ORLANDO — The Seminole Tribe of Florida was the main sponsor of the 2019 National Unity Conference in Orlando – a first.
Unity – “United National Indian Tribal Youth” – is one of the largest gatherings of Native American youth. Young people come from across the country for events, panels and other activities.
This year’s event – the 43rd – was held at the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center from July 4 to July 8.
Organizers said about 2,000 young people registered for the conference this year – 28 were Seminole youth, including one girl from the Miccosukee Reservation. When including parents, chaperones and conference organizers and speakers, the attendance number swelled to about 2,400.
While the Unity organization has been around for decades, and the conference has taken place in cities across the U.S., this was the first time it was hosted in Orlando. It was also the first time a significant number of Seminole youth and adults were involved.
Some Tribal members took leadership roles in the conference.
Kyle Doney, the deputy executive director at the Native Learning Center in Hollywood, was the co-chair of Unity’s local planning committee. He was joined by Quenton Cypress of Big Cypress – the community engagement manager at the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO).
Others who were on the planning committee included Melissa Billie, Jonathon Frank, Lewis Gopher, Tina Marie Osceola, Aaron Tommie, and Miss Indian World – Cheyenne Kippenberger.
Doney has also been a member of the Unity council of trustees. This was his third year to attend the conference. He said in past years only a few Seminoles had ever attended, so it mattered that the Tribe was the main sponsor this time around.
“[Participation] was really good,” Doney said. “We had kids who had never attended and we tried to get representation from each Reservation.”
Doney said the Seminole Tribe had visibility on “every level” this year, from registered youth, chaperones, parents who volunteered to do registration, the planning committee’s cultural event, storytelling by Naples Liaison Brian Zepeda and an opening ceremony that featured Seminole medicine man Bobby Henry.
Henry gave the opening blessing before the “Unity fire” was lit in an area outside the resort, where it was kept burning during the duration of the conference. It served as a meeting point for storytelling and cultural sharing.
The Seminole welcome cultural event included arts and crafts, a fashion show and a chance for youth to take a photo with a small alligator.
The conference had a permanent exhibition hall filled with booths selling Native arts and crafts, educational materials and other topics of relevance to Indian Country.
Cypress staffed a booth with information about the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and talked to attendees about the work it does and employment opportunities that are open.
Two Seminole youth auditioned and were selected to be models for a special Native fashion show – Nicksen Motlow Viveros and Abigail Tigertail. They were two of only 10 youth out of 100 to be selected for the show.
A handful of Seminole youth, along with Cypress and Kippenberger, took part in the grand entry “parade of nations” in the main conference room.
Kippenberger, who was attending her first Unity event, was a fixture during the conference and attracted a lot of attention from youth who wanted to meet and talk with her.
“It was special because we were the hosting Tribe, but also because I am now serving as the Southeastern peer guide representative,” Kippenberger said. “I am a part of an amazing cohort that will be serving Native American and Alaska Native youth affected by the foster care system and juvenile justice system through a partnership between Unity and the [Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Program].”
Kippenberger said she spent most of her time at the conference working with her group to create guidelines, curriculum and structure for the peer program.
“My favorite part of the conference was the talent show and seeing our own youth there,” she said. “It made me so happy to see our kids getting involved, speaking up, and enjoying the conference. I love being a part of such a positive impacting organization.”
Doney also helped to present awards at the closing night banquet where the Tribe was recognized for its support of the Unity organization and the conference.
He accepted a Pendleton blanket from conference organizers as a gift to the Seminole Tribe.
Doney said all the post-conference positive feedback has resulted in interest by those who attended to develop a Unity youth council to represent the Tribe.
“That’s a positive thing that can grow and succeed,” he said.
Doney is expected to speak with Tribal Council, along with some of the Unity attendees, to report their experiences at the conference and pitch the idea to Tribal leaders.
The next Unity conference takes place in Washington, D.C., in 2020.