achievements. The class is recognized as UNITY ambassadors, serving as stellar examples of Native youth leadership in Indian Country today.