This year’s United National Indian Tribal Youth Inc. conference was held in Minneapolis and 10 Soboba youth attended the five-day, youth-led event in July that attracted about 2,500 Native youth and advisors. The attendees, aged 12-17, are all participants in the Soboba Tribal TANF year-round LEAD prevention program that provides Leadership through Education, Acquirement, Desire.
While the youth leaders were busy with workshops and other activities, two advisors from the Soboba Tribal TANF Program who accompanied them, attended sessions that covered safety, provided conference updates and networked with other advisors.
“Attendance was higher at this year’s conference,” Senior Program Specialist Annalisa Tucker said. “We heard from amazing Native American women doing great things in Indian country.”
The UNITY Conference is an impactful event that offers general sessions, regional caucuses, workshops and a career/education fair. Fun evening activities provide hands-on leadership development activities where the National UNITY Council conducts elections and its annual business meeting. The national conference is a place where Native youth voice is encouraged and valued. This year’s theme was “Restoring the Spirit of Native Youth.”
Kimani Resvaloso-Sanchez, 13, attended the youth conference for the first time and enjoyed meeting new people and seeing new things. She said the group also got to do some sightseeing around the city that included a visit to the Mall of America.
“The best workshop would have to be the one about healthy relationships and mental health,” she said. She also learned that future generations will be affected by what is done now, just as how we are currently being affected by climate change that has been taking place for the past 20 years.
The conference offers unique youth programming through its UNITY Fire and UNITY Drum. The UNITY Fire, which is lit on the first day of the conference, burns 24/7 during the annual conference and is led by alumni fire keepers, is used for social and prayer purposes and has provided conference attendees an opportunity for support, healing and spiritual nourishment.
Warren Skye, Tonawanda Seneca Pine Tree Chief, said, “A fire burns within us and has so since the beginning of time. We must continue to strengthen it and keep it bright for generations to come.”
The fire is meant for all beliefs and religions to share their “Good Medicine” with other participants. The UNITY Drum, also led by alumni, is an open drum with roots in the southern style of powwow singing. All youth singers are encouraged to bring their drumsticks to join in.
Akwaalimay Resvaloso, 13, enjoyed learning new things about different cultures and places. A favorite workshop was one about leadership and plans are to share what was learned about communication and leadership skills at school and personally.
On opening day, participants were treated to a panel discussion on Indigenous actors in film with Kiowa Gordon, Dark Wind TV series; Stormee Lee Kipp, Predator 5: Prey; and Mato Wayuhi, composer for Reservation Dogs.
Also available on the three full days of the conference were optional Wellness Warriors fitness activities such as Zumba with Eileen Crocker, a one-mile walk with UNITY Executive Director Mary Kim Titla and a buddy fun run.
The keynote speaker on Saturday, July 9, which was deemed Physical Development Day, was Chef Pyet, the first winner of Gordon Ramsay’s groundbreaking television program, Next Level Chef. Stephanie DeSpain goes by Pyet, which is short for her inherited Native American name Pyetwetmokwe. She is an award-winning traveling private chef whose life’s work is dedicated to Indigenous Fusion Cuisine. Chef Pyet’s passion is to uplift Indigenous culture and traditions via storytelling, traveling and cooking. Her current focus is promoting Indigenous ingredients in everyday cooking. While doing so, she hopes to encourage others to pass along healthy cooking, lifestyle choices and traditions within their own families.
The following day’s focus was on Mental Development and offered the panel presentation, “Native Youth Research is Good Medicine” with Nicole Bowman, PhD., Bowman Performance Consulting and Gregory Phillips II, PhD, MS, Northwestern University, Chicago.
Morning and afternoon workshops covered a wide variety of subjects including foster care, lack of accurate Native American based education within the public-school curriculum, sexual health and wellness, cultural sovereignty, food as medicine, culture and language loss awareness and developing positive environments and health habits.
Categories with various presentations were career, culture, education, environment, health, leadership development and wellness and prevention among other important topics. “Cultivating Connections: The Importance of Nurturing Healthy Relationships Health” offered youth leaders information on the importance of engaging in healthy relationships early in life. It also included an overview on how to build and nurture healthy relationships, as well as the effects of unhealthy relationships on personal and professional growth.
The focus on Monday and Tuesday was Social Development and that included the Education and Career Expo Kick-off with a panel presentation, “Native Activism Then and Now” moderated by Evynn Richardson and Lily Painter, featuring Winona LaDuke, Madonna Thunder Hawk and Judith LeBlanc.
Many of these workshops focused on career and financial literacy as well as animals, the transformative power of art and building steps to becoming a successful Tribal leader. “What is your legacy?” was led by Eileen Crocker. She helped youth discover their inherent abilities to cultivate their own legacy. She guided them in their journey as she shared her own life’s experiences. The skills taught are ones that they can use each day to feel a sense of empowerment.
Before the conference officially ended at noon on Tuesday, July 12, keynote speaker James Anderson provided a final message to the young leaders. As a trainer, speaker and co-founder of the LifeSkills Center for Leadership, Anderson is one of the nation’s leading authorities on peak performance and personal development. During the past 20 years, he has worked with businesses, Tribal organizations, universities and high schools sharing the skills that it takes to be successful in today’s world. He also owns and operates the award-winning Old Southern BBQ restaurants in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
UNITY’s midyear conference will be Feb. 24-26, 2023 in Tempe, Ariz. and the national youth conference is scheduled for June 30-July 4 in Washington, D.C.
For more information, please visit www.unityinc.org.
Photos courtesy of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians