Record number converge for momentous national Native youth leadership conference
42nd annual National UNITY Conference reaches new peaks
For the fifth consecutive year, the United National Indian Tribal Youth, Inc.’s (UNITY) conference participation records were surpassed at the 2018 National UNITY Conference, held earlier this month in San Diego, California. More than 2,400 gathered for the annual event that combines culturally relevant messaging with leadership skill-building. For 42 years, UNITY has provided essential support to Native American and Alaska Native youth, ages 14-24, instilling a foundation for youth leaders and advocates to activate and build upon positive change in their communities.
“In the heels of such a successful conference, we are still in awe of the tremendous and unprecedented support and participation at this year’s event,” said Mary Kim Titla, UNITY’s Executive Director. “Since 2014, we have seen our participation numbers grow each year, building upon the success of the previous conference, however, this year has shattered them all. I strongly believe it’s because of the relevant and inspiring content of our conferences, but also because our youth look to UNITY as family and embrace the teaching and sharing opportunities provided each year. In addition, we can’t thank our sponsors enough for such overwhelming support to help make this experience possible for our participants,” Titla added.
With more than 250 tribal communities represented from across 36 states, participants experienced 5-days of activity including the first-ever pre-conference cultural welcome reception hosted by the San Diego local planning committee. Chaired by Elena Hood (Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma/Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians/Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma) and Harold Arres (Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians), the reception featured a traditional feed to welcome guests, as well as cultural sharing from the region with bird songs and dances.
Keeping in UNITY tradition, the national conference began with 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, followed by the opening general session featuring the parade of nations where youth proudly represented their tribal nations in traditional regalia. With a conference theme of “Answering the call of our Ancestors”, the packed agenda highlighted an impressive line-up of internationally renowned speakers who captivated participants with inspirational messages.
Conference general assembly keynote speakers included Brooke Simpson (Haliwa-Saponi), a finalist on NBC’s singing competition The Voice, Native American dancer and singer Supaman (Apsaalooke), renowned photographer Matika Wilbur (Swinomish/Tulalip), and a special panel on youth entrepreneurship led by Nike N7’s Sam McCracken (Sioux and Assiniboine), the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development CEO Chris James (Cherokee), and motivational speakers Dyami Thomas (Klamath/Leech Lake Ojibwe) and Becca Lynn (Klamath/Leech Lake Ojibwe).
The UNITY Wellness Warriors program, in partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, hosted a physical fitness day with guest trainers Lyle Thompson (Onondaga) and Jeremy Thompson (Onondaga), both professional lacrosse athletes, Bellator MMA women’s flyweight world champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane (Hawaiian), American Ninja Warrior Abram Benally (Navajo), Polynesian cultural dancers Natia O Le Pasefika, and the Tribal Youth Ambassadors of the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center who presented on food sovereignty and their ACORN (Advancing Cultural Opportunities to Reclaim Nutrition) Energy Bars.
UNITY’s key leadership training team included Chance Rush (Three Affiliated Tribes – Hidatsa/Arapaho), Juanita Toledo (Jemez Pueblo), Marcus “Emcee One” Guinn (Osage/Potawatomi), and Pearl Yellowman (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 2018-2019, representing the UNITY organization as the NUC Executive Committee. The new officers are:
- National Male Co-President: Joseph Davis (Akimel O’odham)
- National Female Co-President: SuSun Fisher (Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians)
- Northwest Area Representative: Rachael Arthur (Colville)
- Pacific Area Representative: Tashoni Morales (Tachi-Yokut/ Te-Moak W Shoshone)
- Western Area Representative: Anissa Garcia (Gila River Indian Community – Akimel O’odham)
- Rocky Mountain Area Representative: ArriAnna Matt (Salish)
- Southwest Area Representative: Kayla Toledo (Jemez Pueblo)
- Great Plains Area Representative: Jeffery Curry III (Oglala Sioux Tribe)
- Southern Plains Area Representative: Brittany McKane (Muscogee (Creek) Nation)
- Midwest Area Representative: Collin Church (Potawatomi)
- Northeast Area Representative: Rachaya Lane-Jett (Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah)
- Southeast Area Representative: Richard “Blake” Crook (Poarch Band of Creek Indians)
Conference highlights also included the formal recognition and introduction of UNITY’s third class of “25 Under 25 National Native Youth Leaders” with sponsorship support provide by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. The 2018 class includes:
- Katherine Carmain, 16, Rosebud Sioux, Texas
- Sapphire Carter, 24, Chippewa Cree, Montana
- Shasta Dazen, 24, White Mountain Apache Tribe, Arizona
- Nancy Deere-Turney, 23, Muscogee Creek Nation, Oklahoma
- Jay Fife, 18, Muscogee Creek Nation, Oklahoma
- Ashleigh Fixico, 21, Muscogee Creek Nation, Oklahoma
- Frederick Gipp, 24, Apache Tribe, Oklahoma
- Tristan Joe, 18, Navajo Nation, New Mexico
- Maddie Lamb, 19, Muscogee Creek Nation, Oklahoma
- Vonica LaPlante, 17, Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara, North Dakota
- Jayden Lim, 16, Pomo, California
- Faith Long, 19, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, North Carolina
- Xavier Medina, 19, Pascua Yaqui, Arizona
- Elwood McClellan, Jr., 18, Iowa Tribe, Oklahoma
- Audri Mitchell, 19, Colorado River Indian Tribes, Arizona
- Tashoni Morales, 18, Yachi-Tokut/Te-Moak/Western Shoshone, California
- Maritza Nuglene-Gomez, 18, Inupiat, Alaska
- Lauren Shelly Pina, 18, San Carlos Apache, Arizona
- Savanna Rilatos, 20, Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, Oregon
- Lance Sanchez, 23, Tohono O’odham Nation, Arizona
- Mariah Jordan Sharpe, 20, Colorado River Indian Tribes, Arizona
- Kellian Staggers, 17, Navajo Nation, New Mexico
- David Warmack, 16, Tohono O’odham Nation, Arizona
- Jazmine Wildcat, 14, Northern Arapaho, Wyoming
- Sky Wildcat, 22, Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma
Another record-breaking and sold-out feature of the conference were the 60+ diverse exhibitors and vendors who engaged and interacted with participants throughout event, including on the annual UNITY Education and Career Expo day. In addition to experiencing educational institutions on the trade show floor, participants had the opportunity to take campus tours at the nearby University of California San Diego and San Diego State University also campuses.
The conference culminated with the annual UNITY Gala and Dance, featuring entertainment by musician Levi Platero (Navajo) and magician Brian Yazzie (Navajo). New this year was the “Traditional Skirt Day” and “Traditional Shirt Day”, encouraging participants to wear their favorite attire on each designated day. Highlighted participants were selected and featured during the UNITY Gala during a special fashion show, followed by dinner, event program, and a dance with UNITY’s resident DJ, Emcee One.
During the UNITY Gala, the Council of Trustees presented annual awards to:
- Golda Cook $1,000 Memorial Scholarships: Madeline Lamb (Mvskoke (Creek) Nation), attending Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Alec Lee (Navajo), attending Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts
- UNITY Youth Council of the Year: Young River Peoples Council (Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community – Arizona)
- J.R. Cook Youth Advisor of the Year: Ashley Dillion (San Carlos Apache Tribe)
- Eddie Wadda Alumni of the Year: Layha Spoonhunter (Wind River Indian Tribe)
- UNITY 3-on-3 Basketball Champions: Dominatives (girls bracket) and Brown Boys Elite (boys bracket), both teams from the state of Mississippi
The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians returned as the 2018 National UNITY Conference presenting sponsor, with major support from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, Bank of America, and Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. Additional conference sponsorship was provided by Table Mountain Rancheria, Comcast NBC Universal, Muscogee Creek Nation, Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, Poarch Band of Creek Indians, San Carlos Apache Tribe, Hualapai Tribe, Wells Fargo, Augua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Arizona Public Service, Freeport McMoran, Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation), National Education Association, Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians, Tribal Alliance of Sovereign Indian Nations (TASIN), UC San Diego, Metropolitan State University of Denver, Pala Band of Mission Indians, Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians of California, Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, Tule River Tribe, CFC, Cook Native American Ministries, Network for Good, Elke Chenevey/Meryll Lynch, Titan Facility Services, LLC, Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians, Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians, 12News/Tegna, and the UNITY Local Planning Committee.
UNITY has announced conference dates and locations for 2019 through 2021:
- 2019: July 4 – 8 in Orlando, Florida
- 2020: Washington D.C.
- 2021: Dallas, Texas
Registration for the 2019 National UNITY Conference will open in September 2018 with exclusive early-bird pricing for 30 days. Stay connected to UNITY and receive news and updates by texting “UNITY” to 474747.