Each year, the Center for Native American Youth (CNAY) honors five inspirational Champions for Change. This year’s event took place at the Aspen Institute in Washington DC on Tuesday, February 12. The recognition goes to advocates on such issues as improving child welfare systems, decolonizing education standards, and supporting victims of sexual assault.

Former Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Chairman and Founder of the Center, opened the event on the importance of the organization and the roll of young people in promoting and maintaining their culture and society. The Senator introduced former US Secretary of Interior, Sally Jewel. She was the 51st Secretary of Interior in U.S. history and he described her as the best. Dorgan offered high praise for her work and advocacy on Native American issues.

Secretary Jewel discussed how many people see the task of the Department of Interior as managing land and addressing the environment, but she discussed how within its mission there are critical issues not just in agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs but in land management procedure, land management science and as being an advocate for Native Americans across federal agencies and cabinet departments.

After the brief introductory remarks moderators, the audience was introduced to the five champions: Autumn Adams (Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation), Madison White (Akwesasne Mohawk), Shandiin Herrera (Navajo Nation), Madison White (Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne), Charitie Ropati (Native Village of Kongiganak), and Adam Soulor (Mohegan Tribe).

Adam Soulor discussed how he has had an opportunity, as an advocate, to travel across the country and reach out and educate young people about their heritage and how to get involved including using and setting up youth councils. He discussed how his recent advocacy has provided him the opportunity to learn from other tribes and communities.

Autumn Adam’s award as a champion of change is very timely in that she has focused her past several months on a defense and implementation of the Indian Child Welfare Act. (see below). She discussed how there is an imperative that members speak up on its significance and importance to Native Americans.

Madison White discussed her efforts to promote her native Kanienkeha language. She has spent part of her time understanding Native American culture through language she is also involved now in developing and supporting a sexual assault group.

Shandin Herrera talked about her recent work in the office of United States Senator Tom Udall (D-NM). She was an advisor on the Senate in Committee on Indian Affairs and has spent part of her time promoting advocacy by young people and convincing some people that by becoming community activist you can play an important role in advancing change.

Charitie Ropati’s focus has been on “decolonizing education” by trying to advance Native American curriculum. She talked about culture and her work in addressing the dropout crisis in the state of Alaska.