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Washington trip provides learning experience for Seminole students

At the White House, from left to right, Leviticus Berry, Cece Thomas, Liyah Alvarado, Hadyn Billie, Ty Martinez, Jaylee Jimmie, Lavin Billie and Izaiah Billie. (Beverly Bidney)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — After a pandemic-imposed three-year hiatus, 10 Seminole students attended the Close Up Washington/USET Impact Week Youth Summit held Feb. 3 to Feb. 9 in Washington, D.C. The Seminole students were Liyah Alvarado, Hadyn Billie, Felicia Buck, Izaiah Billie, Lavin Billie, Leviticus Berry, Leighton Jim, Jaylee Jimmie, Ty Martinez and Cece Thomas. Along with about 80 other students from 12 tribes, they toured the Washington sights and explored the governmental process in the U.S. and in tribes.

Throughout the week, students worked on drafting tribal action initiatives they believed are important for their tribes and presented them to the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) board and members at its Feb. 6 meeting. The mission of Close Up is to inform, inspire and empower young people to exercise the rights and accept the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy. The week included workshops on federal Indian policy, federal government structure, current issues in Indian Country, creating a sovereignty statement and a tribal action initiative.

During the program’s first full day Kitcki Carroll, USET executive director, gave an overview of U.S. and tribal relations. He told the students that the story of those relations are often told from the perspective of the oppressor.

“All of North America was Indigenous,” Carroll (Cheyenne and Arapahoe) said. “It belonged to all of you and your ancestors.” He said the trust relationship between tribes and the U.S. government was based on two beliefs: that all Native Americans are incompetent to handle their own affairs and that they will disappear anyway. He described the beliefs as antiquated, paternalistic and flawed.

Carroll told the students about the “Doctrine of Discovery,” proclaimed by the Catholic Church in the 1100s with papal decrees. It established a religious, political and legal justification for colonization and seizure of lands not inhabited by Christians. The policy was validated as U.S. law by the Supreme Court in 1823 and was used to take land from Indigenous people.

“We have to understand that all policies and laws stem from this mindset,” Carroll said. “Because we were not Christians, we were heathens. Yet the U.S. is founded on religious freedom. We were an inconvenience and necessary casualty of U.S. growth. This country’s first sin was the atrocities committed on your relatives. Our very foundation is based on the dehumanization of human beings.”

Carroll hoped what the students learned from his presentation will spark their interest to learn more.

“We’d like you to do this work beside us,” he said. “You can take this knowledge and empower your family and your people. Find your voice, learn how to use it. It is the most powerful tool you have.”

Carroll said that 97% of Indian youth go to public schools with non-Natives and are getting an untruthful version of Native American history. Students responded favorably to Carroll’s presentation and some said it was an eye-opener. “They are not telling the full story in public school,” said 12th grader Leviticus Berry, of Brighton. “I’ve learned so much more here. I’m going to try to explain it to people at my school. I recently had conversations with friends and teachers who didn’t know most of what happened.”

“They sugarcoat stuff,” said ninth grader Ty Martinez, of Immokalee. “We need to know what really happened. I have friends that don’t think Seminoles exist today. People know a lot more about other countries than they do about their own.”

At the National Museum of the American Indian, students saw the “Americans” exhibit which displayed how images of Native Americans have been used in every aspect of American life, from advertisements to products to sports teams to military hardware. “Our name and culture has been thrown into the mud and stepped on,” said 11th grader Jaylee Jimmie, of Big Cypress. “It tore us apart. It feels like we can’t be taken seriously unless we play the role.”

“Logos are just not okay,” added ninth Grader Hadyn Billie, of Immokalee. “They make fun of Native Americans and don’t take us seriously.”

The group also toured the Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, World War II, Korean and Vietnam memorials. On Feb. 6, students presented USET member flags at the opening ceremony of the meeting. The tribal action initiatives posters were presented at the USET meeting later in the day. Each tribe made a board outlining what they believed to be the most important issues facing their tribes.

The Seminole students listed tribal government and cultural involvement with young people as the top issues facing the tribe. Other tribe’s issues included water pollution, drugs, loss of culture and language, crime, increasing tribal businesses and increasing youth involvement in the tribe. The Seminole students rehearsed who would say what about their action initiative to members of USET who stopped at their presentation table.

“We need to talk about what needs to be done to change our government,” Jimmie said. “The requirements to be in office are too low. We can do better and be better. I guess it’s up to the younger generation because the older generation is stuck in their ways. If we want to survive, it should be less about blood and more about what you know about our culture.”

The students were concerned that Elders would take all their knowledge with them when they die before they had a chance to learn. “Taking culture classes at Ahfachkee makes me want to learn more,” Jimmie said. Eleventh grader Leighton Jim talked about the structure of Seminole government. “There are flaws in our government,” Jim said. “It can work better in the best interest of tribal members. There is always room for improvement.”

“I think they should require more experience to be in the government,” added 11th grader CeCe Thomas. “A lot of young people don’t like to reach out and ask about culture, so we need Council to sponsor a program for activities every month.” USET members said they were impressed by the Seminole students’ presentation and commented on how prepared, energetic and eager to share they were.

“The kids are very articulate about what they think needs to be done,” said Keith Anderson, chief of the Nansemond Indian Nation in Virginia. “It was phenomenal. They were fully engaged and informed.”

Later in the week, the students toured Capitol Hill and met with members of the Senate’s Committee on Indian Affairs.

Cece Thomas, center, talks to Kitcki Carroll, USET executive director. (Beverly Bidney)
Flagbearers Leviticus Berry, left, and Ty Martinez join other Close Up participants who held flags of the USET tribes during the opening ceremonies of its meeting. (Beverly Bidney)
From left to right, Leighton Jim, Felicia Buck, Hadyn Billie and Liyah Alvarado work on the government structure poster.
(Courtesy Beverly Bidney)
Ty Martinez, right, talks about the Seminole Tribe. Also in the discussion are Jaylee Jimmie, second from left, and Hadyn Billie, second from right. (Beverly Bidney)
Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at