UNITY Concludes Successful National Conference in Washington, D.C.
Highlights included prominent speakers and workshops, as well as the election of officers for the National UNITY Council Executive Committee
Mesa, Arizona – UNITY hosted a sold-out annual National Conference, June 29-July 3, at the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C., with more than 2,200 youth and adult attendees from throughout the United States. The conference drew youth representatives from more than 250 tribal communities in what has been dubbed the Super Bowl of Native youth leadership events. UNITY’s opening ceremony featured many representatives of the organization’s 300 affiliated youth councils and, this year, included a delegation of Indigenous youth from Taiwan.
Featured presentations included United States Treasurer Lynn Malerba; Grammy award-winning fashion designer Norma Baker-Flying Horse; writers Kinsale Drake and Lily Painter of the NDN Girls Book Club, documentarian Matika Wilbur; DJ and youth advocate Marcus “Emcee One” Guinn; Shawn “DJ Tribal Touch” Martinez, senior director of live presentation for the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury; Zoya Awan, director of public affairs at Walmart; Governor Stephen R. Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community; Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services Andrea Palm; Chairwoman of Tribal Tech LLC Victoria Vasques; Indian Energy Director Wahleah Johns; and White House Senior Policy Advisor for Native Affairs, Domestic Policy Council, Elizabeth Hildalgo.
In addition, a “Meet Your Federal Partners – Work in Indian Country” panel was moderated by Pawnee Rivera, senior advisor, White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Director of Tribal Affairs; and featured JoAnn Kintz, deputy director, Office of Tribal Justice, Department of Justice; Gary Cooper, assistant secretary, Office of Native American Programs, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; Raina Thiele, senior advisor to the secretary for Alaska affairs and strategic priorities; U.S. Department of the Interior; Naomi Miguel, executive director, White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity, U.S. Department of Education; and Lawrence Shorty, USDA Tribal Colleges and University Program.
“This year’s National Conference exceeded our greatest expectations regarding attendance, engagement, and participation. Many of our attendees persevered through some challenging travel situations to make it to Washington DC,” said Mary Kim Titla, UNITY executive director. “I’m always inspired by their commitment and leadership and by our speakers’ and presenters’ passion and knowledge.”
UNITY, in partnership with The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and the National Indian Education Association (NIEA), hosted listening sessions to inform decision-makers on the priority needs of Native Youth. OJJDP Administrator Liz Ryan participated personally in listening to testimonies of youth, parents, and advisors on how best to improve tribal community safety. Dr. Jason Cummins (Apsaalooke), Deputy Director of the White House Initiative on Advancing Education Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Native Americans and Strengthening Tribal Colleges and Universities, also held workshops to hear directly from participants on their educational needs.
The conference’s theme was “Healing the Spirit of Native Youth.” Native American and Alaska Native youth and advisors from rural and urban tribal communities across the U.S. came together for learning, cultural sharing, and collaboration focused on the theme. Attendees had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of the American Indian for a welcome reception and conference blessing featuring museum director Cynthia Chavez Lamar and Ernie Stevens, Jr., chairman of the Indian Gaming Association. Youth participants also met in regional caucuses, attended empowerment sessions, participated in workshops and fashion shows, and discussed issues important to the Native Youth community.
Special conference video messages geared to Native youth in attendance were provided by Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, Representative Sharice Davids, U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Gina Marie Raimondo, U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, USDA Acting Deputy Secretary Kevin Shea, and primatologist and anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall.
The National UNITY Council (NUC) held its annual business meeting during the conference. The NUC comprises representatives from UNITY’s 10 regions, representing 36 states and 320 affiliated youth councils. The youth leaders identified the top 10 issues facing Native youth, which they will prioritize during 2023/2024. They are:
- Substance Abuse
- Culture and Language
- Mental Health
- Domestic Violence
- Tribal Leadership Support
- Climate Change
- Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives
Also, at the NUC business meeting, UNITY youth peers elected Kaytlynn Johnston (Bishop Paiute Tribe of California) and Jonathan Arakawa (Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe of Washington) as co-presidents of the National UNITY Council Executive Committee.
Johnston, 18, is a graduate of Bishop Union High School. Before being elected co-president, she served as UNITY’s Pacific Area Representative and served as co-president for the Bishop Tribal Youth Council. Some of her many honors include serving as Miss Nevada Days Pow-Wow Princess. She plans to attend Costa Mesa College in the fall of 2023 to pursue a broadcast journalism and media studies degree.
Arakawa, 23, is attending Evergreen State College, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in tribal governance. Before being elected co-president, he served as UNITY’s northwest area representative and secretary for two terms. In addition, Arakawa works as a certified Klallam language teacher at the middle, high school, and college levels. Some of his honors include NCAI-IGA Chairman’s Youth Leadership Award and UNITY’s 25 Under 25 National Recognition Leadership Award.
During their one-year term, Johnston and Arakawa will work with the following 10 area representatives who were also elected by youth councils during the conference:
- Great Plains Area Representative: Koya Bearstail, 16, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara of North Dakota
- Midwest Area Representative: Marla Mesarina, 17, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe/Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Sioux Tribe of Minnesota
- Northeast Area Representative: Nathan Solorio, 16, Brokenhead Ojibway First Nations of Pennsylvania
- Northwest Area Representative: Maize Countryman, 19, Northern Arapaho/Navajo/Eastern Shoshone of Idaho
- Pacific Area Representative: Sineca Jackson, 19, Akimel O’odham of Hawaii
- Rocky Mountain Area Representative/Vice President: Watson Whitford, 18, Chippewa Cree/Navajo of Montana
- Southeast Area Representative: Thorn Grove, 18, Akimel O’odham/Tuscarora of North Carolina
- Southern Plains Area Representative: Mahiya Ramirez, 20, Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma
- Southwest Area Representative: Derek Capitan, 23, Laguna Pueblo/Navajo of New Mexico
- Western Area Representative/Secretary: Jalen Harvey, 18, Navajo/Acoma Pueblo/Hopi of Arizona
During the annual UNITY Gala at the conference, the 2023 UNITY Awards and Scholarships were presented to:
- Soshina Harvey – UNITY J.R. Cook Advisor of the Year
- Elke Chenevey – UNITY Eddie Wadda Alumni of the Year
- Tesuque Pueblo Youth Coalition, Pueblo of Tesuque, New Mexico – UNITY Youth Council of the Year
- Jeremiah Ailak, San Carlos Apache Tribe. Student, Arizona State University. Major: Architecture Studies; Minor in Mathematics, and Angelina Serna, Oneida Nation. Student, Cornell University. Major: Government; Minors: Public Policy and Native American and Native American and Indigenous Studies – Golda Cook Scholarships
- Ajah-Rain Yellowhair, Dine (Navajo) Nation. Student, University of Portland – Major: Political Science/Global Affairs and Education – J.R. Cook Memorial Scholarship
An official honoring of the 2023 UNITY Circle of Earth Ambassadors took place during the conference. The environmental stewardship and leadership program, which began in the 1990s, provides Native American youth with training sessions and informational workshops to increase their knowledge of environmental issues affecting Indian country. Those honored were:
- Bronson Kainoa Azama, Kānaka Maoli of Hawaii
- Tia Butler, Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians of Oregon
- Derek Capitan, Laguna Pueblo/Navajo of New Mexico
- Anagali (Shace) Duncan, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma
- Evelyn Enos, Akimel O’odham/Tohono O’odham of Arizona
- Liliana Mars, Narragansett of Rhode Island
- Sumaya Quitugua, Acoma Pueblo, Chamorro of Arizona
- Sareya Taylor, White Mountain Apache of Arizona
- Spencer Walton, Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians of Oregon
- Jovi Williams, White Mountain Apache of Arizona
The event also featured over 50 workshops and a college and career fair with exhibitors representing the National Museum of the American Indian, McGill University, the National Indian Education Association, One Fire Associates, LLC, and the Institute of American Indian Arts. Bureau of Land Management Arizona, NAFOA, EMILYs List, AmeriCorps VISTA, The Native American Alaska Native (NAAN) Coalition of Federal Aviation Employees, BIA Office of Trust Services – Pathways Program, Blue Campaign, Center for Counter Human Trafficking (CCHT), U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Columbia Law School, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), Gila River Indian Community, Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Haskell Indian Nations University, and Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps.
Sponsors for the national conference included Gaming Laboratories International, Gila River Indian Community, SYCUAN Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, Nike N7, Comcast NBC Universal, Porch Creek Indians, Seminole Tribe of Florida, RMP Foundation, Tribal Tech LLC, Walmart, San Carlos Apache Tribe, Native Forward, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Pechanga Band of Indians, Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians, McCabe CPA Group, The Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, Titan Facility Services, Casey Family Programs, Chickasaw Nation, and Prairie Island Tribal Council.
Conference partners were Bank of America, Vadon Foundation, International Gaming Technology, National Museum of the American Indian, National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Education Association, American Indian Science and Engineering Society, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Seasons for Sharing, United Auburn Indian Community, Common Counsel, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, National Education Association, and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
UNITY announced the dates and locations for its 2024 signature events. The UNITY Midyear Conference will occur February 2-4, 2024, at the Sheraton Downtown Hotel in Phoenix, Arizona. The National UNITY Conference will happen at the Oregon Convention Center, June 29-July 3, 2024. Registration for both events will open in September 2023.
To learn more about UNITY, visit www.unityinc.org.
Founded in 1976, United National Indian Tribal Youth, Inc. (UNITY) is a national network organization promoting personal development, citizenship, and leadership among Native Youth. UNITY’s mission is to foster the spiritual, mental, physical, and social development of American Indian and Alaska Native youth ages 14 -24, and to help build a strong, unified, and self-reliant Native America through greater youth involvement. UNITY’s network currently includes 320 affiliated youth councils in 36 states. Youth Councils are sponsored by Tribes, Alaska Native villages, high schools, colleges, urban centers, and others.