Maurianna Loretto, an environmental science major at Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, says education is key to beating the odds stacked against so many Native American young people.
“There are challenges in the community," said Loretto, 22. "There are negative influences that someone can easily get into and get wrapped up in — and I think we just need people to motivate the young to do good for themselves.”
But it’s an uphill battle for most. More than a third of Native American youth live in poverty, and suicide is the second-leading cause of death for those ages 10 to 24. Native Americans also have the lowest high school graduation rates of any U.S. demographic.
President Barack Obama, who visited Standing Rock in June, has unveiled a new initiative aimed at helping Native American youth overcome poverty, substance abuse or other challenges. He announced the plan Wednesday at the sixth annual White House Tribal Nations Conference.
Report on native youth
Also during the conference, the White House released the 2014 Native Youth Report, which acknowledges that past failings in federal policy have contributed to the statistics. The report highlights areas of improvement such as in economic development and education.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who is restructuring the Bureau of Indian Education, said it would take $1 billion to fix Native American schools.
“We are doing a lot around Indian education, but there is more that needs to be done," she said. "We are inadequately funded, particularly in construction. We have schools that are falling apart, a third of BIE schools are in poor condition.”
During his visit to Standing Rock, Obama heard firsthand from tribal youth about the obstacles they face. The rare presidential visit deeply moved Obama, who at Wednesday’s conference announced the Generation Indigenous initiative, which aims to provide Native American youth with leadership, college and career opportunities.
“We want to give those young people and young Native Americans like them the support they deserve," he said. "We have to invest in them, believe in them and love them. And if we do, there’s no question of the great things they can achieve, not just for their own families, but for their nation and for the United States.”
Time to 'step up'
It’s a message that hits home for Brian Moskwetah Weeden, co-president of the United National Indian Tribal Youth.
“It’s time for our tribal youth to step up in our own communities, even in the bigger picture, in the government-to-government relationships," he said. "And being here, and being present, is a really good thing.”
For the first time, 36 Native American high school students took part in Wednesday’s conference as White House Youth Ambassadors, part of the president’s pledge to better the lives of native youth.