Native American youth from urban and rural communities across the nation gathered in July for the annual National UNITY Conference, held at the Gaylord Resort & Conference Center in Orlando, Florida. The 5-day conference, hosted by United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY), provided participants with culturally relevant leadership and skill-building training through workshops and keynote presentations. For 43 years, UNITY has offered essential support to Native American and Alaska Native youth, ages 14-24, through various programming opportunities, instilling a foundation for youth leaders and advocates to activate and build upon being positive change agents in their communities.
“We are so grateful for the strong turn-out and support at this year’s national conference,” said Mary Kim Titla, UNITY’s Executive Director. “This year’s event was on par with our 2018 conference, which was record-breaking for us. We continue to see the conference expand and grow, impacting and inspiring the lives of our youth to continue their trajectory of being role models and making a positive impact in their home communities,” Titla added.
With more than 300 tribal communities represented from across 36 states, participants began their conference experience at the lighting of the UNITY Fire, a sacred gathering and safe place for cultural sharing and healing which is held throughout the 5-days of the event. Following the lighting of the fire, attendees were welcomed by the event’s title sponsor, The Seminole Tribe of Florida, who provided a cultural welcome reception featuring a Seminole fashion show and a live alligator, which many participants took advantage of posing with for a photo.
With a conference theme of “You belong: Home is here.”, the opening general session began with prayer and a song by the UNITY Drum, posting of colors, and a parade of nations where UNITY youth councils proudly represented their tribal nations in traditional regalia. Several featured keynote speakers took the stage during the 5-day conference including John Herrington (Chickasaw Nation), who is the first member of a federally recognized tribe to travel to space; Luma – Native Taiwanese, who are part of a Tawain Indigenous youth delegation and provided cultural sharing; Paulette Jordan (Coer d’Alene), 2018 democratic candidate for the Governor of Idaho; and Kahara Hodges (Navajo/English/Mexican/African American), a professional model and vocalist featured in ads for Sketchers, KKW Beautry, Bootbarn, Cover Girl, Mac Cosmetics, and B.Yellowtail.
The UNITY Wellness Warriors program, in partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, hosted a wellness-themed day with guest speakers Michelle McCauley (Paiute), a music and dance wellness advocate, Martin Sensmeier (Tlingit/Koyukon-Athabascan), an actor and wellness advocate featured in the film Magnificent 7, HBO’s Westworld, and Paramount Network’s Yellowstone, and Vicky Stott (Ho-Chunk) with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. As a special offering, event sponsor N7 provided youth participants with Nike dry-fit t-shirts.
UNITY’s key leadership training team included Robert Johnston (Choctaw/Muscogee Creek), Chance Rush (Three Affiliated Tribes – Hidatsa), Juanita Toledo (Jemez Pueblo), emcee one/Marcus Guinn (Osage/Potawatomi of Oklahoma), and Pearl Yellowman, Ph.D. (Navajo) who conducted youth council advisor trainings.
During the conference, the annual National UNITY Council (NUC) Business Meeting took place where UNITY youth council members elected its new national leadership for 2019-2020, representing the UNITY organization as the NUC Executive Committee. The new officers are:
- National Female Co-President: Brittany McKane
- National Male Co-President: Robert Scottie Miller
- Northwest Area Representative: Izaiah Fisher
- Pacific Area Representative: Kristen Butcher
- Western Area Representative: Tyloria Antone
- Rocky Mountain Area Representative: ArriAnna Henry-Matt
- Southwest Area Representative: Kiera Toya
- Great Plains Area Representative: Elijah Landon
- Southern Plains Area Representative: Colby WhiteThunder
- Midwest Area Representative: Anthony Tamez-Pochel
- Northeast Area Representative: William Mosley
- Southeast Area Representative: Kaiden McGhee
Conference highlights also included the formal recognition and introduction of UNITY’s 2019-2020 Earth Ambassadors. The class includes:
- Alec Lee (Navajo), 19, New Mexico
- Angela Noah (White Mountain Apache Tribe), 19, Oregon
- Hope Long (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians), 16, North Carolina
- Jeidah DeZurney (Confederated Tribes of Siletz), 20, Oregon
- Kaylene Nevaquaya (Comanche Nation), 18, Oklahoma
- Marco Ovando (Shoshone-Paiute Tribe), 19, Nevada
- Sage Lacapa (White Mountain Apache Tribe), 15, Arizona
- Samuel Lopez (Tohono O’odham Nation), 16, Arizona
- Sky Wildcat (Cherokee Nation), 23, Oklahoma
- Zunneh-Bah Martin (Diné), 22, New Mexico
More than 50 diverse exhibitors and vendors engaged and interacted with participants throughout event, including on the annual UNITY Education and Career Expo day. Additional conference highlights included more than 40 workshops, a traditional skirt & shirt day, morning fitness activities, a Kairos blanket healing exercise provided by Native American in Philanthropy, cultural exchange and karaoke nights, general session cultural presentations, and a YES! Youth Entrepreneurship Summit presented by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED). NCAIED also sponsored a business plan competition for youth, with the winners, Joseph Davis from Gila River Indian Community and Rachel Arthur from Colville Confederated Tribes, being awarded $1,500 for their idea to create a coffee shop called Aesthetic Coffee Co.
The conference culminated with the annual UNITY Banquet and Dance, featuring a fashion show by Norma Baker-Flying Horse (Hidatsa, Dakota Sioux and Assiniboine), a fashion designer and owner of Red Berry Woman. During the UNITY Banquet, the Council of Trustees presented annual awards to:
- Golda Cook $1,000 Memorial Scholarships:
- Lance Sanchez (Tohono O’odham), and
- Truman Pipestem (Cherokee Tribe of North Carolina/Otoe-Missouria/Osage)
- UNITY Youth Council of the Year:
- Chi-Nations Youth Council, Chicago, Illinois
- J.R. Cook Youth Advisor of the Year:
- Christine Porter, Advisor, Young River People’s Council
The 2019 National UNITY Conference sponsors included The Seminole Tribe of Florida (presenting sponsor), with major support from Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, Gila River Indian Community, National Education Association, N7, Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications, ASU Office of American Indian Initiatives, Bank of America, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, and Table Mountain Rancheria. Additional conference sponsors included Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Chickasaw Nation, Coeur D’Alene Tribe, Common Counsel Foundation, Tule River Indian Tribe, Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Pechanga Band of Luiseño Mission Indians, Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians of California, Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians, and United Auburn Indian Comunity. UNITY also received support from the organization’s partners including ABC 15 Arizona, The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Individual contributors were Her-daw Che, Rodney Butler via Spirit of Sovereignty Foundation, and Glenn and Jan English.
UNITY has announced conference dates and locations for 2020 through 2022:
- 2020: July 2 – 6, Washington D.C.
- 2021: Dallas, Texas
- 2022: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Registration for the 2020 National UNITY Conference will open in late September 2019 with exclusive early-bird pricing for 30 days. Stay connected to UNITY and receive news and updates by texting “UNITY” to 474747.
For additional photos and video footage from the 2019 National UNITY Conference, visit UNITY’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/UNITYinc76/.