Noelle: So, Danielle, I know that that had to require some stamina, some will. Because you're now in Anchorage, and you're one of the initial teachers or founding teachers at your school, tell me a little bit about that journey.
Danielle: So when I was in Dutch Harbor, I decided I wanted to become a teacher after working with Steve Cathers.
So I came to Anchorage, went to UAA [University of Alaska Anchorage], and while I was at UAA, I learned about the rural schools and how you could be immersed in a completely different ethnic group and culture than you've ever experienced. And that was so exciting to me. And so that's why I went out and taught in rural Alaska. And I went with a friend because housing is tight.
They usually have teacher housing, which consists of little portables. And I was in a place where there was running water. And we taught together, and I was so glad I was with somebody because, like I said it was challenging. I mean, I was spat on, people threw rocks at me. It was tough.
But after the first year of living there, people started to accept me. And my dad had always told me if you're going to live someplace, be a community member. That's how I was taught, was to become a part of the community. And so if anybody asks me to do anything, my dad told me, “Never, ever turned down an invitation.”
If somebody invites you, you go because you might not get that invitation again. And I did everything. I steam bathed, they call it Maqi, M-A-Q-I, where you steam bath in the hot room. There's a hot room in a cold room, and it's all a wooden dwelling. And women go in together, you undress in the cool room, and you bring a basin into the hot room, and there's a stove and hot rocks. And you put a bucket of water on top of the hot stove, and it gets the water boiling. And then there's a bucket of cold water, and you take a scooper and you scoop some of both waters to get your temperature. You bring your shampoo and everything in there. You sit on the floor. Naked with all these other women, kids, grandparents, moms.
I bathed with my students, naked. Which I would've never in a million years thought I would do, but I had to be a part of the community. And I feel like that's what really connected me, is I got to hear those values being talked about in the Maqi. And you bathe. You wash and you bathe. Then there's this really rich discussion in there where everybody's talking about personal things and funny things.
And it's just a bunch of women in a bath house, bathing and talking, and that's where I really got connected to the community. And it made me realize that there was a lot more to the village life than there is on the surface and that everybody there's not just mean-spirited human beings.
And in the school, I noticed that the kids didn't connect to the curriculum—the kids couldn't connect to the stories. They couldn't do math problems, word problems that were based on angles from kids skating off of a curb and creating an angle with their skateboard because they'd never seen a curb. You know what I mean?
And so, I started changing those word problems into things happening in their own village—like from the water tank to the ground, we would make angles with that. And we would do science outside. Like when one time, a kid asked me why this fishing game is regulated by how many fish I can catch. I have to subsist for my family.
We don't have stores here. This is how we live. And so with him, we went out and discovered what makes the streams healthy and what makes them decide that the fishing quota can go up based on what animals are living in the riverbeds under the rocks. And we turned up rocks and we pulled out bugs and we did categorization and identification.
My kids were having a real hard time with literature and the elements of literature. So I brought in elders to tell traditional oral stories. Because kids were getting hung up on vocabulary, like a screen door and a curb and just things that they didn't have any life experiences with. And then I also worked with Jerry Lipka and Yup'ik elders on designing math and the cultural curriculum, which is subsistence—things like fishing or building kayaks, different types of boats; what you need to subsist and live off the land.
There's so much math and science in it. And we turned the practices into math and science lessons that were relevant to the students. And so, when they were starting the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School, they had heard of some of my work that I had done.
And I didn't even know that anybody was talking about some of the work. And it wasn't just me. It was Susan Zeek and I. We really did reach out to the community, and we became learners. I think that that was the biggest thing, is that we were learners. I felt like I was learning every single day there. I was learning how to live off the land. I was learning how we are connected as human beings, and they reached out to me—the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School—and asked if I would be willing to move into Anchorage to start the school. And I did. So I got to help write curriculum. We worked with elders in the community. We worked with parents in the community, and we built a really rich curriculum right here in Anchorage.
And it's great because there's a lot of kids that move into Anchorage from the villages, because it's hard to just subsist off the land anymore, and there's jobs here and, and to make that transition from rural to city life is tough. And I'm glad that we can be a school for kids in that situation.