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FARMINGTON — Navajo Preparatory School students were among the hundreds of Native American youth who attended the White House Tribal Youth Gathering earlier this week.

The first-ever gathering took place Thursday in Washington, D.C., as part of President Barack Obama's Generation Indigenous initiative to help improve the lives of Native youth and cultivate the next generation of Native leaders.

Approximately 60 students representing the Navajo Nation participated in the gathering, according to a Navajo Nation Washington Office press release.

They spent the day listening to cabinet officials, such as U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, and participating in breakout sessions.

Six members of the Navajo Prep Naat'áanii Youth Council participated in the event. Three of the students — Seneca Martin, Tristan Joe and Eric Woody — spoke about their experiences in a telephone interview Friday.

A speech by Michelle Obama was among the event highlights. Martin, 16, called the first lady's speech "inspirational."

"I thought it was very inspirational. She told us not to quit on ourselves," Martin said.

He added that he shook Michelle Obama's hand when she greeted the audience after her speech.

"Her hands are soft," Martin said.

Joe, 15, said the first lady's words resonated with him, especially when she talked about self-improvement and dedication.

He added that when he heard that portion of her speech, it made him think about improving his focus and skills for cross-country, track and basketball.

In addition to Michelle Obama, participants listened to John Herrington, a former NASA astronaut and the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to fly in space.

Martin said he appreciated the insight Herrington shared, particularly when he talked about never giving up on dreams.

"That made me realize that I should do the same with my decisions," Martin said, adding that one of his goals is to become a Navy SEAL.

Woody, 16, said he enjoyed the messages presented by Native American athletes Jude Schimmel, Lyle Thompson and Notah Begay III during the Nike N7 reception after the gathering.

"The main thing was, be proud of who you are, where you come from and your tribe," Woody said.

He added, "It was fun overall. I had a good time."

During the breakout sessions, students divided into groups and shared ideas with other Native youth about improving their communities and learned they face similar issues.

Joe said his group focused on the health and well-being of communities, and they talked about programs and activities they could implement.

Martin joined other participants in talking about protecting Native culture, including preserving and revitalizing languages.

"They wanted to hear our voice, what we had to say about our nations," he said.

As part of the application process to attend the event, students had to take the Gen-I Challenge, which asked applicants to develop and then complete projects to improve their communities.

Woody said for their project, the six Navajo Prep students helped the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance promote the Healthy Diné Nation Act, which placed an additional 2 percent tax on foods that have minimal to no nutritional value and on sweetened beverages purchased on the Navajo Nation.

The six students are now attending the 2015 National UNITY Conference, which started Friday and ends Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.

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