Snapshot: Cherokee Youth Council Sparks Recycling Law

May 22, 2013

In western North Carolina, the Cherokee Youth Council helped make recycling easy—and the law.

Being responsible stewards of the land has been the Cherokee way for hundreds of years—yet the residents of the Qualla Boundary territory in western North Carolina had no systematic way to deal with modern scourges like bottles, plastic bags and batteries.

That is, until a group of young people, inspired by what they saw on an eco-tour to Costa Rica, decided to create a system.

The Qualla Boundary is home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.  In 2008, the tribal council launched Generations Qualla, an action plan for environmental improvements on the reservation that focused on energy efficiency, conservation and sustainable building. 

During an eco-study tour supported by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, local youth visited Costa Rica’s EARTH University, where a jaw-dropping 70 percent of the waste produced at the school is recycled.  

They took what they learned back home with them, where recycling wasn’t yet a component of the Generations Qualla effort.

Local leaders “didn’t know much about recycling,” says Sky Kanott, the Cherokee Youth Council program manager. “Youth went to every department of tribal government and gave presentations to all the leaders on how and what to recycle.”

BAGS WITH SYMBOLThey offered training to leaders and community members alike and distributed over 1,000 recycling bins to the community. The team also gave out more than 2,000 reusable grocery bags that they designed and purchased using funding from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation. 

Both the bins and bags are emblazoned with a Cherokee symbol that means “endless”—an effort by the young people to give the contemporary concept of recycling a Cherokee brand.  According to the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, Youth Council members discovered the traditional symbol while researching traditional Cherokee conceptions of sustainability.

Youth worked with the Tribal Council to establish a recycling process on the reservation and within tribal offices, working areas and businesses. That process became a resolution in 2008 and is now a tribal law.

As the project took hold, it became clear that the Garbage Department would need to create a new position to oversee and maintain recycling.

“The whole tribe learned how to recycle from the young people,” says Kanott. “It continues to be a big deal.”

Today, the community recycles enough paper to generate revenue for the tribe.

About the Council: The Cherokee Youth Council (CYC) was established in 2007 by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.  Its mission is to “bring back the valued voice of youth that was the tradition in the days of the Cherokee Grand Council and enable youth to serve their community and develop leadership skills. “

It’s a youth-led organization that uses a traditional power-sharing structure (“no leaders, everyone can speak,” says Kanott). There are about 40-45 members each year, ranging in age from 12 to 17.

Funding comes from the reservation’s Cherokee Preservation Foundation—and by design, it decreases each year to incentivize the Council to find ways to be self-sustainable. As a result, funding remains the Council’s biggest challenge.

It is staffed by one full-time adult coordinator and relies on volunteers for events.

In addition to general improvement of policies and practices in the community, the Council has five priority areas, identified by the youth members:

  • Homelessness
  • Suicide prevention
  • Substance abuse
  • Domestic abuse and violence
  • Illness or disease prevention (diabetes)

There is little community pushback to the CYC or input from youth in tribal politics, says Sky Kanott. This is at least in part because preparing youth to participate in tribal decision-making has long been part of the Cherokee governance model.

Preparation is key: Council members are provided training on a range of leadership and cultural issues, including grants and budgeting, tribal and state policy processes, and public speaking. Each year, CYC members particpate in a gathering of Youth Councils from across western North Carolina to share lessons and ideas, and receive leadership training.

This is just one of the impact stories from the western North Carolina Cherokee Youth Council. Watch for more coming soon!

This snapshot is part of SparkAction's Youth Impact  series, short profiles of youth councils and commissions that are influencing local and state policies and practices. SparkAction is producing this series in partnership with the youth-led Campaign for a Presidential Youth Council and with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

To suggest an impact story, please contact Caitlin Johnson, managing editor, at