On Monday, a small group of Native youth walked past the Michael Jordan Building at the Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. One boy yelled out “skoden.” As he sprinted to the front of the group, his long black braid swayed across his back with each stride. When they turned the corner, they were met by the largest gathering of Native youth in Nike history.

Nearly 3,000 Native youth from Native nations across the country gathered at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon for the largest gathering of Native youth in Nike history on July 01, 2024. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Cronogomet / Report for America)

More than 2,800 Native youth from Native nations across the country gathered at Nike World Headquarters for the National UNITY Conference. The day was filled with presentations about Indigenous design from Nike staff and general manager and visionary of Nike’s N7 programs and founder of the N7 Fund, Sam McCraken, Fort Peck Sioux and Assiniboine. Youth also enjoyed field activities like golf and pickleball, a 3-on-3 basketball tournament, a concert by The Halluci Nation and more. 

The record breaking day was made possible by the United National Indian Tribal Youth Inc., the Nike Native American Network and the Nike N7 Fund.

“We collaborated with Nike, Nike N7 and the Native American employee network, to produce a day that focuses on our Native youth and all aspects of their well being – mental, spiritual, physical, and social,” said Mary Kim Titla, executive director of UNITY.

Sam McCracken, Fort Peck Assiniboine And Sioux Tribes, who is the general manager and visionary of Nike’s N7 programs and founder of the N7 Fund, poses for his photo with a group of Native youth. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Cronogomet / Report for America)

Every summer in July, the youth-led National UNITY Conference returns for five days. It was founded 48 years ago as a national network organization for Native American youth with the goal to promote personal development, citizenship, and youth leadership. There were only 100 attendees at the inaugural conference. Fast forward to this year’s conference, which brought thousands in the largest turnout in UNITY history, according to Titla. 

“We did not expect to break a record,” Titla said. “What that says to me is that people want to be part of the UNITY magic. UNITY creates a family-like atmosphere. It's a place of belonging. It's a place of empowerment. It's a place where youth can feel inspired. We encourage them to really tap into the resilience of our ancestors, to better themselves, better serve their communities, and to really better Indian Country.”

On the third day of the conference, youth had the opportunity to tour the Nike World Headquarters, shop in the Nike store, learn about internship and career opportunities from Indigenous staff and designers, and enjoy a field day with fun activities for all.

Youth practice cheerleading moves during the field day at Nike headquarters on July 01, 2024. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Cronogomet / Report for America)

Youth leaders

As the warm July sun beamed down on the Nike field during the field day, youth lined up to take turns playing pickleball games, run obstacle courses, put golf balls on the green and more. Inside the gym, youth watched from the track above the basketball courts as co-ed teams competed in the intense 3-on-3 basketball tournament. Smiles of pure joy beamed across the many faces in the crowd. 

“Everyone's finding their area where they want to be, where they belong, and I think that it's so awesome that they get to just be with their friends and have fun for the day,” Kaytlynn Johnston said.

Johnston, 19, is a citizen of the Bishop Paiute Tribe of California. She attended her first Unity conference in 2017. Today she is the Female Co-President of UNITY, an elected youth position where she serves as a voice for the collective youth. 

Kaytlynn Johnston, 19, Bishop Paiute Tribe of California, poses for her photo at Nike Headquarters on July 01, 2024 (Photo by Jarrette Werk Cronogomet / Report for America)

She said she was excited that she could help play a role in showing Native youth that they can achieve whatever they set their mind to.

“I think that UNITY and myself are just here to open those doors for them and give them new ideas, and hopefully they'll be able to take all these different tools and assets back to their community and just make their communities thrive,” Johnston said.

Maize Countryman, 20, Northern Arapaho, Navajo and Eastern Shoshone of Idaho, serves as UNITY’s Northwest Area Representative for UNITY Chapters from Native Nations in the Northwest region, said she was excited to hold the conference in the Northwest and to collaborate with Nike N7.

“We are the future,” Countryman said. “We are what our ancestors prayed for. Being able to see the happy Native youth and the smiles while at the Nike Headquarters, it's just really exciting to see.”

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Jarrette is a multimedia journalist with experience in digital news, audio reporting and photojournalism. He joined Underscore in June 2022 in partnership with the national Report for America program....