Sonwai Wakayuta, a student at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, KS, recently cohosted one of three regional town halls for tribal youth. United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) organized the virtual events in collaboration with OJJDP. UNITY promotes positive youth development, citizenship, and leadership among American Indian and Alaska Native youth.
Sonwai led discussions about what makes tribal youth feel safe in their communities, how they can contribute to making their communities safer, and how OJJDP can further support efforts to engage youth and build their leadership skills.
“My role in the town hall was to start a conversation,” says Sonwai. “It’s important to let other young people know they are not alone and support is available. Telling my own story often sparks a response because others then feel free to tell their own stories.”
Born and raised in Arizona, with roots that connect her to the Hualapai and Hopi tribes, Sonwai has overcome many challenges, including experience with the foster care system, trauma resulting from sexual assault, and substance use. Sonwai’s goal is to empower other youth who may be struggling. She joined the Hualapai tribal youth council when she was 15 and was elected vice president and then president. During her 3 years on the council, she volunteered with fellow council members to meet monthly with youth who are serving time in a local detention facility. In 2017, Sonwai became a UNITY Earth Ambassador, where she promoted efforts to address environmental concerns in tribal communities.
Last year, UNITY selected Sonwai as a peer guide in OJJDP’s Tribal Youth Leadership Development Initiative, which the peer guides have named the “Healing Indigenous Lives Initiative.” Sonwai and other youth leaders are working together through this OJJDP-funded program to increase youth engagement, coordination, and action related to public safety, with a focus on juvenile justice and delinquency prevention in Indian country.
“UNITY reached out to me and told me that through my work as a peer guide I could be a driving force in getting the word out about UNITY and other resources available for youth in Indian country,” says Sonwai. “It is beautiful to look back on. I get to be part of something big.”
For more information about UNITY’s activities, visit the organization’s website.
The OJJDP Tribal Youth Programs and Services page provides detailed information about OJJDP tribal youth initiatives, funding, and training and technical assistance.
The Tribal Youth Initiatives fact sheet provides additional information about OJJDP’s support of youth in Indian country.