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First lady addresses first White House Tribal Youth Gathering

WASHINGTON — First lady Michelle Obama gave a passionate keynote address at the first White House Tribal Youth Gathering in Washington July 9.

Speaking to nearly 1,000 youths from 230 tribes in 42 states to the Nation’s Capital, the first lady confronted the dark chapter of America’s history in the mistreatment of American Indians.

“America hasn’t always treated your people and your heritage with dignity and respect,” she said. “Tragically, it’s been just the opposite — your traditions were systematically targeted for destruction.”

The gathering, held in collaboration with United National Indian Tribal Youth, focused on education and finding new areas of opportunity for Native Youths.

“Young people, just like you were sent to boarding schools designed to strip them of their language, culture and history and your religions and ceremonies were outlawed by so-called civilization regulations,” Obama said. “Regulations that literally made your cultures illegal.”

According to White House officials, the event built on President Barack Obama’s Generation Indigenous (Gen I) initiative, launched in December, following the president and first lady’s trip to Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota last year. There, the first couple held private conversations with six young people that focused on substance abuse, homelessness and suicide.

When the president announced the initiative, he said and the first lady walked away from those conversations “shaken because some of these kids were carrying burden no young person should have to carry.”

During her remarks, Michelle Obama recalled that trip.

“In the face of all of all of these challenges, not a single one of them had given up. Not a single one of them had lost hope. That’s what moved us,” she told the audience. “And more than anything else, I believe that that is your story. The story of your generation, Gen I, the story of young people like you investing in yourselves — rising up as leaders in your nations and in the world.”

Forty-three percent of people on Standing Rock Reservation live in poverty — roughly three times the national average, according to the Census Bureau.

While Standing Rock remains one of the poorest reservations, their situation is not unique. About 1-in-4 Native Americans live in poverty across the United States. The White House initiative aims at expanding education, employment, social services and health for Native Youth.

In addition to the gathering, the Interior Department announced additional funding to seven tribal nations: the Hopi, Pueblo of Acoma, Santa Clara Pueblo, Navajo Nation, Oglala Sioux, Rosebud Sioux and Standing Rock Sioux tribes, to use towards tribal education departments. This money will allow these communities to move towards gaining more control of their schools, which are currently run by the Bureau of Indian Education.

“Events like this mean the world to not just myself, but so many of my peers,” said Sarah Jo Schilling.

Schilling, 21, is a member of the Little Traverse Band Bands of Odawa Indians. The Petoskey, Michigan, native developed their tribe’s first youth council in 2009. She represented her tribe and moderated a panel on youth empowerment.