When Colby WhiteThunder first joined the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas youth council 11 years ago, he says he was “that kid who sat in the back and didn’t say nothing.” He never raised his hand, rarely called attention to himself. “I was real shy.”
Fast forward to July 2022 and the United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) annual conference in Minneapolis, MN. Still a reserved person, Mr. WhiteThunder gathered himself and—for five full minutes—addressed a crowd of approximately 2,000 Native youth, explaining why they should elect him copresident of the 2022–23 National UNITY Council executive committee.
The evening felt surreal, Mr. WhiteThunder recalls. He says he can’t explain where he found the courage to walk onto a stage and talk before so many of his UNITY peers—especially since he’d run for the copresident position in 2021 and lost. That year, he returned home to Livingston, TX, “took a step back,” considered his options, and decided to try again. This year, Mr. WhiteThunder returned home a copresident, a role requiring him to be “the voice of the youth” for UNITY’s board of directors and executive office.
“Yeah,” he says now. “I’ve grown.”
Mr. WhiteThunder—who also serves as a youth ambassador for OJJDP’s Tribal Youth Resource Center—joined UNITY 10 years ago. He really didn’t have a choice, he says. “My mom kind of said, ‘You’re going to be a part of it.’” He’s glad she did. The many opportunities UNITY has presented include meeting Native peers from across the country and attending annual conferences in places as varied as Los Angeles, CA; Washington, DC; Orlando, FL; and Denver, CO. Over the years, the shy teenager learned to challenge himself to face situations that made him uncomfortable. Before, “I would be in the audience, looking up, thinking, ‘I would never do that. That’s not who I am,’” he says. Now he thinks, “Maybe it is who I’m supposed to be.”
“When I say I’m Alabama-Coushatta, it means this is where I come from. This is who my people were, who I am. I am who I am because of them, because of my culture. It shaped me. It helped me believe in what I believe.”
Although Mr. WhiteThunder can’t explain exactly how he made the transition from hesitant teenager to confident young adult, he knows who helped him get there. He describes a group of influential adults—“almost like a tapestry”—chief among them his mother, aunts and uncles, and the people he’s met through UNITY.
“Colby WhiteThunder is a humble Native youth leader that has no need or desire to be better, separate, or above” the people he leads, says Greg Mendoza, Youth Programs Director for UNITY. “He takes an egalitarian approach to leadership.”
Mr. WhiteThunder’s approach to life and leadership can be summed up simply: be sincere and be kind. “We’re here to be good people, to be kind to one another,” he says, “to be good stewards of our own families and treat others good.”
In addition to his work for UNITY and the Tribal Youth Resource Center, Mr. WhiteThunder supervises the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe youth council and works as an aid for the Tribe’s youth programs. Weekday afternoons, he can be found “basically hanging out” with children from the Alabama-Coushatta reservation. He enjoys the job.
“They’re fun to be around. They’re funny,” Mr. WhiteThunder says about the kids. At first, the job was appealing for the regular paycheck, but “these kids suckered me into caring about them,” Mr. WhiteThunder says, laughing. There’s a mentoring side that appeals to him; it requires him to “maintain a certain image” and be a role model.
“I watch them, and I can tell they watch me, the stuff I do,” he says.