Overcoming Obstacles

Photo courtesy of genindigenous.com
Photo courtesy of genindigenous.com
Photo courtesy of genindigenous.com
Photo courtesy of genindigenous.com

Generations of poverty, coupled with higher rates of suicide, have left lasting trauma on reservation communities. Native American Youth Ambassador Teressa Baldwin talks about her part in the Generation Indigenous Challenge.

When President Obama visited the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, a young tribesman told the president that he was raising his four younger brothers by himself. All of them knew at least one person they loved who had attempted or committed suicide, or who had sought shelter in a bus at one point in their life due to poverty.

During June of last year, President Obama became the fourth president ever to step into a Native American reservation with the goals of strengthening the relationship between the United States government and the tribes, and eliminating the numerous obstacles facing Native American youth. The president and the first lady visited the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota not only to attend the annual Cannonball Flag Day powwow, but also to talk to a group of young adults without the involvement of their parents or of the press so that everyone could freely speak their minds.

After his heart-to-heart talk with the tribe’s youth, the president returned to the White House and gave his staff — everyone involved with the education, opportunity and job training of the youth — the task of uncovering more opportunities for them. Consequently, at the White House Tribal Nations Conference held last Dec. 3, he spoke about the issues which native tribes all over America face and announced the Generation Indigenous Challenge. The Gen-I Challenge focuses on bettering the lives of Native American youth and presenting them with more opportunities to succeed.

“Nothing gets me angrier than when I get a sense that our young people, early in life, are already feeling like opportunities are foreclosed to them — because that’s not [what America is],” President Obama said at the conference. “We have to invest in [those young Native Americans] and believe in them and love them. And if we do, there’s no question of the great things they can achieve.”

Eleanor Roosevelt College junior Teressa Baldwin is an Inupiaq Eskimo, a tribe with its history based in the Arctic Circle. Baldwin was one of the few youth ambassadors to attend the Tribal Nations Conference and discuss the problems they faced with other young adults and cooperatives that were present.

“I feel very honored to be chosen to attend the [Gen-I] launch. I was able to talk to potential contributors and do a hearing on the hill,” Baldwin said. “I also ran a mini-breakout session on mental health and social services. I really found passion in the mental health field through this experience.”

The Gen-I Native Youth Challenge asks the youth of a tribe to actively work with other youth to do something positive in their community, document the effort and send it to the National Native Youth Network to have a chance of being invited to the first-ever White House Youth Tribal Gathering this summer. Having grown up in a society that is 90-percent indigenous, Baldwin feels that the president’s initiative and challenge successfully gives bright prospects to the youth.

“I honestly came to college with a mindset that I wouldn’t finish. By the time I entered my freshman year of high school, I had lost many friends and family to suicide,” Baldwin said. “Women in my community have a higher chance of being sexually assaulted. It is sad to see, but President Obama’s initiative gives hope to a lot of communities by recognizing resilient young natives.”

The Gen-I initiative also includes numerous new programs that would give native youth as many opportunities as their non-indigenous peers. The Native Youth Community Projects will provide funding for proposals that aim to help youth get ready for college and careers, while the National Tribal Youth Network will support the development of leadership skills and provide peer support.

Based on personal experience, Baldwin described the grim conditions of living in a native society and why inhabitants are often limited in their opportunities.

“Entering a native community is almost like going back in time. I can only say this because I did grow up in a native community,” Baldwin said. “We have high suicide rates, sexual-abuse [rates] and drug-abuse rates. Native youth have lived through alarming rates of alcoholism in their families and still find resilience to continue their education.”

Based on some staggering statistics from Native American communities, the White House released a Native Youth Report that investigated the challenges youth face and offered improvements to these problems. This data is part of the aftereffects that historical trauma felt by previous native generations has left on the current generation.

“It is completely true when we say that we live in two worlds: our traditional way of life that our ancestors have passed down to us, and the world we were born into. And, unfortunately, this world that we were born into has generations of historical trauma,” Baldwin said. “First Lady Michelle Obama came and spoke at the [Gen-I] launch and touched base on historical trauma. Her speech gave me the shivers a few times. She was so eloquent but touched base on a lot of things Indian youth face.”

Despite growing up in these harsh conditions, Baldwin’s past inspires her to work even harder to represent her people and indigenous women in college.

“I am the outcome of growing up in a native community,” Baldwin said. “[Growing up in a native community] is buying a gallon of milk for over $8 and not getting enough produce during the dead winter, yet it is also finding self-identity through cultural traditions. The project really entails who I am as a person. It gives hope to many.”

Just last month, the U.S. Department of Education announced its $3 million grant contribution toward the education and career futures of indigenous youth as part of the Native Youth Community Projects. As the U.S. government is progressing toward bettering the welfare of the native population, Baldwin is also excited to be a part of the change, starting with her attendance at the Youth Tribal Gathering; the White House will host its first Gathering in the summer to rally political leaders and organizations with native youth, such as Baldwin, in order to spread awareness and secure a better future for her people.

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