A 2nd Act: Winning the Cultural Tug-of-War

Going to my first United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) conference was like going to Disneyland,” said Mary Kim Titla. “It was a magical experience. But just like Disney, that magic is difficult to explain. You can only feel it when you are a part of it.” For Titla, that magic expanded into a passion, touching the lives of thousands of other Native American youth across the country.

Titla was born to poor teenage parents on the San Carlos Apache reservation. Her prospects looked dim. On a visit to a tribal office as a teenager, she found a newspaper article about UNITY. It talked about events going on around the country and the big conference taking place in Oklahoma. She begged her parents to take her, which they did, along with her two siblings.

“The conference was life-changing and inspired hope for young Indians looking ahead to the future,” Titla said. 

UNITY’s founder, J.R. Cook (who would go on to be her friend and mentor), was keen to guide the young attendees through their cultural tug-of-war. He wanted them to succeed in mainstream America without turning their backs on the ways of their ancestors. Titla listened and learned.

After high school graduation, Titla attended the University of Oklahoma to be close to UNITY’s executive office, continuing to volunteer. “It helped me become the person I am today,” she said. That person is multifaceted with multiple second acts. She was the first in her family to graduate from college. With her degree in journalism, she landed a job at a Tucson television station, becoming the first Native American TV reporter in Arizona. After a stint at a Phoenix TV station, she earned a master’s degree in communications at ASU. 

I always had a strong desire to move back to the reservation and give back,” Titla said. “I wanted to reconnect with my cultural identity. And I loved it!” She worked in the school system, simultaneously working on a second master’s degree in education and supervision. All the while, she never lost touch with UNITY founder Cook. 

The first time Cook asked Titla to consider becoming the organization’s executive director in 2008, she was making a run for U.S. Congress, which was not successful. The second time he asked, she was running for Tribal Chair, also unsuccessful. “When he asked me the third time in 2013, I decided this was meant to be,” she laughed. “My only condition was to move the headquarters from Oklahoma to Mesa in 2013. My family is here, and I didn’t want to move.” 

UNITY is the only organization of its kind in the country. It encompasses 300 of the 576 federally recognized tribes, coming from 36 states. Of course, Titla and her team are working on bringing in the remaining tribes. The young people range from 14 to 24, though it is open to everyone. It was designed to empower Native Americans in the U.S. (including Native Hawaiians). But now, groups in other countries are looking at the model for their communities. 

UNITY provides something for every Native youth, including athletics, leadership and community. The programming is year-round, with many peer-cohort programs. But the organization’s heart is the National Unity Council. “These youth councils are the key for kids to see their potential,” Titla said. “They learn about organizing and Robert’s Rules of Order, etc. The councils are autonomous, giving the youth a voice. Each sets up its own bylaws and officers and conducts its own service projects.”

Native Americans face challenges similar to all youth: substance abuse, domestic violence, suicide. Packed on top of those are the frightening annual numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, preserving their cultural language and overcoming still-existing prejudices.

But Titla is excited about the future of Native America. She sees smart, talented young people climbing through the ranks. A 16-year-old she knows started a nonprofit. A 15-year-old was invited by the Seattle Mariners to be in the broadcast booth. They are the hope of their people.

“My mother has always said, ‘Never forget you’re a descendant of three Apache chiefs. Whenever you face challenges, remember there’s nothing you can’t do.’ I carry that with me, knowing that all of my life experiences leading up to this point have prepared me for this role.”

To learn more, go to unityinc.org.  

About Judy Pearson

Judy Pearson is a journalist, published author, and the founder of A2ndAct.org. Her organization supports and celebrates women survivors of all cancers as they give back to the greater good in their 2nd Acts. Her passion is finding those who have have healed themselves by helping others.
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