University of Nebraska-Lincoln students Alex Mallory and Rebekka Schlichting were among a dozen Nebraskans who joined Native youths at the White House earlier this month for the inaugural White House Tribal Youth Gathering.
Mallory, a senior history and political science major, and Schlichting, a graduate student in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications, met with members of the Obama administration and heard a keynote address from First Lady Michelle Obama during the visit in early July. More than 1,000 youths from about 240 tribes attended. Participants engaged with government officials and elected leaders, including Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, White House Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Munoz and U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), a member of the Committee on Indian Affairs.
To be chosen for the conference, both Mallory and Schlichting entered the Generation Indigenous Challenge with a plan to improve their community. Generation Indigenous, or Gen-I, is a new initiative by President Obama with the goal of investing in Native youths and, in turn, helping them invest in their communities. Mallory and Schlichting, each of whom intern at the Nebraska Commission for Indian Affairs, will be helping with programming at this year's Native Youth Leadership Camp in Crete. The camp’s focus is on leadership development.
At the Washington event, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn and other administration officials hosted roundtable discussions regarding tribal sovereignty, or tribes' rights to govern themselves, manage tribal property and regulate tribal business and domestic relations as well as establish governmental relationships with the federal government.
“The vast majority of non-Natives and even some Natives are unaware of this very important concept,” Mallory, a member of the Winnebago tribe, said. “It was encouraging to have a discussion on what sovereignty meant to us and hear competing viewpoints.”
Mallory and Schlichting said they were impressed and motivated by the gathering.
“Michelle Obama spoke about the resilience in Indian Country that I have witnessed throughout my lifetime," Schlichting of the Ioway tribe said. "It's good to know that we are recognized for positive actions and not just the negatives. She also gave me hope when she said that the White House has our backs. She made me feel empowered and hopeful for our futures.”
The students also met with members of the Ponca Tribe and visited the National Museum of the American Indian.
Mallory said being a part of the meeting was empowering, too.
“Witnessing over 1,000 Native youth coalescing to address the issues of our community was truly something to behold,” Mallory said. “It was a tremendous privilege to attend the gathering and represent our tribes, university, and state.”