Indigenous Millennials share their views with members of Congress

By Sophie Bonomi, Kitsap Daily News

SUQUAMISH — Several Millennials, ages teens to 20s, from the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe and Suquamish Tribe gathered in the conference room at Kiana Lodge Aug. 29 to meet with three adults who wanted to hear their views about issues of concern to them.

It was an uncommon opportunity. The adults were three members of the U.S. House of Representatives: Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor; Rick Larsen, D-Everett; and Eric Swalwell, D-Pleasanton, California. Also participating: Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman, who opened the discussion.

“There’s a lot of hope and a lot of fear for Millennials, especially these days,” Forsman said.

Kilmer, Larsen, and Swalwell are participants in the Future Forum — 27 of the House’s youngest Democrats who are visiting 41 cities around the country to hear the concerns of the next generation.

“The challenges are greater than any of the challenges we’ve ever seen,” Kilmer said.

Swalwell added, “This is why it’s really important for us to hear from you. This helps us expand our understanding of [how issues affect young people in] our districts.”

Millennials in attendance were Kali Chargualaf, Adam Charles, Kylie Cordero, Katelyn Gutierrez, Joseph Holmes Sr., Kaylayla Ives, Chelsea Jones, Katelynn Pratt, Tyleeander Purser, Javier Ramirez and Everly Sigo.

Kilmer jumped right in: “So, what keeps you up at night,” he asked.

The roundtable was still for a moment.

Ramirez opened the conversation with his thoughts on mental health, depression and suicide rates among Tribal members.

“Personally, I’ve known many people who have struggled with anxiety, depression and suicide,” he said. “It’s very prevalent. And it’s very personal to me.”

The conversation turned to a Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why,” about a girl who, having been the subject of sexual abuse, bullying and harassment, decides to take her life. Roundtable participants said the series presents a real picture of what some teens face, and is a good vehicle to open the conversation to discuss the uncomfortable issues surrounding teen suicide, depression and bullying.

Chargualaf, a 21-year-old senior at Western Washington University, shared her concerns about race and diversity under the Trump administration.

“At my school, they make diversity a huge deal,” she said. “But after I started going there, I began to see a lot of issues. There’s a lot of racism on campus.” (A WWU student was sentenced in January to six months on probation for texting a message about lynching the student body president, who happened to be African American.)

Regarding the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, it’s “like we’re going back to the 1960s,” Chargualaf said.

Holmes, a cultural educator, shared his views on the importance of Native history and cultural education in public schools and beyond.

State law requires public school districts to incorporate Native history, culture and governance in their curriculum. The law is designed to provide a more accurate and thorough understanding of U.S. history, and build intercultural understanding. “We need to educate students, not only in K-12 but in college, about the United States, starting from its inception,” Holmes said. “I believe poor education will tear our country apart.”

Kilmer asked participants about their goals and hopes for the future.

Pratt, Miss Chief Seattle Days, wants to become a Tribal anthropologist. Purser wants to become an architect specializing in sustainable design. Others said they want to finish their education and go on to change the world in various ways. But all shared the same goal: to have a healthy and sustainable world to offer to the next generation.

“I want to protect my treaty rights,” Purser said. “I want to make sure my descendants can dip their net in the water.”

The subject of climate change sparked a passionate conversation. Tribal members talked of the potential erosion of treaty rights if the land isn’t healthy enough to produce the natural resources the Tribes need to survive.

Port Gamble S’Klallam and Suquamish ancestors signed treaties ceding land to the United States in exchange for certain guarantees; they also reserved land and the right to fish in their usual and accustomed areas. Today’s indigenous leaders feel those treaty rights are in jeopardy because of pollution and diminished habitat that are reducing the availability of salmon needed to meet their peoples’ physical and spiritual needs.

Larsen offered this advice. “Don’t take it for granted that these treaties exist,” he said. “You always have to assert [your treaty rights]. Continue to educate, assert and protect [the treaty].”

Health care, opioid addiction, and ideas on how to build a brighter tomorrow also found their place in the conversation.

“This is such a diverse group of young leaders,” Suquamish Tribal Council member Robin Sigo said. “The discussion went in so many different ways. I’m amazed by them.”

Kilmer agreed.

“It’s amazing that these young people are engaging on issues that are front and center in D.C. right now,” he said. “These are issues that we are dealing with on a daily basis. How these issues impact the next generation of Tribal youth is very helpful. This has given us a lot of hope.”

Rion Ramirez, general counsel for Port Madison Enterprises, the economic development arm of the Suquamish Tribe, added, “To hear their vision was really cool.”

Purser concluded with this oft-quoted saying that many believe reflects indigenous values: “We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

Article: Kitsap Daily News