President Barack Obama has announced a new initiative aimed at improving conditions and opportunities for Native American youth in the United States, over 1/3 of whom are currently living in poverty.
The new plan, called the Generation Indigenous initiative, would create programs to help Native Americans prepare for college and careers, as well as boost leadership skills through the Department of Education and the Aspen Institute’s Center for Native American Youth. Staff members will visit reservations next year for the President.
The announcement came as part of the White House Tribal Nations Conference hosted by Obama five months after he and his wife visited the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas.
The reservation, 3,600-square miles in size, is home to about 8,500 people, and has an unemployment rate of almost 20%. Many of the residents live in run-down homes and the suicide rate for Native Americans age 15 to 24 is over twice the national average.
The Obamas were “deeply moved” during their visit, listening to children’s stories of life on the reservation, which included such topics as depression and alcohol abuse.
The visit caused the President to ask his administration to get to work on increasing efforts to improve the Indian educational system and focus on improving living conditions in general for the youth.
The conference was attended by 566 leaders of federally recognized tribal nations, as well as 36 White House Youth Ambassadors that were selected across the country through an essay contest.
“People who grow up in a poverty culture sometimes need guidance, need values, need a little bit of structure,” said Chase Iron Eyes, an attorney and Native American rights activist from Standing Rock who is attending the conference. “Through some of the things the administration is doing, it looks like they’re trying to do that,” he said. “Youth — they just need the right tools, and maybe they can empower themselves.”
In addition to the conference, the White House released a report this week highlighting several failures in federal policy and noting the importance of giving more help to tribes for economic development, health and education. The 2014 issue of the Native Youth Report states that just about two-thirds of Native American youth graduate from high school.
The report recommends that more tribal control be given to the education system on reservations. The Bureau of Indian Education is seeing a major overhaul, as it is responsible for the education of 48,000 Indian students in 23 states.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell estimates that it could cost up to $1 billion to fix schools with failing infrastructures. Officials are seeking financial help by using existing money from Congress, existing government programs and other nonprofit and philanthropic organizations.