WASHINGTON — A recent weeklong visit to Washington, D.C. gave four Seminole Tribe teens a hands-on view of the federal government’s inner workings as it relates to Native sovereign nations.
The high school students and kids from 16 other Tribes that included the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut and the Shinnecock Indian Nation of New York, descended on Capitol Hill Feb. 6-12 for Close Up’s Washington, D.C. program.
Seminole citizens Deven Osceola, 15, Tyrek Lasane, 17, and Nicole Slavik, 16, attended for the first time. Marsha Osceola, 18, is a seven-year Close Up veteran.
For Deven, the experience delivered a well-defined picture of what it means to be Native American.
“My vision was made clearer about how much the Tribe needs government leaders. I always hear how we need more leaders educated in government and law, but now my eyes are open to that. It’s a real struggle to keep our sovereignty,” said Deven, a freshman at Mount Dora Christian Academy.
Created in 1971, the nonprofit program focuses on teaching democracy and inspiring students to become national leaders. Some educational sessions occur at landmark locations like the Lincoln Memorial, the Pentagon and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
A day on Capitol Hill let students meet with House and Senate leaders, watch congressional hearings and observe legislators’ conferring within the site’s many galleries.
Tribal teens get additional Native-centric stops. This year they learned about Thomas Jefferson’s Indian policies at the Jefferson Memorial, met with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in chambers and toured the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
Teens also attended meetings at the United South & Eastern Tribes’ (USET) Sovereignty Protection Fund Impact Week conference in nearby Arlington, Virginia, where leaders from USET’s 26 Tribes gathered to discuss key Indian Country issues.
Nicole said the week was a nonstop learning experience.
“I didn’t know anything about how the Tribe works on its own and with the federal government. USET and Close Up went into depth and showed us how things work and that we kids have a voice. We can help the Tribe grow stronger,” Nicole said.
Classes and workshops about government structure, Indian policies, legislative affairs and issues that impact sovereignty were peppered into the daily agenda. Eventually, the teens were dispersed to identify issues that affect them most, pick a topic and come up with a mock bill to effect change.
“Getting put into groups with random kids from random Tribes and then having to work together on a random project was different … I never knew some things were real problems until the issues were brought up by other Tribes. Then I realized how much we all have in common,” Deven said.
The teens tackled the problem of widespread depression among Native teens that often leads to substance abuse and suicide. In reservation communities, like outside communities, the effects of untreated depression can strike like a wrecking ball through families and ultimately damage the entire society.
“It was a very dark subject, but if someone falls to depression, gets into alcohol and drugs, doesn’t go to school, can’t get a job … bad things happen like a domino effect,” Nicole said.
The consensus? Students drafted a bill to require that tribal governments establish mandatory safe places on all reservations where teens and young adults in the early grips of depression can gather to talk it out and find strength in each other.
Nicole said interviews with USET leaders revealed how they ascended to leadership roles because they wanted to make a difference. They inspired her to believe that Tribes can help each other by sharing information about how they best battle certain problems.
“I always wanted to be a helping person, but I was afraid people would make fun of me and call me a nerd. I don’t think I will be shy about that anymore. All the kids at Close Up were as passionate as I am. All of them are smart and creative. We can do this,” Nicole said.
The Tribe’s Education Department organized the trip. Education outreach adviser Elizabeth Shelby and education counselor Magdalie Dumorne attended with parent Ruth Osceola, Deven’s mother.
In an event wrap-up letter, Shelby said the student activities were “thought provoking, interactive and fostered comradery” and even though only four Seminole teens attended “please be confident that these young people were mighty.”
Ruth Osceola said she was very impressed with the students’ involvement.
“I saw a lot of hope among the teenagers and I realized by watching and listening to the kids that there are a lot of reservations that are so much alike with similar problems. As individuals, I saw young adults who want to bring positive change,” Ruth Osceola said.