Native Youth Identity Conference Encourages Participants to Explore

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By Nalani Lopez

OAN Intern

On September 28, the 7th Annual Native Youth Identity Conference took place in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community’s Way of Life Facility. This year’s conference was the first one held following several years of cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Youth Development Specialist Sommer Lopez, the conference was a collaboration between the Young River People’s Council and the Salt River Youth Services Department. It brought together more than 100 youth from Salt River and surrounding tribal communities.

“Our goal is that the youth walk away [from this event] with new interests that will improve their future, a chance to meet new people, [and the opportunity to] learn and do something out of their comfort zone,” said Lopez.

The youth began to fill the bleachers, wearing their new NYIC T-shirts, and then the conference opened with a welcome and blessing by Miss Salt River Kennise McGertt.

The blessing was followed by SRPMIC Council Representative Jacob Butler, who was the conference’s keynote speaker. He encouraged the youth to be proud representatives of their families, communities and all those who came before.

The youth then had the opportunity to engage in workshops in four blocks: culture, art, financial literacy and a “Youth for Change” block, which encouraged participants to brainstorm ideas to improve their community.

Within the culture block, youth could choose between Cemait (tortilla-making) Camp, Toka, Songival, Gins and Kavad dodgeball. They were all smiles as they sampled the traditional foods and learned how to play the traditional games of the O’odham and Piipaash.

Youth Development Specialist Sommer Lopez teaches the traditional O’odham game of toka to participants.

Participants were encouraged to embrace their inner creativity in the art workshops. The spray-painting workshop, a popular one, was presented by skilled and renowned artists Dwayne Manuel, Thomas “Breeze” Marcus, Paul “Nox” Pablo and Natasha “Rezmo” Martinez. Other art workshops included portrait drawing with Tristan Craig and a poetry zine class led by Amber McCray.

Following the morning workshops, everyone enjoyed a tasty lunch provided by Ernie’s Catering. The meal included red chili, rabbit stew, squash, beans and frybread.

“The rabbit stew was really good; I didn’t believe anyone when they told me [it was rabbit] at first,” said Jr. Miss Salt River Jizelle Juan.

During lunch, the Indie rock band One Way Sky from the Gila River Indian Community provided the musical entertainment.

After lunch, the financial literacy workshops began. The classes sought to inform youth about the importance of making wise decisions regarding money. One of the classes brought the “Game of Life” board game to reality, allowing the players to experience life and all of its twists and turns through an interactive series of booths.

Youth for Change was last group of workshops, and these were designed to empower the youth to “think outside the box” to tackle various issues facing their communities, such as substance abuse prevention, culture and language revitalization, improving education, mental health awareness and climate change.

To close the day, Well for Culture co-founder and Community member Thosh Collins offered some final words.

“Keep living. Your only job right now as young people is to live life, have fun and be happy. And think a little bit about your future. That is your only job,” said Collins.

He then invited the youth to close the conference with some music and O’odham socials, as he pulled out his gourd and invited other singers to join him.

Youth who were strangers at the start of the day ended the conference dancing hand in hand.

Kennise McGertt

What did you enjoy from the block/workshop you chose?

I enjoyed my Culture and Language Revitalization class. It really helped connect with the youth on how they learn, like with social media. Our idea was to come up with culture TikToks, like skits.

What are some of your goals for the future?

My goal is to be more connected with the youth. From hearing stories and listening to the youth, I want to help kids get opportunities outside of the Community. I was able to travel throughout the state and country through marching band. I want to connect with the youth, learn more about them, and see how I can help them with their future.

What is something you did today that was outside your comfort zone?

[It was] during the culture and language class. I have ideas, but I don’t feel comfortable sharing them. Sharing your ideas and giving your personal views on things can be uncomfortable, but there is someone out there who is going to listen to you, and today I found those people.

From what you have learned, what is a message you would like to send to the youth of the Community?

Get out of your comfort zone. You are going to meet new people, travel outside of the rez, and recognize people. Making new connections is really important and will help you get through life. You are not going to get anywhere if you stay in your bubble.

Patricia Woody

What did you enjoy from the block/workshop you chose?

I enjoyed my Culture and Language Revitalization class the most. We had to start a project that would help us learn more about our community. It was helpful to get together and talk about ideas for youth to learn more about their culture.

What are some of your goals for the future?

I want to go to an art college and get my animation degree. I hope I can work for Disneyland and [offer] better representation for Native Americans. I want to have a movie about our tribe; [that] has always been something I have thought about.

From what you have learned, what is a message you would like to send to the youth of the Community?

Try to be more involved in your community. I know some teenagers don’t want to take part, but it is really important to know some of our culture.

What have you learned about yourself today?

I found out how much of a social butterfly I am. I always thought I was shy and awkward, but during the workshops, I was inviting people to sit with me so we could get to know each other. I even made some friends in the workshops.

How was today’s lunch?

It tasted like chicken. The broth made it soft. It was super good.

Jizelle Juan

What did you enjoy from the block/workshop you chose?

My favorite one was the cultural class because we got to talk about the ideas we had to preserve the culture. It sparked a lot of interest for a lot of young people.

What are some of your goals for the future?

I hope to become a registered nurse and then work for the fire department, so I can serve the Community. Not only that, I hope to become a better person and hopefully become better at speaking to people, since sometimes I can have anxiety from speaking.

What is something you did today that was outside your comfort zone?

Trying to think of ideas. I’m not a really creative person, so it’s hard for me to think and be put on the spot for things. It was out of my comfort zone for sure.

From what you have learned, what is a message you would like to send to the youth of the Community?

Try to preserve the culture. Do whatever you can to get involved.

What have you learned about yourself today?

I learned that I can get creative. During the workshop, I came up with a lot of ideas that other people liked, so I found that interesting.

How was today’s lunch?

It was really good. I didn’t believe anyone when they told me [it was rabbit] at first.

Daniel Lewis

What did you enjoy from the block/workshop you chose?

I chose the art class, the graffiti one. I liked how I got to spray paint. It was my first time doing a mural.

What are some of your goals for the future?

I want to be a professional skater.

From what you have learned, what is a message you would like to send to the youth of the community?

Never give up on your dreams, and be nice.

Amelia Lasiloo

What are some of your goals for the future?

When I’m older, I want to run for Miss Salt River and make money so I can go to concerts.

From what you have learned, what is a message you would like to send to the youth of the Community?

Make sure not to let other people tell you what to do, and be true to yourself.

What have you learned about yourself today?

I learned I’m not good at playing gins. I also learned it’s not that hard to talk to people.

Thaila Silverhorn

What did you enjoy from the block/workshop you chose?

I chose the self-portrait class because I wanted to try something new in art. I also chose the cemait class because I wanted to show off my cemait-making skills.

What are some of your goals for the future?

I just want to focus on my future, not do bad things, and make my own decisions.

What is something you did today that was outside your comfort zone?

I had to do a portrait of someone I didn’t know. I asked if I could draw them, and then I just drew them. I didn’t even know them.

From what you have learned, what is a message you would like to send to the youth of the Community?

Live your truth and be yourself.

How was today’s lunch?

The food was so good. I had the red chili. I wish I could have had more frybread.

Melody Brown

How has it been leading your first youth conference?

It’s been fun and exciting leading a conference.

What did you enjoy from the block/workshop you chose?

I learned how to draw faces and use shading.

What are some of your goals for the future?

I want to learn to socialize more, and I hope I can run for Youth Council.

From what you have learned, what is a message you would like to send to the youth of the Community?

I’m very grateful, and you should be too.

What have you learned about yourself today?

I like to play toka a lot. Now I want to join my auntie’s team.

Cruz Lasiloo

What did you enjoy from the block/workshop you chose?

I liked the spray painting one because it was cool.

From what you have learned, what is a message you would like to send to the youth of the Community?

Have fun in what you do. If you want to do something, and it makes you happy, just keep doing it.

Leiland Thomas

What is something you did today that was outside your comfort zone?

I had to announce the raffle winners. I don’t normally announce stuff like that, so it was out of my comfort zone.

From what you have learned, what is a message you would like to send to the youth of the Community?

Respect your grandma.

What have you learned about yourself today?

I learned that spray painting isn’t as hard as I thought, and that it is fun.

Asari Lewis

What did you enjoy from the block/workshop you chose?

The spray painting one was unique. I learned the techniques and it was cool.

What is something you did today that was outside your comfort zone?

Giving speeches was scary.

What are some of your goals for the future?

I want to have a lot of kids and be happy.

From what you have learned, what is a message you would like to send to the youth of the Community?

Don’t do drugs, and be happy.

What have you learned about yourself today?

I learned I am a god at spray painting.

Tizoc Lopez

How has it been leading your first youth conference?

Hosting a conference is cool because I get to participate and help decide the cool things we get to do.

What did you enjoy from the block class you chose?

In the Youth for Change block, I learned about climate change. We thought of ways to solve it.

From what you have learned, what is a message you would like to send to the youth of the community?

Always have fun, and smile a lot.

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