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Gila River teen joins hundreds at White House tribal conference

WASHINGTON – Darius Jackson wants to make a difference for the people of the Gila River Indian Community – and meeting with the vice president of the United States on Wednesday wasn’t a bad place to start.

“I met Joe Biden, shook his hand,” said Jackson, a member of the Gila River tribe. “I stood toe-to-toe with the vice president of the United States … that was a great experience.”

The 18-year-old high school senior from Blackwater is one of 36 youth ambassadors chosen to represent their tribes at the 2014 White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington on Wednesday. While the conference is in its sixth year, this was the first in which native teens were given a voice through the ambassadors program.

This year’s conference – which Jackson called “the highlight of my life so far” – featured meetings with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and numerous Cabinet officials.

Representatives of all 566 federally recognized tribes were invited to the meeting, which had a special focus this year on social, economic and educational issues facing American Indian youth.

Those issues trouble Jackson, who runs easily through the list of issues he hopes to change.

“Youth suicide is an upcoming issue in my tribal community,” he said. “Young people are taking their lives at a young age, and we’re trying to get that to decrease.”

According to a report the White House released Wednesday, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for native youth age 15-24, who take their lives at 2.5 times the national rate.

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Jackson’s efforts to combat problems among young people in his tribe began well before he traveled to the nation’s capital.

President of the Coolidge High School National Honor Society and a top student in his class, he serves on the Akimel O’Odham/Pee Posh Youth Council, also known as the Gila River Youth Council. The 26-year-old organization works to strengthen communication between youth and adults in the tribe.

Gila River Indian Community member Michael Preston is a full-time adviser to the youth council. He trains the teens on meeting management, including parliamentary procedure, and educates them on the relationships among tribal, state and federal governments.

“They also learn to practice the songs and dances, to keep the tribe’s traditions alive, and do community service,” said Preston, who was on hand as a chaperon at Wednesday’s conference. “They’re public servants. They don’t get paid for what they do.”

Through his involvement in the council, Jackson met Gila River Indian Community Gov. Gregory Mendoza, who selected him to serve as a youth ambassador. Jackson, in turn, said Mendoza has “been a great role model for me.”

“As the youngest governor of the Gila River Indian Community, he has shown that age is just a number,” Jackson said.

Suicide was just one of the problems cited in the White House report, which said the high rate among native youth nationwide is closely linked to an elevated rate of substance use. In 2013, the rate of substance dependence or abuse among those age 12 or older was higher among American Indians and Alaska Natives than any other population group.

It’s a problem on the Gila River Indian Community as well, Jackson said, but something he has avoided. “I don’t want to be part of it,” he said.

Jackson said he hoped to meet Obama on Wednesday. If he did, he said he would ask the president to share with native youth the value of education and how it helped Obama get where he is now.

“A lot of people on my reservation, they don’t really take advantage of opportunities,” Jackson said. “If Obama could come and talk to my tribe … he could really motivate them to not only go to college, but to get a better living themselves.”

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Jackson is already looking forward to college, and said he has a clear vision for his future. He has been accepted at Arizona State University, where he plans to major in exercise and wellness so he can ultimately tackle another health problem facing his tribe.

“Obesity is a big problem in the community, as well as diabetes,” Jackson said. “Once I get my degree, I want to go back to my community and change that, try to make an impact.”

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Laurie Liles/Cronkite News

Blackwater high school senior Darius Jackson, 18, was picked to represent the Gila River Indian Community at the White House Tribal Nations Conference, one of 36 youths tapped to represent their tribes at the 2014 event.

A hard youth

The White House 2014 Native Youth Report, released in conjunction with the annual Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, paints a bleak picture of social problems faced by Native American youth. Among the findings:

  • More than one-third of native children live in poverty.
  • The American Indian/Alaskan Native high school graduation rate is 67 percent, the lowest rate of students across all schools.
  • Bureau of Indian Education schools have a graduation rate of 53 percent, compared to a national average of 80 percent.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death – 2.5 times the national rate – for native youth age 15 to 24.