As a teenager, Mary Kim Titla came across United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) in a newsletter she’d picked up in a San Carlos Apache tribal office in southeastern Arizona, and that lit a spark. For over four decades, UNITY has promoted personal development and leadership among Native youth. She begged her parents to take her to a UNITY conference in Oklahoma, a trip that set her on her path. “UNITY allowed me to realize that I can shoot for the stars, that I can become a leader in my own way,” Titla says.
Empowering Native Americans through UNITY
The 45-year-old United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) elevates and supports the voices of young Native Americans as they work to strengthen their communities.
Now Titla is executive director of UNITY, a Mesa, Arizona-based national nonprofit dedicated to inspiring Native youth and giving them the space, tools and resources to work for change. As she attests, the real leaders are the thousands of young people who attend UNITY conferences, train their peers, speak out on causes they are passionate about and do work in their communities through a network of 325 youth councils spread over 35 states. “The vision is to give a platform to Native youth so that they can have a voice and can come together and brainstorm about how to address problems in their community,” says Titla.
UNITY takes a stand on issues facing Native communities today. Members have identified a range of causes, including providing access to mental health resources, protecting the environment, maintaining cultural identity, and ensuring the safety of women and girls. “With all of these causes, our young people are stepping up and coming up with ways to meet the challenge, not sitting around saying ‘woe is me,’” says Titla. “Part of UNITY’s mission is to motivate youth to think of what could be.”
Bank of America has partnered with UNITY for more than a decade, and the organization is one of many national and local nonprofits serving the Native community that received a total of $3.1 million in philanthropic grants in 2020, aligned with Bank of America’s $1.25 billion, five-year commitment to advance racial equality and economic opportunity. During the pandemic, bank funding helped the organization enhance the technology that allowed them to stay connected with members, including developing a wellness app and updating the website more often. “We have been able to dream big,” notes Titla. “We are blessed.”
Meet three UNITY leaders from across the country who from a young age have advocated for more awareness of mental illness, worked to provide greater food security on reservations and in rural communities, and instructed young women how to protect themselves.
Looking back at her years growing up in Hollywood, Florida, 25-year-old Cheyenne Kippenberger recalls troubled times. She struggled with anxiety and depression as a teenager, even dropping out of high school for a time. A member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida — a state with only two federally recognized tribes — she felt cut off from other Native American youth. UNITY gave her a connection, at first through Instagram posts she saw. “I loved the idea of this space being created for Native Youth from all across Indian country,” Kippenberger says. “Maybe I could be one of the kids in those pictures one day.”
As she turned her life around, returning to school and going on to graduate from college, Kippenberger’s connection to UNITY deepened. She decided to run for her tribe’s ambassador position, which led her to a UNITY conference in Orlando. From there, the relationship grew, culminating in 2019 with Kippenberger being named a peer guide for UNITY’s Healing Indigenous Lives Initiative, which facilitates training and mentorships with a focus on juvenile justice and delinquency prevention. “It’s been a beautiful journey of not only finding myself,” she says, “but also channeling that understanding back out to the youth I get to work with.”
Mental health challenges, from depression and anxiety to bipolar disorder and PTSD, are widespread in the Native community, Kippenberger notes. “There’s a stigma around these conversations, there’s a lack of accessibility to resources and there’s a lack of resources in general.” UNITY has given her to platform to speak out on this intensely personal issue and advocate for culturally competent care. “UNITY was part of my path and my healing time,” she says. “I have a responsibility to pass on my knowledge to youth and an obligation to guide.”
Marco Ovando, a 21-year-old member of the Shoshone Paiute Tribe of Nevada, is a full-time student at Boise State University. But when the coronavirus pandemic shut down in-person classes, Ovando returned to his home on the Duck Valley reservation in Owyhee, Nevada. Straddling the border of Idaho and Nevada, this is a region of high-mountain desert, pine forests, and streams and lakes. “This little oasis in the middle of sage brush for hundreds of miles has helped the tribe develop a mindset of self-determination, resiliency and the ability to find resources,” says Ovando.
Still, the nearest grocery story — or Wal-Mart or McDonald’s — is 100 miles away. Given the region’s short growing season, that isolation means fresh and healthy foods can be scarce for the 1,400 residents of his valley, a situation that has inspired Ovando to advocate for food sovereignty in rural areas like his own. “It’s a challenge to transport fresh produce to these communities because of where they are located and infrastructure,” he says. Ovando has been involved with a University of Nevada at Reno program that provides families in his valley with small greenhouses to enable them to grow their own food. “It’s cool to get that kind of boots-on-the-ground action.”
Ovando is also keenly interested in preserving his tribe’s heritage as a nomadic people who knew how to farm and fish in a vast region in the Northwest. “I’m trying to make sure those areas remain preserved for a new generation that wants to know what that almost-lost knowledge is,” he says.
Ovando became involved with UNITY in 2015, hoping for a sense of purpose and something to aspire to. What he found was the confidence that came from seeing other Native youth like himself and having a shoulder to lean on. In 2019, he was named a UNITY Earth Ambassador, with food sovereignty and cultural preservation his causes. “UNITY has provided a great platform to share those concerns about what’s happening at the local level to a national audience,” he says.
Throughout the country, from rural reservations to urban centers, Native women are reported missing and found murdered at an alarming rate. Official crime statistics fail to capture the magnitude of the tragedy, according to landmark 2018 study by the Urban Indian Health Institute that identified more than 500 cases of missing and murdered Native women and girls in 71 cities. “Every single Native person knows someone, or has heard of someone, who has gone missing,” says Kylie Hunts-in-Winter, an 18-year-old from Tempe, Arizona who has made the cause of missing and murdered indigenous girls and women (MMIGW) her passion.
Hunts-in-Winter, whose family is from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, began studying a variety of martial arts at age three. After years of mastering her skills and competing in hundreds of tournaments, Hunts-in-Winter is sharing what she’s learned to help protect her peers. With the defense classes she teaches at high schools, reservations, centers for Indigenous people and virtually, Hunts-in-Winter aims to educate women about dangerous situations and arm them with basic self-defense skills. “I teach not only physical self-defense but also mental awareness,” says Hunts-in-Winter. “This is a hands-on way to have an impact on my community.”
With her Instagram account, @bravewoman, Hunts-in-Winter shares the stories of girls in martial arts with more than 50,000 followers. As she was growing up, she found few role models, so she hopes her page can show other strong young women that they are not alone. In 2020, Hunts-in-Winter was named to UNITY’s 25 Under 25 list of Native youth who exemplify the organization’s mission, recognition that is helping her spread the word about MMIGW. Next up for her is freshman year at Harvard, where she plans to study government and law, with a focus on woman and Indigenous people. “I know I will always be an activist, helping my Native community in whatever way I can,” says Hunts-in-Winter.