Top row, left to right: Weptas Brockie, Addison Carey, Sydney Carey
Second row, left to right: Eagle Edmiston, Miracle Edmiston, Penelope Gavin-Harvey, Anthony Greene, Diamond Greene
Third row, left to right: Ava Jackson, Muriel Jones-Hoisington, Brooklyn Jones, Malaeloa Malumaleumu, Garian McDonald, Meadow Morris
Fourth row, left to right: Madison Munoz, Hiyuum Nowland, Latis Nowland, Lindsey Pasena-Littlesky, Dymond Say, Abraham Shippentower
Fifth row: Keyen Singer, Julie Taylor (council advisor), Sunhawk Thomas, Nizhoni Toledo, Brees Van Pelt
Sixth row: Kymani Van Pelt, Summer Wildbill
The Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation Youth Leadership Council are 2023 Indigenous Leadership Awardees and the first group to be nominated for the Award. This interview was conducted with Youth Leadership Council members Sunhawk Thomas, Miracle Edmiston, and Muriel Jones-Hoisington and council advisors Lindsey Pasena-Littlesky and Julie Taylor.
The youth aren’t backing down. That message came through loud and clear during a conversation with members of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) Youth Leadership Council. From speaking out for mental health, to preventing alcohol and drug abuse, to ensuring access to higher education, to protecting treaty rights—the list of topics the Council advocates for speaks to a deep sense of responsibility for their community and their culture.
In recognition of their advocacy for wy-kan-ish (salmon) and for their courageous acts of service for the CTUIR community during the COVID-19 pandemic, this incredible group of young people are one of this year’s recipients of the Indigenous Leadership Award.
Ranging in grades 6 to 12, council members participate in a rigorous application and nomination process to participate in the group, with certain council members running for elected seats that require a vote. Once selected, youth are sworn in at a ceremony in the Umatilla tribal council chambers, then come together for a summit to decide collectively on what topics the group will focus on for the year.
“Once they are elected, we go into a session about prioritizing the needs of the community,” said Julie Taylor, who helped found the group in 2013, and is the Director of Children and Family Services for CTUIR. “I thought they would prioritize education or fun stuff like recreation or sports. But they prioritize the hardest [topics], like mental health and suicide prevention. That’s what some of them are experiencing today and [what] they want to be able to assist with.”
The CTUIR Youth Leadership Council advocate for salmon protections at Capitol Hill. Photos courtesy of Julie Taylor
In 2020, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a clear community need, and the Youth Leadership Council responded: Over the course of the year, council members provided food and personal protective equipment to community members through nearly 50 distribution events. Each event required hours of preparation and served 200 or more community members.
“We were there in hail, and heat, and snow, in all weather conditions to go out and assist families who were unable to get to the store or who were afraid to go to the store,” said Lindsey Pasena-Littlesky, a former Youth Council Member who has since graduated. Lindsey is now studying environmental science at Whitman College and currently acts as a council advisor. “Even though pandemic lockdown isn’t still in procedure, we’re still facing the same effects it had on us. … I think it’s taught us how to be resilient, and it taught us the importance of mental health and the importance of still fighting through barriers.”
That sense of resilience and determination are central to another effort being carried forward by the Youth Leadership Council: Taking their place in a strong lineage of advocacy and with a clear understanding of their treaty rights as tribal citizens, the youth are making their mark in the highly politicized world of dam removal to advocate for salmon survival. To date, the group has gathered more than 26,000 signatures in support of dam removal and salmon habitat restoration on the lower Snake River.
Youth Council Members advocate for protection of salmon and the Indian Child Welfare Act at Capitol Hill. Photos courtesy of Julie Taylor
On September 27, President Biden issued a “Memorandum on Restoring Healthy and Abundant Salmon, Steelhead, and Other Native Fish Populations in the Columbia River Basin,” specifically acknowledging the federal trust responsibility to Columbia River tribes and the harm caused to tribal people by the construction of dams in the Columbia River system. The memorandum is the first of its kind issued by the federal government in the history of the struggle for salmon preservation by tribal advocates. During an honoring ceremony for the Youth Leadership Council in celebration of receiving the Indigenous Leadership Award, the group was recognized for the role they played in building awareness around the state of salmon in the Columbia Basin.
“The Youth Council opened my eyes to that world that I was missing,” said Miracle Edmiston. Miracle, who was elected to serve as the Youth Leadership Council Publicist in 2023, is picking up the project from previous youth council members who started the campaign in 2019. “I knew the salmon were slowly going away, but I didn’t quite understand it fully until I joined the Youth Council. Seeing how much work they put in to get this far was really eye opening.”
For fellow council member, Sunhawk Thomas, a personal experience lent additional perspective: “A couple years ago, I got my first kill. And in that first kill ceremony, the salmon is really important. But we didn’t have a lot of salmon, because of what’s happening right now. I hope in 20 to 30 years from now, I can see salmon floating through the rivers again. I keep hearing stories from my uncles, and grandpa, and my cousins saying they could just go out fishing and see them flowing up and down the river. And I hope I can see that.”
Council member Muriel Jones-Hoisington reiterated the importance of working together to achieve goals set forward by the group: “It’s not just one person. It’s a team effort that we all have to contribute to. And it shows: when you’re walking around the community, adults come up to these youth and say how proud they are that they’re making such a great impact on the community and for future generations.”
Youth Council Members advocate for Snake River dam removal. Photo courtesy of Julie Taylor
In addition to advocacy work, the Youth Leadership Council plays an important role in the community: being a voice for the youth.
“We always say that [the youth are] leaders in the future, but I see it as, ‘they’re leaders now,’” said Julie Taylor. “I want them to be heard now. There are a lot of issues they can participate in and make change in, not in the future, but now. Making sure they have a voice today is important.”
And council members take the responsibility seriously.
“The CTUIR Youth Leadership Council plays a massive role in the community,” said Lindsey. “The Youth Council serves as a collective voice representing the youth in the community, advocating for issues that not everyone is comfortable sharing or has the voice to share. It’s a position to be able to advocate not only for our future, but for our peers.”
CTUIR Youth Leadership Council members take the stage during the 2023 Indigenous Leadership Award celebration in Portland to share remarks and reflections.
PORTLAND, Ore. — July 17, 2023 — Ecotrust today announced the recipients of the 2023 Indigenous Leadership Awards.
July 17, 2023 | PORTLAND — The Youth Leadership Council for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and tribal member Gabe Sheoships are recipients of the 2023 Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Awards.