WASHINGTON, DC — The nation’s capital is home to more than just legislation and historical buildings – it also provides an education experience visitors will never forget. From Feb. 4 through 8, Seminole students congregated with dozens of other high schoolers from Tribes around the U.S. in Washington, D.C. to learn about the impact they can have on their communities through the Close Up Foundation’s United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) Impact Week Youth Summit.
Throughout the week-long venture, students learned about USET, congress and current legislation impacting Indian Country through various workshops and activities throughout the city. Included in the itinerary were panel discussions with members of USET and the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee, mock congress sessions, debates and leadership trainings. While education was the primary time commitment, fun was not lost for the students, as they also visited numerous memorial sites, including Iwo Jima and the war memorials, Capitol Hill and even a theater performance of “Shear Madness” at the Kennedy Center.
Many students enjoyed the trip because of the opportunities to connect with other students from around the nation. LaBelle High School junior Allegra Billie, 17, for example, said that Close Up helped her come out of her shell and network with people to learn more about them, their tribes and the issues they currently face. For her, socializing is usually a challenge and this trip was unlike any educational experience she’s had.
“It’s more of an experience to open up to more people,” said the Immokalee resident. “Without coming here, I don’t think I would have ever had that experience.”
As challenging as the week was socially, it also helped students identify their future careers.
Ahfachkee junior Janessa Jones, 16, said this trip essentially determined the rest of her life. The workshops and discussions with national leaders inspired her to narrow down her career path and purse a career in political science and business administration.
“I’ve always wondered what it’s like working in an office and [creating solutions to problems] we go through and how things are ran [in Indian Country],” she said, explaining that the entire trip opened up her eyes to happenings and issues surrounding dozens of other tribes. “I see myself as a leader and coming here, I never knew there was such a thing as Indian Country. It really opened up my eyes and I really like how we have Native Americans that actually work in offices up here [in Washington]. That was mind-blowing to me because our statistics are so low, but it is very inspirational.”
According to the Pew Research Center, the 115th Congress – in session until Jan. 3, 2019 – is the most racially and ethnically diverse Congress in U.S. history. The Center reported that nearly one-in-five voting members of the House and Senate are a minority; however, out of the 535 members, only two of those individuals are Native American.
While Native American representation in these positions is low, these statistics simply served as motivation for students to spark change.
This spark ignited during the mock congress workshops, which aimed to teach attendees about issues in Congress affecting different tribes individually and as a whole. They primarily focused on legislation recently debated in congress – the Tribal Recognition Act of 2015, the Police Camera Act of 2015 and the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act of 2015.
With these issues in mind, students were divided into committees – one for each issue – to decide if they wanted to address their respective issue with a bill. Each committee first discussed the issue amongst each other, then with pro and con lobbyists, before their bills went to the mock congress floor. Once on the floor, all students – acting as legislators – debate whether the bill should progress in the legislative process.
Later in the day, students addressed those same concerns at a panel discussion with senate interns, public policy officials and representatives from the Committee of Indian Affairs. A handful of students asked about violence against women in Indian Country, their thoughts about the recent language immersion acts, and what a day in the life is like for congressional members.
Jones, who asked if the representatives ever go back to their Tribal lands to see what is happening firsthand, said that despite many people attending the program beat around the bush with their concerns, it is the students’ responsibility to express how they feel and get straight to talks on solutions.
“It was very educational and it taught a lot of people to come out of their shells and speak up,” she said.
Toward the end of the conference, students collectively decided on a particular issue they wanted to present to the USET Board of Directors. Jones’ idea, to create an elective for elementary, middle and high school students that focuses on Native American history and culture, was ultimately selected. She and her co-presenter Maranda Mather, 17, said that schools in areas with larger tribal populations, both federally recognized and unrecognized, would offer the electives and focus on the local tribes. If an elective is not possible, Jones and Mather want to see the subject implemented into U.S. history courses.
“U.S. history is mandatory for all children in the U.S. to take. Making it a class is the most effective way we can think of and it’s a better way to get information out and reach out to the students,” Jones said. “In history classes, there’s really not a lot of information about Native Americans; it’s always the bad pieces and treating us as the bad guys.”
After presenting the idea, the board decided to adopt the plan into its plans for the upcoming year. In doing so, they plan to place pieces of this initiative in various amendments and resolutions. No details on this have been released.
While it may be a while before results from the acceptance of this resolution are seen nationally, Jones is making sure that local results are seen as soon as possible.
Jones has set up a series of meetings with Big Cypress Councilman Mondo Tiger and Ahfachkee School officials to discuss implementing her idea into Ahfachkee. Meetings started on Feb. 23 and updates will be provided in the coming weeks.
The 12 Seminole Tribe of Florida students ended their week in Washington tired in body, but energized in spirit to take what they learned back to their communities.
Deven Osceola, 17, lives in the Tampa area and doesn’t belong to a specific reservation. The Mount Dora Christian Academy junior said that despite not living on a reservation, communicating and socializing with fellow Tribal members and those from other Tribes is essential in making progress throughout the Tribe and even the nation.
“The best part [of the trip] was just how much they tried to push you out of your comfort zone and socialize and make friends. It kind of changes you by the end of the week,” he said. “It makes me want to be in a leadership position, even though I’m usually introverted and don’t really talk too much.”
This was Osceola’s second time attending the conference and he hopes to return next year. In the meantime, he said he’s going to keep learning about Seminole culture and become more active in news related to Indian Country. He hopes to show elders that his generation is not a lost cause and can uphold Seminole culture and sovereignty.
Hollywood resident Chandler Denayo, 16, also attended the conference for his second year. Though he and Osceola live in different areas of Florida, he said attending this conference allows them to develop a friendship and work on ideas for the betterment of their community and other tribal nations, as well.
“It was good to interact with kids from different cultures that I haven’t really known before,” the Nova Southeastern University School sophomore said, adding that attending workshops throughout the week was his favorite part. “It allowed me to meet people from my Tribe whom I never met before and express ideas to solve problems on our reservations.
Denayo plans to take the solutions discussed at the workshops to the youth club in Hollywood, which he said he is an active member of to act as a youth councilman for the Tribe.