This year the United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) Conference was held July 6-10 at the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown hotel. The UNITY Conference is a conference where Native American youth from across the United States come to discuss issues affecting their communities and share their needs and concerns.
The first UNITY Conference was held in 1995 in San Diego, California, with 75 attendees. The conference has grown significantly and made a much greater impact since then. This year’s conference had approximately 1,200 Native American youth participating.
Each day there was a different focus on the activities:
UNITY: The first day was the lighting of the National UNITY Fire. This fire is used for ceremonial purposes and represents healing and spiritual nourishment. It is also a blessing for the conference and must remain lit through the entire conference.
HEALTH: On this day fitness activities took place, such as a 3-on-3 basketball tournament. This day ended with the youth sharing their various cultures in the Cultural Exchange.
SPIRITUALITY: This is the day on which area caucuses met to share what’s going on in their tribal communities. This also is the time for electing new representatives for each region for the new coming year. The day ended with a youth talent show.
EDUCATION: This day offered many special workshops, exhibits and an education/career fair. This was the last full day of the conference, and in the evening everyone celebrated with a banquet introducing the newly elected executive committee and a dance to share the good memories made throughout the conference.
COMMITMENT: On the final half-day of the conference, the UNITY Fire was extinguished.
All these different days brought a different learning experience for all of the youth participating from tribal communities near and far.
The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community Young River Peoples’ Council (YRPC) participated in many activities at the conference and gave two presentations during the general session. The first presentation was “Get Out the Vote.” They shared the importance of voting and why youth need to be more involved in their government, so their voices can lead to big change not only in their own communities, but also in the United States. They encouraged the other youth councils to take the importance of voting back to their communities to make a difference.
The second presentation featured a skit on bullying, followed by a discussion on this issue and the large impact it can have on people.
“This is my second UNITY Conference, and it was fun. Meeting people from New York was cool!” said Ki-Ana Reina, a member of the YRPC. “My favorite part of the conference was the talent show. There was a group that did a dance from Lilo & Stitch, and I love Lilo & Stitch. The people and presenters were nice. There also was a workshop that had a group of kids that travel to different countries such as Panama to help the Indigenous people there, and I thought that was really cool,” she said.
Reina added, “UNITY is a really good conference that makes you think about what you want to do in your community and be more involved in your youth council. You meet different people here and look forward to seeing them at the next conference.”
Martha Ludlow Martinez, vice-president of the YRPC, shared her experience at the conference. “This is my third time at the UNITY Conference, and I like how each year there was always something different, it wasn’t always the same. This year [with] the conference being in Arizona, we played a good role,” she said. “My favorite part was that we had a lot more opportunities than our sister tribes (Gila River, Ak-Chin and Tohono O’odham). We approached our conflicts that we had and overcame them; that made us stronger.
“Overall, UNITY is an experience in itself. Bad things [can] happen, but it’s how you deal with them, it’s a learning experience. I encourage the [Community] youth to be more involved in UNITY as well as the Young River Peoples’ Council.”
Antonio Briones, YRPC president, enjoyed his time at the conference as well.
“This is my fourth time being at UNITY, and the conference was good. I met new people in my clan. It’s inspiring to hear stories to help you go through life.”
Briones shared a message for all youth: “Step out of your box and your comfort zone; don’t be what people expect you to be. If you have goals, reach them.”