Honoring the Legacy of UNITY Founder, JR Cook

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He lived his life dedicated to serving the needs of Native American and Alaska Native youth. James “J.R.” Roscoe Cook of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, who founded United National Indian Tribal Youth, Inc. (UNITY), passed away with his sister by his side in her home in Edna, Kansas earlier this year at the age of 83 after a long battle with heart disease. J. R. was born on January 31, 1939, to James T. “Tex” and Goldie (Harrison) Cook in rural So. Coffeyville, Oklahoma. He graduated from Lenapah High School, attended Coffeyville Community Jr. College, and completed his education at the University of Oklahoma with his master’s degree.

J.R. started his career in education in the 1970s as a Cherokee math teacher and basketball coach in Weatherford, Oklahoma. Because of his love and passion for his Native American heritage and seeing a great need to help Cherokee youth he also worked as the director of one of the nation’s largest Upward Bound programs at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford. He saw a lot of potential in American Indian youth but knew that in order to combat critical issues facing youth he needed to take his passion further.

On April 16, 1976, under his leadership, United National Indian Tribal Youth, Inc. was born. In 1978 J.R. joined forces to kick off the first of many national conferences. J.R. felt so strongly about UNITY that he took no salary for seven years but worked in other part-time jobs to survive. In 1980 famed country and western star Willie Nelson hosted a fundraising concert for UNITY, which raised $45,000 for the organization to support its youth programs. In 1980 JR established the first youth cohort of leaders called the Council of Eagles. Under his leadership, JR pushed for tribal groups to create youth councils, with the first tribal youth council being created in 1985 on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. The National UNITY Council and its first elected Executive Committee were established in 1992 in St. Paul, Minnesota. In the 1990s, JR also created the Earth Ambassadors program and coached the UNITY men’s basketball team, which won many NIAA Championships and teamed up with the Atlanta Hawks to conduct basketball clinics around the country. Also, under his leadership, UNITY Native youth participated in Senate hearings in 1985, 1996, and 2002 to testify about substance abuse and other issues affecting Indian Country. JR retired in 2013.

J.R. was a member of the St. Luke’s Methodist Church in Oklahoma, City. He enjoyed in sharing a good meal with family and friends, especially with his friends at the Bedlam BBQ in Oklahoma City. Supporting education in Oklahoma was always very important to J.R. and he continued to find ways to still be active even in failing health. J.R. is survived by his sister, JoAnn Carney who cared for him until his passing, his faithful dog, Jake who he so loved, and countless UNITY alumni who meant the world to him.