Native American youths might receive more representation in the state government through legislation introduced Wednesday in the Colorado Legislature.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Hugh McKean, a Republican, would give Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute youths a voice in policymaking through the Colorado Youth Advisory Council. The council membership includes youths from around the state, but this bill would specifically designate membership for Native American students.
“We know that they’re sovereign and they have their own government, but certainly, they are impacted by state-level policies,” said Cheryl Fleetwood, COYAC director. “It’s a vision of including all Colorado youth, and it’ll help raise awareness of the role of tribes in our state.”
The council, which was established in 2008, draws students from all 35 Senate districts in Colorado, with five additional nonvoting student positions.
The students, ages 14 to 19, examine legislative issues relevant to Colorado youths, such as education, employment, the environment, substance use, driver’s license requirements, poverty and more. The council then advises and makes recommendations to elected officials.
Four legislators, including Sen. Don Coram, a Republican who represents La Plata and other Southwest Colorado counties, are part of the council.
“Up until this year, there has been no special provision to purposefully include members of our Native American community,” wrote McKean, chairman of COYAC, in an email to The Durango Herald.
The five nonvoting seats were created to ensure diversity on the council, especially rural representation.
The bill proposes turning two of those five positions into voting positions and dedicating one each to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. The bill is currently under consideration by the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee in the House.
“It will likely be one of the early bills and, hopefully, will be the first bill Gov. Polis signs this year,” McKean wrote.
The idea for the membership change came out of discussions between the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, COYAC legislator and youth members, and tribal governments and youth representatives from both tribes.
“The council has a representation problem with certain communities,” said Kian Edmondson, Animas High School junior and a COYAC member, adding that most members come from metro areas. “I think that designating specific seats helps increase representation of communities that are underrepresented.”
Like other COYAC members, the two Native American students could come from middle, junior or high schools in Colorado, including online schools. The schools can be public, nonpublic, home-based or general equivalency degree programs.
As COYAC members, they would survey their peers and meet with local legislators to discuss policy priorities and community needs during a two-year commitment.
“The opportunity to have tribal youth representation in the Colorado Youth Advisory Council was long overdue and one that the tribe looks forward to use to its fullest advantage,” wrote Lindsay Box, tribal affairs communications specialist, in an email to the Herald.
Native Americans make up almost 2% of the state’s population, or more than the populations of more than 50 counties in the state, she wrote.
“It is only right that tribal youth are able to shape the future of Colorado because the history of Colorado is etched in our creation stories,” Box wrote.
COYAC members have seen their suggestions turn into state policy.
For example, in 2019 students were instrumental in creating the Colorado Youth Advisory Council Review Committee in the state Legislature, Fleetwood said. In the committee, legislators review youth policy suggestions and can recommend bills based on the council’s work.
At an uncertain point in the process, COYAC members testified before a committee to help the bill pass. After their presentation, the bill passed unanimously, Fleetwood said.
“They were so impressed with these youth and so moved by the fact that this really enabled them to have concrete proposals,” she said.
Youth voices are demanding to be heard around the country, Fleetwood said.
“We are very unique in Colorado in that we have this statutory vehicle to make that happen,” she said. “... Because the tribes are part of Colorado, it really just makes sense in our minds that their voice be included.”