Incoming Claremore High School senior Kaitlyn Pinkerton is an advocate in the truest sense of the word.
As Junior Miss Cherokee in 2018-19, Pinkerton campaigned for de-stigmatizing mental health discussions and care in Native communities.
As a member of the Cherokee National Youth Choir for five years, Pinkerton celebrated her inherited customs, culture and language.
In school, Pinkerton participates in the Native American Student Association, the National Honor Society, jazz choir, show choir, the Sexuality and Gender Alliance, and honors and AP classes.
And as a Cherokee citizen committed to having a voice in her community, Pinkerton speaks at meetings of the Rogers County Cherokee Association and Cherokee community meetings held by tribal councilors about the strength, wisdom and perseverance of the Cherokee people.
For these reasons and more, Pinkerton was honored the by United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) as one of their 25 Under 25 Native Youth Leaders.
UNITY Executive Director Mary Kim Titla said, “Our Native youth are doing wonderful work in Indian Country. UNITY’s 25 Under 25 program is just one way to recognize these young leaders and acknowledging the passion they have to better their communities.”
The 25 Under 25 program includes both an application and a recommendation. Pinkerton’s recommendation came from Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.
“Even before being crowned, Jr. Miss Cherokee, Kaitlyn was traveling the United States speaking about innovative treatments for mental illness including the Friend2Friend app,” Hoskin said. “Kaitlyn’s tenacity and passion to improve the lives of others has already made a lasting impact on Cherokee Nation and I hope to see her message amplified nationwide.”
Pinkerton was included in the sixth class of tribal youth leaders inducted since the award began in 2014. She is one of three Oklahomans included in this year’s class of honorees.
“It feels kind of crazy,” Pinkerton said. “When I started this I was 14, and one of the first conferences I got to speak at was the UNITY conference in San Diego. I got to see the last class of 25 under 25 get their awards. It was really crazy and I thought it would be really cool for me to ever get that. So this is surreal.”
While serving as Junior Miss Cherokee, Pinkerton traveled across the United States sharing her platform to de-stigmatize mental health.
“I have struggled with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember,” Pinkerton said. “I didn’t want any other kid, or any other person, to feel alone in their experiences.”
“the best way to make sure people don’t feel alone is to talk about it, and that doesn’t happen as much as it should,” Pinkerton said.
Pinkerton has a list of 18 colleges she intends to apply to this fall. In college, she plans to double major in political science and psychology. Long term, Pinkerton wants to work in the halls of power on the tribal, state and national level, effecting real change. One day she hopes to be Chief of the Cherokee Nation.
Chief Hoskin said, “Whatever career path Kaitlyn chooses, I am certain that she will bring her passion and love of service to improve the lives of those around her.”
Pinkerton draws the passion and self-confidence to declare that future from the Cherokee women who walked the path before her.
“Wilma Mankiller, Kim Tehee … I look up to most, if not all Cherokee Women,” Pinkerton said. “We, as people, have overcome a lot of obstacles, and a lot of the women in the Cherokee Nation take on leadership roles
Other role models Pinkerton named were Cherokee National Youth Choir Director Mary Kay Henderson, CNYC Language Coordinator Kathy Sierra, and Miss Cherokee Sponsors Lisa Trice-Turtle and Reba Bruner.
“They have changed so many kids’ lives with those programs,” Pinkerton said.
Like her mentors, Pinkerton hopes to be an example and representation of what it means to be a Cherokee woman, and to use the benefits she has received in life to advocate for a better future.
“My family has shed blood and tears for me to be able to do what I get to do today and be proud of myself for doing it. I want to honor my ancestors because I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them overcoming their hardships, like the Trail of Tears.” Pinkerton said.
“Native people, our treaties have been broken and we have lost so much. There is a severe underrepresentation of Natives, not just in government, but in day to day life,” Pinkerton said. “I don’t want that to be the case for any other native little girl or boy. I want them to have representation and be proud of it.”
Pinkerton’s inclusion in 25 Under 25 is a recognition that her passion and dedication to public service are necessary.
And while the young woman pursues her big dreams, she is also focused on the things she can do every day, “Making a change and advocating for the things I think are right, and the things I think need to be changed.”