William & Mary junior and Quapaw tribal member Mackenzie Neal is in Washington, D.C., this week as one of about 100 youth delegates chosen to participate in the Eighth Annual White House Tribal Nations Conference.
On Tuesday, Neal, a government major, will attend the second annual White House Tribal Youth Gathering alongside fellow youth delegates and tribal and senior federal leaders. The gathering includes a series of breakout sessions, panels and youth-specific programming, according to the White House. It is part of the larger Tribal Nations Conference, linked by the White House, which she has been attending since Sunday.
“Native American youth in the United States face more challenges than any other group,” Neal said, citing statistics on poverty rates, high-school graduation rates, suicide and attempted suicide rates, obesity rates and more among Native American youth. “The White House realizes there are so many unique challenges they need to address, and that youth are the best people to talk about their problems.”
Neal said that in 2014, the White House launched a new initiative, Generation Indigenous (or Gen-I), which “invited students to be agents of change in their own communities and has brought about many youth-driven, community-service programs, including youth and peer mentoring.” The same year, the president added the youth gathering to the Tribal Nations Conference lineup.
Neal has been making good use of her time at William & Mary. W&M News interviewed her in 2014 about her Quapaw heritage as she arrived on campus. The Quapaw Tribe is a division of the larger Dhegiha Sioux that today makes its home in Oklahoma, though Neal herself is from Richmond. At the time, she said she hoped to help revitalize the American Indian Student Association at William & Mary.
“I feel like I’ve really blossomed here,” she said. “It’s great.”
By any measure, she’s been a success. Shortly after that interview, she heard about another student, Emily Williams ’18, who had also reached out to student leadership development about the club’s status. The pair joined up and, through word of mouth, attracted the few other Native American students they could find. They also contacted former association member Morgan Faulkner ’12, member of the Upper Mattaponi Tribe, for guidance.
“Surprisingly, most of our members are actually anthropology students, linguistics students, English majors, people who are interested in the culture and history and in becoming allies to Native Americans,” Neal said. “We had to expand in that direction, since there is not a base of students to draw from with that ethnic identity. But it's created this really cool dialogue between Natives and non-natives that I think is much stronger in the long run.”
The club was associated last year with the visit of Haida artist Robert Davidson, but their largest event is the annual powwow, which the group founded in 2014 and now runs every spring.
“We invite Native Americans from across the East Coast and from across the country to come to Williamsburg to dance, to sing,” she said. “It's become a staple in the Virginia community.”
In addition, Neal also spent the spring semester at George Washington University for a study-away program with the Native American Political Leadership Program, where she met other Native students working on sovereignty and other relevant political issues.
She then spent the summer interning with the State Department through the Washington Internships for Native Students program at American University. There, she worked on tribal consultation issues. She explained that every federal agency is required to consult with tribes on issues that could affect them.
“The Obama administration has been pushing for a more nation-to-nation relationship,” Neal said. “That's actually where this Tribal Nations Conference comes from, trying to enhance the dialogue between tribes and the federal government.”
Which leads to the cause of Neal’s ultimate excitement before she left for the conference: the likelihood that she would be up close and personal if U.S. President Barack Obama spoke at the conference. “I can’t wait,” she said.