November is Native American Heritage Month in which the country recognizes the significant contributions the first Americans made to the establishment and growth of this nation. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, the Center for Native American Youth (CNAY) released the annual 2019 State of Native Youth Report: Native Youth Count and hosted an event on Thursday, November 20, that featured guest speakers and a youth panel. The theme of both the report and event, Native Youth Count, highlighted the importance of Native youth civic engagement and belonging and was expressed throughout.

Speakers and panelists shared their insights regarding the issues and policies most impacting them as well as ongoing efforts to address these needs. CNAY’s founder and former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan from North Dakota provided opening remarks, stressing the importance of the work of CNAY and its ability to positively impact the lives of young Native and Indigenous youth across the nation for generations to come. Coar Gaane, Vice President of the Tribal Advocate & Senior Relationship Manager at Wells Fargo, spoke about Wells Fargo’s investment in Indian Country for the past five years, which averages about $6.5 million per year—of which CNAY are recipients. Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-NM) provided remarks praising the panel of Native youth and stressed the need for activist representing Indian Country.

Elliot Gerson, Executive Vice President at at the Aspen Institute, and Nikki Pitre, Associate Director at the Center for Native American Youth, moderated the panel discussion, and featured several youth including: Elizabeth Morgan (2019 Creative Native Call for Art Winner), Austin Weahkee (2018 Movement Builder Fellow), Mikah Carlos (Center for Native American Youth and Youth Advisory Board Member), and Jarrette Werk (2018 Movement Builder Fellow). The youth panelist spoke on issues affecting Native youth, such as the opioid crisis, fights over land rights, being undercounted in the census, and the preservation of Native languages and cultures. They also spoke of their activism, which focuses on Native art, voting initiatives, battles over native lands, and addressing and preventing generations of poverty.

Like the panelist, the report also highlights young leaders who are working hard to create a brighter future for tribal nations, the programs that help them do so, and the policy issues that impact their lives. The 2019 State of Native Youth report includes policy priorities that youth across the country raised as important and those themes included historic indigenous representation, health and wellness, systems involving youth, education and jobs, sacred sites, lands, and waterways, and citizenship.

Policy priorities outlined by youth leaders in the report were vast, ranging from climate change to child welfare. Approximately one-third of Native children were removed from their communities and families before the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978.

The report stresses the importance of the ICWA and its role in increasing tribal control of youth placements in the foster care system to improve outcomes for Native youth, who were previously separated from their families and culture. The youth surveyed in the report also highlighted the importance of cultural identity and called for opportunities for Native youth in foster care to connect with their tribal community and culture.