Challenges stemming from the emergence of COVID-19 last year have helped reshape programs and outreach to American Indian and Alaska Native youth by tribal organizations. In response to pandemic-related restrictions, many tribal communities looked to social media to stay connected with their members.
Two sessions from the 2021 OJJDP Tribal Youth Virtual National Conference held March 29–April 2 highlighted the potential of digital platforms to engage tribal youth.
During the session Digital Smoke Signals: Using Technology as a Tool for Engagement, speakers discussed the advantages of using social media and a virtual environment to build capacity for community participation and to engage and empower youth.
Tasha Fridia, with the Tribal Law and Policy Institute, and Angey Rideout and Nicole Hewitt, with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, stressed the importance of connecting with youth to enhance safety and accountability. They emphasized how digital engagements are enhancing OJJDP's Tribal Youth Program and Tribal Juvenile Healing to Wellness Courts, especially in times that require social distancing.
Tribal leaders need to recognize which platforms young people are using to ensure they are reaching their youth, the speakers said. Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Zoom, Twitch, Instagram, Snapchat, and other venues encourage youth to join discussions on issues important to them. Because it offers an immediacy and in-the-moment experience, Facebook Live is a popular, and powerful, vehicle for communicating with tribal communities.
Examples of effective digital online engagements for tribal communities include cultural arts series and language classes, contests, Facebook Live events, virtual storytelling, social distance powwows, youth townhalls, and text campaigns. Creating and managing content, and evaluating the feedback ensures continued success with future programming.
Another session, Creativity and Innovation in the Face of COVID-19: Maskiizibii Oshki Gabeshiwin 2020 Virtual Youth Conference, provided examples from an event held by the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians’ tribal youth program. That conference underscored how tribes can use a virtual environment to engage youth in creative activities and programs focused on healing, leadership development, and peer mentoring.
"This type of event helped heal local trauma. We find that creativity is an excellent healing tool that helps align our youth. When they are creating they are not focused on their pain or hurt."
—Lynn Bigboy, session presenter
Conference organizers used resources from We Are Living Arts, an experiential program designed to help indigenous youth better express themselves, to create an interactive plan for youth to work with professional artists in the performing and literary arts. The program employed restorative creative arts practices to help youth learn to search for solutions, build resilience, and embrace a positive self-identity.
One objective of the 2020 conference was teaching middle and high school students to use poetry, photography, music, and art to strengthen their connection to their peers. The event included cultural openings and closings, sessions led by professional artists, and cultural stories. "This type of event helped heal local trauma," said the tribe's Lynn Bigboy. "We find that creativity is an excellent healing tool that helps align our youth. When they are creating they are not focused on their pain or hurt," she said.
Participants responded positively to the program. Once engaged, they were willing and excited to learn new skills and stay connected to each other virtually. The event was "cool and awesome," said participant Wyatt Nolis.
The Tribal Youth Resource Center's virtual library includes publications on communications and outreach, cultural-based programming, and many other topics.