First Lady Wows Crowd at Native Youth Confab

About 30 Alaskans in their teens and 20s were in Washington, D.C., today to participate in the first-ever White House Tribal Youth Gathering. The highlight for many was a passionate speech by First Lady Michelle Obama.

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In a cavernous hotel ballroom near the White House, Mrs. Obama told the crowd they, as individuals, matter.

“Each of you was put on this Earth for a reason,”  she said. “Each of you has something that you’re destined to do. Whether that’s raising a beautiful family, or succeeding in a profession, or leading your community into a better future. You all have a role to play. And we need you.”

Law student Meghan Topkok, of Nome
Law student Meghan Topkok, of Nome

Obama urged them to notice the investment placed in them. She also said, despite how they may feel at low points, they are never alone.

“Everyone in this room has your back. Everyone speaking at this summit – all those cabinet secretaries and powerful people who’ve come here for you – they have your back,” she said. “And you definitely have a president and a first lady who have your back.”

The gathering is part of President Obama’s Gen-I – or Generation Indigenous –project, aimed at cultivating leadership in young people and helping them succeed. The participants, more than 1,000, had to apply for selection, so this is a high-achieving bunch. Many of them have already launched projects to improve their communities. In her speech, the first lady warned attendees that some of the big changes they’re seeking may not occur until their children or grandchildren are grown.

Sierra Shanigan-Daugherty, 19, of Anchorage, and Miss Arctic Circle: Elizabeth Ferguson, 21, of Kotzebue in Washington, D.C. Photo by APRN's Liz Ruskin.
Sierra Shanigan-Daugherty, 19, of Anchorage, and Miss Arctic Circle: Elizabeth Ferguson, 21, of Kotzebue in Washington, D.C. Photo by APRN’s Liz Ruskin.

“And, see, maybe decades from now, maybe those kids — your kids, your offspring — will look back at all of you and say you were the generation who started it all. Gen-I,” she said. “You were the generation that dug deep. You were the generation that drew strength from your history. And wrote a new story of Indian Country, and of America.”

Among those seeking big changes is Meghan Topkok of Nome, who has roots in Ambler and Mary’s Igloo.

”My to-do list? It’s very long,” she said. “I’m really concerned about subsistence hunting, and shipping that’s increasing through the Bering Strait. As well as the erosion of the land.”

She’s a law student at the University of Oregon and, at 24, one of the older attendees at the gathering. She spoke after a session on environment and climate change.

“I think what’s really inspiring is our youth are engaging in these issues, because I think so often, especially out in the village, like where I’m from, there’s kind of a lack of awareness, or  a passivity about it, and these kids are really inspiring because they’re doing things in their communities and bringing ideas here with them and sharing them. So we’re all learning from each other and we take those ideas back and it’s like a ripple effect.”

Some of the Alaskans wore fur vests and calico kuspuks that made them easy to identify. Twenty-one year old Elizabeth Ferguson really stood out. She wore a tall crown made of jade and ivory. It’s her tiara for winning Miss Arctic Circle, a regional culture pageant. She was also wearing a sash across her torso, with “Miss Arctic Circle” spelled out in sealskin.

I’m from Kotzebue Alaska. I’m the youngest tribal council member on our Native village of Kotzebue.

Ferguson says she drew inspiration from other leaders at the conference, but she says the First Lady’s speech really hit the mark.

Not only did she just speak to us and encourage us and empower us, she didn’t speak down on us, you know, like she’s superior,” Ferguson said. “She spoke at us. She met us at our level, and she lifted us up.”

In conjunction with the conference, the White House also announced a raft of grants and programs to improve Indian education, justice, and economic opportunity.

Watch Michelle Obama’s speech following brief introduction: