First lady Michelle Obama spoke to Native youth at the White House last week, saying their customs, values, and discoveries “are at the heart of the American story.”
“Yet as we all know, America hasn’t always treated your people and your heritage with dignity and respect. Tragically, it’s been the opposite,” Obama continued.
Obama addressed the inaugural White House Tribal Youth Gathering, which brought together more than 1,000 youths from around the country. The conference featured sessions on safety, health and education, moderated by young people.
“Your traditions were systematically targeted for destruction,” she said, speaking about forced relocation, young people sent to boarding schools and other regulations that “literally made your cultures illegal.”
“While that kind of blatant discrimination is thankfully far behind us,” she said, “you all are still seeing the consequences of those actions every single day in your Nations. You see it in the families who are barely getting by. You see it in the classmates who never finish school, in communities struggling with violence and despair.”
Obama read the names of some of the 240 tribes represented.
The gathering coincided with an announcement from Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who announced new funding and grants devoted to education in tribal nations. Education was a focus for many at the gathering as well, including a session with Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, who spoke on the importance of science and technology.
Obama also touted Gen-I, the President’s initiative focused on empowering Native youth. To be invited to the conference, individuals ages 14-24 were required to enter the Gen-I Challenge.
The afternoon sessions ended with remarks from Cheyenne Brady, Miss Indian World and member of the Sac and Fox Nation in North Dakota. Brady emphasized the importance of education to the American Indian population. The day also included a performance from Canadian artist Inez Jasper, who encouraged the youth to join her on stage.
The first lady was introduced by 15-year-old Hamilton Seymour, a member of the Nooksack Indian Tribe in Bellingham, Wash., who wore traditional attire, as many attendees did.
“We have made a difference,” Seymour said. “This day signifies that our voice has been heard.”
WASHINGTON — Brooke Overturf of Window Rock, Arizona, was momentarily flustered as she stood holding hands Thursday with Michelle Obama, while hundreds of other Native American youth crowded around, hoping for a handshake.
But the Navajo 19-year-old quickly recovered and pulled a turquoise ring from her hand to give to the first lady.
“I told my mom last night that if I met her (Obama) I was going to give her my ring. I gave her a ring my grandmother gave me,” said Overturf, emerging from the crowd one accessory shy of when she went in.
Overturf was one of more than 1,000 Native American youth representing more than 230 tribes from across the country who had come to Washington for what organizers were calling a “historic” first White House Tribal Youth Gathering. Dozens of youth from Arizona were at the event.
President Barack Obama had called for the meeting in April as part of his Generation Indigenous, or Gen-I, initiative.
The event brought together Cabinet secretaries and elected officials – and the first lady – for speeches and small-group sessions to discuss issues in Indian country and share their stories with tribes and various federal officials.
“Your cultures, your values, your discoveries are at the heart of the American story,” Obama told the cheering gathering, but she said tribes rarely receive credit for their contributions.
But the gathering was less about history than it was about finding solutions to current problems on tribal lands. Most Native youth, including those at the gathering, face what Attorney General Loretta Lynch called “tremendous” challenges.
“Many Native American children suffer post-traumatic stress similar to the level of veterans who have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Lynch said.
For a long time the federal government has tried to “prescribe how the nations should live,” but Lynch said the U.S. government needs to recognize that tribal decisions are best left to the tribes.
“You have to lead, and we have to be your partners,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, not the other way around.
Lynch, Burwell and other speakers encouraged the youth there to raise their voices. Lynch noted that “when it comes to civil rights and human rights,” young people have the “determination” to generate change.
“Every movement in this country has really been fueled by the energy of young people,” Lynch said.
The young people at the event had to be involved in order to get invited: The gathering was open to Native Americans ages 14-24 who had took the Gen-I challenge to create and document a project in their communities.
For Overturf, that meant organizing a free basketball camp on the Navajo Nation, recruiting help from a former women’s basketball player at Arizona State University, where Overturf is Miss Indian ASU.
She got her invitation in May and had help getting to Washington from ASU and from various sponsors. But many youth had to raise funds to make the trip.
“I know it was a challenge for a lot of Native youth to get here,” said Elton Naswood, a Navajo who works at HHS’ Office of Minority Health Resource Center in Washington.
Overturf said she reached out to other Navajo youth and other youth through the Indian community at ASU before making the trip.
“I could easily go by myself, but I am representing them too,” said Overturf, who routinely reminds tribal youth to “be proud of who you are and where you came from.”
Youth at the event were lauded by the Washington officials who turned out Thursday.
That was echoed by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota.
“We know one thing is for certain,” Heitkamp said. “We must involve youth.”
Despite the emphasis on self-reliance, however, the U.S. government still has to play a role in the betterment of Indian country, Heitkamp said.
“If by the time I’ve left office we have not changed opportunity, education, safety and healthcare on Indian reservations, then I have done nothing,” she pledged to the crowd.
The comments were well received but the first lady was clearly the star of the show.
“Every single one of your lives is precious and sacred,” Obama said. “And you definitely have a president and a first lady who have your back.”
Get ready for right-wing heads to explode like you’ve never seen before: First Lady Michelle Obama just stood up for Native Americans and their plight in American history, and told every citizen far and wide that they are being stripped of their culture.
Speaking to Generation Indigenous, Michelle Obama touched on Native American history and today’s youth and how the United States government has ultimately stripped them of their heritage due to systemic discrimination, abuse and racism:
“You see, we need to be very clear about where the challenges in this community first started. Folks in Indian Country didn’t just wake up one day with addiction problems. Poverty and violence didn’t just randomly happen to this community. These issues are the result of a long history of systematic discrimination and abuse.”
“Let me offer just a few examples from our past, starting with how, back in 1830, we passed a law removing Native Americans from their homes and forcibly re-locating them to barren lands out west. The Trail of Tears was part of this process. Then we began separating children from their families and sending them to boarding schools designed to strip them of all traces of their culture, language and history. And then our government started issuing what were known as ‘Civilization Regulations’ – regulations that outlawed Indian religions, ceremonies and practices – so we literally made their culture illegal.”
These comments are truly groundbreaking coming from the First Lady. They speak volumes of the Obama Administration’s strive to be inclusive to all and remember our history’s stains. While Republicans, from state laws in Michigan and Wisconsin to acts of Congress, continue to throw Native Americans under the bus, the First Lady shares in their plight. I am sure Republicans will cry reverse racism and throw their hands in the air accusing her of pandering to anti-white “causes.”
But can you blame conservatives, who hold Ayn Rand in such high regard (cough cough Rand Paul and Paul Ryan)? Given the fact that Ayn Rand is on record saying:
“[The Native Americans] didn’t have any rights to the land and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using…. What was it they were fighting for, if they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their “right” to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or maybe a few caves above it. Any white person who brought the element of civilization had the right to take over this continent.”
The difference in ideology is striking.
“So given this history, we shouldn’t be surprised at the challenges that kids in Indian Country are facing today. And we should never forget that we played a role in this. Make no mistake about it – we own this,” Michelle Obama continued.
We are so lucky to have a First Lady like Michelle Obama. She speaks the truth, and she’s a realist. We must confront our past actions, realize the have long, lasting effects, and work to fix our mistakes. Burying our heads in the sand and saying “it’s in the past” is not going to work. Bravo, Madame First Lady.
For the past couple years, kids around the U.S. have been sharing pictures of their gross school lunches on social media. These images are often accompanied by the hashtag #thanksMichelleObama, since the first lady has been trying to make school lunches healthier. The rationale is that these efforts are actually making the lunches yuckier.
The thing is, raise your hand if your public-school lunches were delicious. Didn’t think so. It’s a clever political dodge to focus the dissatisfaction with student lunches on the reformer-in-chief, because disgusting school food has been a dependable reminder that we live in America for as long as most of us can remember.
Sure, there are growing pains that come with the reforms. Schools have already cut budgets to the bone, and now many are having to provide money to the nutrition program. It makes no sense that we have to choose between educating kids and feeding them. Still, students blaming Michelle Obama for bad school lunches is like prisoners blaming a reform-minded warden for putting the guards in a foul mood.
For years, the U.S. has been funding school lunch programs at a level that pretty much only allows for disgustingness. And that hasn’t changed. But the USDA is now parceling out money to help various pilot programs and projects around the country. On Dec. 2, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack went down to Common Market, a sustainable food hub in Philadelphia, to announce a new round of Farm to School grants (details here).
Since 2009, the USDA has provided $160 million for school kitchen equipment, $15 million for making the connections between farm and school, and $5.2 million for training and technical assistance.
Common Market is one of the grant recipients. The money will allow it to do more work with public charter schools. When I asked the co-founder, Haile Johnston, if he thought the money would make student lunches better, he didn’t hesitate. “Without a doubt,” he said.
“When we are able communicate where and how food is grown, students get more interested in it,” he said. “Also, the food we are working with is not processed. It comes from local farms. So it’s fresher, it tastes better, and it has more nutrients.”
If reforms go forward, someday the disgusting school lunch — that constant in American life — might actually vanish. Maybe, just maybe, we could be a little more like the French. If that happens, you can expect the same people protesting school lunches now to begin lamenting the loss of mystery meat, and “hot dish” under the hashtag #FreedomLunches.